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The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    What are the three pillars of sustainability and why are these important? In this article I explain exactly this, so keep scrolling to learn all about the three pillars of sustainability and what these actually mean…

    The three pillars of sustainability- what you should know

    It is said that there are three pillars of sustainability – in the course of this article, I’ll dive into each of the three and explore what they mean (and how they connect) in a simple way that makes sense.

    Sustainability is a huge buzzword right now, and rightly so; the planet has suffered some immense damage at the hands of the human population over the years, and governments and activists across the globe are desperately trying to reverse this as well as prevent future damage. This is why education into sustainability is so important! But it’s not just about the planet – which is what the three pillars of sustainability show…

    The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    What is meant by the three pillars of sustainability?

    When people refer to the three pillars of sustainability, they are talking about a diagrammatical theory which suggests and represents three different pillars (or parts) of sustainability.

    It isn’t clear who first conceptualised the trio of pillars themselves in this way; this research by Purvis, Mao and Robinson dives further into the origins of the three pillars. They found ‘that there is no single point of origin of this three-pillar conception, but rather a gradual emergence from various critiques in the early academic literature of the economic status quo from both social and ecological perspectives on the one hand, and the quest to reconcile economic growth as a solution to social and ecological problems on the part of the United Nations on the other’.

    They go on to say that ‘one problematic facet of this conceptualisation, however, is its lack of theoretical development; there appears to be no original urtext from which it derives, seemingly just appearing in the literature and commonly taken at face value’. So although we don’t actually know for sure where the three pillars originally came from, it is clear that they are widely accepted across the fields of science, economics, sociology and more.

    The three pillars of sustainability are labelled as:

    • Social equity
    • Economic viability 
    • Environmental protection

    They are sometimes simplified further as ‘social, economic, and environment’ – or as ‘people, profit and planet’.

    As you can see, the concept of sustainability extends far beyond just the environment – which is what a lot of peoples’ minds spring to when they hear the word. This particular concept extends beyond that, and you’ll find out why as we examine each of the three pillars of sustainability further.

    What is social equity?

    The first of the three pillars of sustainability is social equity. Otherwise referred to as ‘people’ or simply ‘social’, this refers to anything that promotes a sustainable and safe society that serves people and communities. This includes policies, initiatives and planning that aim to fight or erase poverty, increase the quality of living, aid social justice and community development, promote diversity, provide access to education and healthcare, and improve the sustainability of culture and heritage.

    Of course, these things are often linked to the economic and ecological side of sustainability. But social equity is all about ensuring that people across the globe can live and thrive in societies which meet their basic needs and beyond. A big part of social sustainability is human rights, and it can generally be labelled as quality of life. Sustaining a world in which people are safe and happy is so important.

    Let’s look further into some of the examples which fall under this particular pillar of sustainability – and how they might be connected with the other pillars… 

    Access to healthcare

    The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    When looking at a society which is both equal and sustainable, access to working healthcare is incredibly important. In order to sustain a society, we need people who are alive and healthy – that goes without saying.

    Healthcare is a very important aspect of that, preventing and curing illnesses for example. And this can be linked to the pillar of economic viability because everything that goes into healthcare does cost money; medication, research, the cost of electricity at a hospital and so on.

    Peace and security

    This is a big part of what we refer to as social justice: peace and security as well as access to a fair judicial system. This has many facets – prevention of war and crime, eliminating unethical practices, ensuring safe workplaces and much more.

    A lot of this can be linked to the pillar of environmental protection; looking specifically at the prevention of war, for example, we know that wars produce a lot of unnecessary pollution which is bad for the environment.

    Fighting poverty

    In order for society to be sustainable, we need to be working towards a world where poverty is on its way to being erased.

    The cycle of earning and spending money, contributing to an economy and also benefiting from it, is key to sustaining a working society and also creating equity – where people are able to thrive in the same way as each other. Of course, anything relating to poverty is also linked to the pillar of economic viability!

