background image

The Three Pillars of Sustainability: Building A More Resilient Future

author image

By illuminem

· 12 min read

This article is part of an educational series to spread free & quality sustainability knowledge for all.

Key Takeaways

  • The pillars of sustainability are important because they provide a holistic framework for achieving sustainable development and building a sustainable society.
  • These pillars are interconnected and interdependent, and it is essential to balance them to achieve long-term sustainable development
  • The SDGs cover a broad range of issues related to sustainability


If you’ve heard anything about sustainability, you shouldn’t dismiss it as just another buzzword that will soon fade out. Sustainability is a topic that will remain on the front burner for the foreseeable future. The concept of sustainability is built on three pillars. The three pillars of sustainability are social, environmental, and economic sustainability. These pillars are interconnected and interdependent, and it is essential to balance them to achieve long-term sustainable development. In this article, we will explore these three pillars of sustainability, their importance, and the challenges involved in achieving them.

Sustainability: The Basics


According to the United Nations Brundtland Commission, sustainability refers to the ability to meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In other words, sustainability means living and operating in a way that does not deplete or harm natural resources or ecosystems, does not exploit people or communities, and does not compromise economic development. 

This requires a shift in the way we think about development and progress, from short-term gains to long-term planning and vision. Sustainability is not just an environmental issue but a holistic approach that takes into account economic, social, and environmental factors and seeks to achieve a balance between them. It is a way of living and operating that recognizes the interconnections between humans and the natural world and seeks to build a more just, equitable, and resilient future for all.

Origins Of The Three Pillars Of Sustainability

The concept of the three pillars of sustainability originated from the 1987 report of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. The report, titled "Our Common Future," defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It emphasized the interdependence of economic development, social equity, and environmental protection.

While the specific term "three pillars of sustainability" may not have been explicitly mentioned in the Brundtland Commission report, the idea that sustainable development requires the balanced consideration of economic, social, and environmental factors emerged as a fundamental concept from the report's discussions and recommendations. The three pillars framework has since become widely recognized and adopted as a guiding principle for sustainable development efforts globally.

The three pillars of sustainability provide a comprehensive approach to addressing complex challenges and ensuring that development is pursued in a way that considers the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental aspects. By considering these three pillars holistically, stakeholders can work towards achieving sustainable and inclusive outcomes.

The Three Pillars Of Sustainability

With the basics of sustainability taken care of, it’s time to assess each of the three pillars of sustainable development. This section analyzes each of these three pillars of sustainable development to make things clearer for readers.

Economic Sustainability


Economic sustainability is one of the three pillars of sustainability. Basically, it focuses on ensuring that economic growth and development occur in a manner that is sustainable in the long run. The economic pillar of sustainability seeks to address challenges such as economic inequality, job creation, and access to resources while balancing environmental and social concerns. Sustainable business practices, fair trade initiatives, and investments in social and environmental programs are examples of economic sustainability in action. 

For instance, sustainable business practices may involve reducing waste and energy consumption, investing in renewable energy sources, and promoting a circular economy. Fairtrade initiatives seek to ensure that producers and workers receive a fair price for their goods and services, and investments in social and environmental programs can help address challenges such as poverty, climate change, and natural resource depletion. Overall, economic sustainability involves balancing short-term and long-term goals and reconciling economic growth with environmental and social protection.

Social Sustainability


Social sustainability is another pillar of sustainability that seeks to ensure that development benefits all members of society. It focuses on issues such as poverty, social inequality, access to healthcare, education, basic services, and human rights. Socially responsible investments, community engagement and empowerment, and policies that promote equality and inclusion are examples of social sustainability in action. 

For example, socially responsible investments may involve investing in companies that have a positive social and environmental impact. At the same time, community engagement and empowerment can help ensure that local communities are involved in decision-making processes that affect their lives. As of 2020, more than 65 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality. Therefore, policies that promote equality and inclusion, including gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and the promotion of cultural diversity are important for achieving sustainable social development.

Social sustainability can be challenging, as it requires addressing deeply rooted social and economic inequalities and ensuring that development benefits all members of society, particularly those marginalized and vulnerable.

Environmental Sustainability


The environmental pillar of sustainability focuses on ensuring that development occurs in a manner that is sustainable for the environment. It seeks to address challenges such as climate change, pollution, natural resource depletion, and biodiversity loss. Examples of environmental sustainability in action include sustainable agriculture and conservation efforts. 

According to WHO statistics, ambient air pollution is estimated to have caused more than four million premature deaths worldwide in 2019. More than 80% of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Thus, the environmental pillar of sustainability focuses on sustainable practices like renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, while sustainable agriculture practices can help reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment. Conservation efforts can include protecting endangered species, reducing deforestation, and preserving natural habitats.

Environmental sustainability can be challenging, as it requires balancing the growth of the economy with environmental protection and addressing complex challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation.

Why Are The Pillars Of Sustainability Important?

The pillars of sustainability - economic, social, and environmental - are important because they provide a holistic framework for achieving sustainable development and building a sustainable society. Economic sustainability is essential for ensuring that countries, businesses, and organizations operate in a financially responsible manner while contributing to society and creating jobs. Corporate sustainability also plays a critical role in ensuring that companies adopt sustainable practices that promote social and environmental responsibility.

