What is Sustainability?

There are a number of interpretations regarding the definition of sustainability. This tricky, six-syllable word is best understood as an essentially contested concept, one that does not have a fixed, objective, universally agreed-upon definition.

University of Richmond's Office for Sustainability defines sustainability as the creation of environmental, social, and economic conditions that foster the health and well-being of people and the natural world in this generation and generations to come. Collectively, our educational initiatives, commitments, milestones, programs, and facilities tell the story of an institution that prioritizes stewardship of the environment and preparation of our students to address global challenges in a rapidly changing world. There are some fundamental ideas that inform our approach to sustainability at the University, summarized below.

The phrase most often used to describe sustainability comes from the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (known also as the “Brundtland Report”): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Embedded within this definition are three key concepts: a balance of one’s own needs with those of others (especially the needs of the poor), conservation of resources for future generations, and recognition of the environment as a finite system with discrete limits.

Another description that informs UR’s understanding of sustainability comes from the Environmental Protection Agency: “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.” Ultimately, a healthy community and healthy economy are only possible with a healthy environment where citizens have access to clean air, clean water, and arable land. The EPA definition goes on to state, “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” You can see the allusion to the Brundtland Report here, as well as the introduction to the “triple bottom line,” which calls for recognition of a balance of environmental, financial, and social justice needs in decision making.

These definitions help bring sustainability into focus, but they still do not tell us what to do when we arrive for work on Monday morning. A framework that makes these ideas more concrete comes from the Natural Step, a leader in strategic sustainable development since 1989. Borrowing from principles found in nature, the Natural Step provides four basic rules to follow to care for the planet. These rules pinpoint current actions that are inherently unsustainable – that is they cannot continue in perpetuity – and call for these behaviors to cease. The ideas are deceptively simple with colloquial, informal language.

Natural Step Sustainability Principles

Principle 1. We cannot dig stuff up from the Earth at a rate faster than it naturally returns and replenishes.
Principle 2. We cannot make chemical stuff at a rate faster than it takes nature to break it down.
Principle 3. We cannot cause destruction to the planet at a rate faster than it takes to regrow.
Principle 4. We cannot do things that cause others to not be able to fulfill their basic needs.

The Natural Step rules do not provide an inventory of actions to take to move toward sustainability, but offer a framework to discuss actions suitable for each institution or individual. It recognizes the agency of small groups of people to choose the best path forward themselves.

Ultimately, sustainability is about creating conditions that will allow our children’s children to thrive, in perpetuity. We all have a role to play.