Introduction to Sustainable Development

   Sustainable Development and Climate Change are two sides of the same coin.

Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary General, United Nations

To provide a base for future discussions, Catalicity is compiling a series of blog posts covering the common frameworks and pillars of Sustainability. These online posts aim to help readers to attain a broad understanding of the theory and applications of Sustainable Development in today’s business environment, before we go into deeper discussion around these topics.

This week we will introduce the three pillars of sustainability. First, a current definition of sustainable development will be provided, followed by a quick and concise understanding of the pillars of sustainability (social, environmental and economic). In the next few weeks, we will talk in more detail about the main aspects of each pillar, then, in the weeks that follow we will look at the different overlaps amongst them.

Finally, we will discuss the implications of culture and governance to Sustainable Development.

What is Sustainable Development?

First, we must understand that sustainable development always refers to at least three main aspects: society, the natural environment and economy. The theory is that for positive human development that is sustainable each of these has the same importance and all must be achieved.

What do we mean by sustainable?

Sustainability, in an environmental point of view, can be defined as “the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment” (Cambridge Dictionary 2012). However, this does not explain how much we can take without creating a negative impact on the natural environment. Extracting resources from the environment is a commonly used route to development, yet we need to know our boundaries to ensure we are living sustainably.

What do we mean by development?

Development is defined as “the process in which someone or something grows or changes and becomes more advanced” (Cambridge Dictionary 2012). The level of development of a country relates to achieving a good standard for all, which includes equitable wealth distribution, healthcare, education, employment opportunities, clean air, safe drinking water, security, amongst many other aspects of life and wellbeing (Soubbotina & Sheram 2000).

However, achieving such a quality of life comes at a cost, and often, it is a natural cost, sometimes a social one. Nations with the highest living standards are usually the ones that have the largest environmental impact and a history of social injustices. So, how can we develop and at the same time, guarantee our existence and equitable opportunity for all in the long term? This is the main question that sustainable development tries to answer.

What is sustainable development?

Rene Passet proposed in 1979 the three-dimensional understanding of Sustainability: these being societies, the natural environment, and economy. Based on Passet’s work, the Brundtland Commission in 1987 defined Sustainable Development as “The management and conservation of the natural base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change, in such a manner as to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability to meet the needs of future generations. It conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically feasible and socially acceptable.” This definition remains as the most widely accepted.  This is usually illustrated using three interconnected circles:

Today, other aspects are being added to the original three dimensions. As an example, the United Nations developed the Good Governance in Sustainable Development (GGSD) programme which aims to create a global partnership to implement the sustainable development principles. However, along with technology, human capital and various other suggested additions, good governance is not usually considered a further pillar, these are rather understood as necessary means to underpin sustainable development.

Sustainable development, therefore is a way of thinking that allows us to view how every human action will affect our own future. Societies, economy and the environment are strongly related, and if we intend to subsist in the long run, we must all develop our  thinking to be able to act more sustainably.

Below are some useful videos to help develop understanding of Sustainable Development, think about how you might use these ideas to make a difference in your work.

Johan Rockstrom: Let the environment guide our development – Filmed July 2010 at TEDGlobal 2010 –

BERKELEY: Sustainability in Products & Practice – from Watson InstitutePRO –

Sustainable Development in Action: A Tale From Morocco –



This post was prepared by Felipe Gaitan-Mejia, Environmental Strategist here at Catalicity. Follow @Catalicity on Twitter and sign up to our mailing list to keep up to date with all our blogs and news! 

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