Social sustainability is equally important as it focuses on promoting social justice, equity, and inclusion and ensuring that all members of society have access to basic needs such as healthcare, education, and fair working conditions. Achieving social sustainability is key to creating a more just and equitable society that benefits all members.

Further, environmental sustainability is critical for protecting natural resources, reducing pollution, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. By adopting sustainable practices that reduce waste, promote renewable energy, and protect natural habitats, we can ensure that we preserve our planet for future generations.

Sustainability And The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The SDGs are a set of 17 interconnected goals that were adopted by world leaders in 2015 and built upon the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs cover a broad range of issues related to sustainability, including economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. Here is a list of the sustainable development goals:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life On Land
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

The SDGs are an important framework for promoting sustainability at a global level and provide a roadmap for countries, organizations, and individuals to work towards a more sustainable world for the current and future generations.

What Is The Difference Between ESG And Sustainability?

importance of Sustainability

ESG, short for environmental, social, and governance, is a criterion for evaluating a company's performance in terms of its environmental impact, social practices, and governance structure. It is a framework for assessing the sustainability and ethical practices of businesses. 

The environmental aspect of ESG evaluates a company's efforts in areas such as carbon emissions, resource consumption, and waste management. The social aspect examines factors like employee welfare, community engagement, and human rights. The governance aspect assesses the company's leadership, transparency, and ethical practices.

On the other hand, sustainability is a broader concept that encompasses not only ESG factors but also considers the long-term impact of human activities on the environment, society, and the economy. Sustainability aims to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves balancing economic growth, social progress, and environmental protection to achieve a harmonious and enduring society.

Overall, ESG is a subset of sustainability that focuses on specific criteria for evaluating a company's practices, while sustainability encompasses a broader perspective that considers the overall impact of human activities on the planet and future generations. ESG is a tool used within the framework of sustainability to assess and promote responsible business practices.

Frequently Asked Questions About The The Three Pillars Of Sustainability 

Why Is Corporate Social Responsibility Important To Sustainability?

corporate sustainability

Corporate social responsibility is important to sustainability because it encourages companies to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, which contributes to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of society.

What Is The Most Important Pillar Of Sustainability?

Economic sustainability

It is difficult to say which pillar of sustainability is the most important as all three pillars of sustainability are interconnected and equally essential for achieving sustainability. Economic sustainability is important for creating jobs, generating wealth, and supporting communities. Similarly, social sustainability is crucial for ensuring everyone can access basic needs, such as healthcare, education, and social justice. Environmental sustainability is also critical for protecting natural resources and biodiversity, reducing pollution, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Ultimately, sustainability requires a balance between these three pillars, as neglecting any of them can negatively impact others and undermine our ability to achieve a sustainable future for all. Overall, environmental sustainability often gets the most attention among the three.

What’s The Difference Between MDGs And SDGs

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the successors of the Millenium Development Goals. The MDGs expired in 2015. SDGs have a broader scope as they target developed countries, compared to MDGs which target only developing countries.  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address global challenges and achieve a more sustainable future for all. The SDGs aim to end poverty and hunger, promote quality education and healthcare, reduce inequalities, protect the environment, and foster peace and prosperity. By providing a comprehensive framework, the SDGs guide countries, organizations, and individuals to work together and take actions toward sustainable development that benefits both people and the planet. Ultimately, the SDGs aim to create a world where no one is left behind and where economic, social, and environmental progress go hand in hand.

What Is The Biggest Factor Affecting Environmental Sustainability?

While it is challenging to pinpoint a single factor as the biggest one affecting environmental sustainability, one significant factor is human activities that contribute to climate change. The emission of greenhouse gases, primarily from burning fossil fuels for energy production and transportation, is a major contributor to global warming and climate change. The resulting environmental consequences, such as rising temperatures and habitat loss, pose significant threats to ecosystems, biodiversity, and the overall health of the planet.

Other factors that significantly impact environmental sustainability include deforestation, pollution (air, water, and soil), overexploitation of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, and the degradation of ecosystems. These factors are often interconnected, exacerbating their collective impact on environmental sustainability.

What Is The Carbon Footprint In Sustainable Development?

Carbon footprint measures the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), released into the atmosphere as a result of human activities. It is an important concept within sustainable development as it relates to the environmental impact of various processes, products, and activities.

In the context of sustainable development, reducing carbon footprint is a key objective to mitigate climate change and promote environmental sustainability. By reducing carbon emissions, organizations and governments contribute to minimizing their impact on global warming and its associated consequences.


The pillars of sustainability provide a roadmap for achieving sustainable development and building a more sustainable society that benefits people, the planet, and the economy. By balancing economic growth with social and environmental responsibility, we can create a more equitable, just, and sustainable future for all.


Maps - Sexual orientation laws. (2023, March 22). ILGA World.

Sustainable Development Goals | United Nations Development Programme. (n.d.). UNDP.

Investopedia Team. (2023). What Is Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing? Investopedia.

United Nations. (n.d.). Sustainability | United Nations.

Wikipedia contributors. (2022). Our Common Future. Wikipedia.

World Health Organization: WHO. (2022). Ambient (outdoor) air pollution.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

illuminem's editorial team - delivering the most effective, updated, and comprehensive access to sustainability & energy information.

Follow us on Linkedin, Instagram & Twitter

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)