Can the three pillars of sustainability truly fix our planet-in-crisis?
The world is facing many challenges. With the population set to reach 10.9 billion by 2050, climate crisis, water, and food poverty, and social injustice, the United Nations has stated that its sustainable development roadmap is the solution. Its 2030 Agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a call-to-action to individuals, businesses, and governments worldwide to protect planet and people.
These SDGs are based on a commitment to social progress, environmental balance and economic growth. In other words, the three pillars of sustainability.
What Is Sustainable Development?
Sustainability is a word we hear all the time in all kinds of contexts–about food, fashion, businesses, and the environment. But what does it actually mean?
The concept of sustainable development comes from the 1987 Brundtland Commission. Set up by the UN to try to find solutions to the environmental issues caused by population growth and industrialisation, the report stated, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Put more simply, we need to look after our people and planet, so that we can live, then hand it on to our children and our grandchildren, so they can live.
How Do We Achieve Sustainable Development?
This is where the three pillars come in.
In order to achieve sustainability, three core elements need to work in harmony – social equity, environmental protection and economic viability. These factors – also known as People, Planet, and Prosperity – are intrinsically interconnected. Any actions taken to reach sustainable goals cannot be in isolation. They need to be implemented in an integrated manner, taking into account all 3 pillars, in order to achieve success.
What Are The 3 Pillars?
Pillar 1: Social Equity
Social sustainability is the ability of a society to maintain the well-being of its citizens in the longterm. As it stands today, there is large disparity in the standard of living between developing and developed countries, and the distribution of water and food around the world.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that 10.7% of the world’s population were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016, almost all of whom lived in lower-income countries. Plus, women are still chronically disadvantaged in terms of job, health, and education opportunities. For example, girls in Afghanistan face harassment when they try to access school or employment. But a UN Women internship programme supports female university graduates seeking to enter the job market.
The UN states that, “We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.” To this end, key social SDGs aim to achieve no poverty, zero hunger, and quality education for all.
Pillar 2: Environmental Protection
Environmental sustainability means that we are managing to operate within the limits of the world’s natural resources. We need to use energy, land, water at a sustainable rate, be aware of material scarcity, and minimise environmental impact from extraction. Significantly, we need to move from a linear to circular life-cycle for any resources we use. It’s only through sustainable consumption and production that we can protect the planet from further degradation and tackle climate change.
However, whilst the 2016 Paris Agreement stated that earth temperatures needed to stay within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels to halt climate change, a recent United Nations report made it clear current targets would result in less than a 1% decline by 2030. With 2020’s extreme weather events, continued deforestation of the Amazon, record sea level rises, and as much C02 in the world’s atmosphere as 3 million years ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the current state of affairs as “a red alert for our planet.”
Pillar 3: Economic Growth
Economic sustainability means that governments and businesses use their resources and operate responsibly to make profits. Without profit, a business and economy cannot be sustainable in the longterm. According to the UN, prosperity is essential “to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives.”
However, all economic, social, and technological progress must be inclusive and equitable. Currently, according to Oxfam International, the richest 1% of the world’s population have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people, and almost half of the world’s population survives on less than $5.50 daily.
Equally important, any economic growth must support environmental protection in order for sustainability to be achieved. Whilst fast fashion companies like BooHoo and Revolve are responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, many brands are building sustainability goals into their business models. Sportswear giant Adidas’ Terrex Futurecraft anorak is 100% recycled and recyclable, and, according to ThredUp, the second-hand economy was valued at $24 billion, and will be 1.5 times the size of the fast fashion market within the next 10 years.
Find out more about the language of sustainability here.