    Access to education

    The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    An absolutely huge part of social equity is access to education – ensuring that all children have access to free and good education as well as furthering access to higher education for young adults.

    By making sure everybody has the opportunity to be educated, we create a society which is much more equal in terms of knowledge and the chance to grow as a person.

    What is economic viability?

    When we talk about economic viability, this can mean a few different things.

    One way of looking at it is essentially ensuring that money doesn’t ‘run out’ – the economy in general is a hard thing to wrap your head around, but economic sustainability and viability is all about not spending more than what is earned. Whether that is teaching people to do so individually, or doing so as a nation, community or business. ‘Sustainability Success’ also refer to economic sustainability as ‘an economy where everyone has access without worrying too much about whether supplies will run out soon enough that they won’t be able to afford them anymore’.

    The economic viability pillar, also referred to as simply ‘economic’ or ‘profit’, is potentially the most complex of the three. Looking at it as profit, it is all about businesses and companies being able to contribute to economic growth and development. The Hydropower Sustainability Council says that ‘the main method for assessment of economic viability of a project is a Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). Costs and benefits are expressed as far as possible in monetary terms so that they can be compared on an equal level. A project is assessed as economically viable if the project benefits exceed the project costs’.

    Lets look at some specific examples of economic viability.

    Job creation

    We can also examine economic viability and sustainability through the lens of job creation; when employment rates are high, this is very beneficial for the economy in general as people are further able to contribute while relying less on any available state benefits. Higher employment rates are also, of course, good for fostering social equity and sustainability as people feel more secure in providing for their and their family’s basic needs as well as being able to spend money on the things which bring them joy and happiness.

    Research and development

    Companies that invest in research and development (R&D) can create new products and services that meet changing market demands, stay ahead of competitors, and drive long-term growth and profitability.

    Strong partnerships

    Building strong partnerships with suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders can help companies reduce costs, improve efficiency, and create value for all parties involved. This can lead to increased sales and profits over the long term.

    Continuous improvement

    Companies that continuously improve their products and services can stay relevant in a rapidly changing marketplace. This includes investing in new technologies, improving manufacturing processes, and finding new ways to meet customer needs.

    Sustainable supply chain

    Creating a sustainable supply chain can help companies reduce costs, improve efficiency, and reduce environmental impact. This can include using renewable energy sources, reducing waste and emissions, and promoting ethical sourcing practices.


    Diversifying a company’s product or service offerings can help reduce the impact of market fluctuations and economic downturns. This can include expanding into new markets or creating new products that complement existing offerings.

    Financial management

    Managing finances effectively is crucial for long-term economic sustainability. This includes managing cash flow, reducing debt, and investing in profitable ventures that provide a strong return on investment.

    What is environmental protection?

    One of the big things most of us think of when we hear the word ‘sustainability’ is the environment itself – our planet, the damage already done to it and the ways in which we can protect it moving forward. This is why environmental protection is such a big part of the three pillars of sustainability – also referred to as simply ‘environment’ or ‘planet’. When we look at this pillar, we are talking about the tools and management used to deal with the environment as a whole: land, oceans, forests, the air, wildlife, natural resources and freshwater areas.

    Environmental management, as one of the three pillars of sustainability, encompasses a lot of different aspects; conservation, environmental sciences, individual efforts, and much more. I’ll explore this direct management in more detail below, keeping it simple.

    Waste management 

    A big part of the pillar of environmental protection is how we manage waste; instead of everything ending up in landfill, which is incredibly damaging for the planet, sustainable waste management looks to recycling. This is much more circular, where things are rescued and reformed to allow less production in the future, less harmful products ending up in damaging situations, and more sustainability. Reducing the use of single-use plastic products, as many hospitality and tourism businesses are trying to do, is another great way to manage waste – producing less throwaway products in the first place!


    The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    When thinking about sustainability, our diet is a big factor. Eliminating or eating much less meat is a very big way to make your diet more sustainable; around 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and over half of that 35% is from the production of meat. By relying less on livestock in our diet, we can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being produced. 

    Further to this, eating food that is produced locally (and therefore doesn’t have to travel as far to reach your plate) is a great way of making your diet more sustainable. There are plenty of other factors when it comes to sustainable food production – like organic certification and the avoidance of pesticides. 

    Energy consumption

    Of course, when we try to be more sustainable, we often look straight to one of the biggest culprits: energy. Fossil fuels, the origin of traditional energy, are harmful to the planet – and regardless, they are finite resources which will run out at some point. Therefore they are the definition of being unsustainable – i.e, we cannot sustain the use of fossil fuels. This is why there is a huge focus on renewable energy from never-ending resources like wind, water and solar. They are much healthier for the planet, and their use is sustainable as we are not likely to ever run out of wind, rain or sunshine…

    Land and water management

    When it comes to the management and preservation of our land and water, this is really vital for our environment. There are ecosystems in place which, whether by design or accident, do wonders for the natural world and the people who occupy it. For example – safely managing and looking after areas populated by bees is really important as they act as pollinators so we can continue to grow more crops. 

    Good land management allows for the production of healthy food, the protection from hazards and of wildlife, the ability to address climate change and more. Water management is important too; reducing the acidification of water and reducing the amount of overfishing, for example, is vital for protecting biodiversity and providing climate regulation. By protecting our oceans, we ensure that food and jobs are protected too – so we can see how this is interlinked with the social equity pillar of sustainability!

    Are the three pillars of sustainability equally important?

    The three pillars of sustainability are not necessarily equally important, although it may seem that way. They can also be looked at as a sort of hierarchy; the economy is part of the society, and society is in turn contained within the environment. Of course, all need to be improved in order to improve the others – this way they are inextricably linked.

    The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

    FAQs about the three pillars of sustainability

    Lets finish off this article by answering some of the most common questions that people have about the topic.

    What are the three pillars of sustainability?

    The three pillars of sustainability are social, economic, and environmental sustainability. These pillars represent the interconnected aspects of sustainability that must be balanced to ensure a sustainable future.

    Why is social sustainability important?

    Social sustainability is important because it focuses on creating equitable and just societies that promote human well-being. This includes ensuring access to basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare, as well as promoting diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

    How does economic sustainability contribute to sustainability?

    Economic sustainability focuses on creating long-term economic growth and stability while also promoting environmental and social sustainability. This includes investing in sustainable business practices, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, and supporting sustainable economic development.

    What is environmental sustainability?

    Environmental sustainability focuses on ensuring that natural resources are used in a way that preserves them for future generations. This includes reducing waste and pollution, protecting biodiversity, and promoting renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.

    Why is it important to balance the three pillars of sustainability?

    Balancing the three pillars of sustainability is important to ensure that we create a sustainable future that is equitable, economically viable, and environmentally responsible. Neglecting any one of these pillars can have negative consequences for the other two.

    What are some examples of social sustainability?

    Examples of social sustainability include promoting education and literacy, providing access to healthcare and social services, promoting equality and diversity, and promoting fair labor practices.

    What are some examples of economic sustainability?

    Examples of economic sustainability include investing in renewable energy sources, developing sustainable business models, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, and creating sustainable supply chains.

    What are some examples of environmental sustainability?

    Examples of environmental sustainability include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting wildlife habitats, promoting sustainable land use practices, and using renewable energy sources.

    How can we promote sustainability in our daily lives?

    We can promote sustainability in our daily lives by reducing waste and pollution, conserving energy and water, supporting sustainable businesses and products, and advocating for sustainability policies and practices in our communities.

    What is the role of government in promoting sustainability?

    Governments can play a crucial role in promoting sustainability by creating policies and regulations that incentivise sustainable practices and discourage unsustainable ones. This includes promoting renewable energy sources, creating sustainable transportation options, and protecting natural resources.

    The three pillars of sustainability- To conclude

    Hopefully this article has helped nurture your understanding of the three pillars of sustainability, all of which are vital for ensuring a healthy and thriving planet full of safe and happy people which will continue to get better and better!

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