The Three Pillars of Sustainable Development

Society, Environment, and Economy

The standard definition of sustainable development is that which was established by the Report of the Brundtland Commission (also known as the World Commission of Environment and Development), convened by the United Nations in 1983, which states the sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Though this definition remains very fundamental in the field, the concept of sustainable development has become more complete since the days Brundtland Commission, as it has gained salience in the discourse of development and politics. A now widely accepted facet of sustainable development is the notion of the three pillars of sustainable development: Economy, Society, and Environment; that is, the idea that in order for development to be sustainable in the Brundtland sense of the word, there must be a balance and simultaneous addressing of economic, societal, and environmental needs. A concentration on one of the pillars above the other two can have detrimental effects on all three.  

Theories of sustainable development maintain that our economic, societal, and environmental needs are all integrating and interactive with each other. Thus any development project or goal will necessarily affect all three realms, and consequently it is crucial to keep all three in mind when designing such projects. The fact that many of these needs will often conflict with each other in the short run (such as the economic need of transportation and the environmental need for clean air) is what makes sustainable development challenging, but there are long term solutions in the form of responsible use of natural resources, limiting emissions, new technologies, and “green growth.”

Each of the three pillars of sustainable development includes many considerations. The following list gives some examples of the many issues that are included, but is in no way exhaustive:

Societal Concerns Environmental Concerns Economic Concerns
Employment, working conditions Fresh water Economic dependency
Education Agriculture, food supply Indebtedness
Health Urban deelopment Energy
Housing Marine environment Consomption patterns
Quality of life Fisheries Production patterns
Cultural heritage Biodiversity Transportation
Poverty and income distribution Clean air Trade
Social and ethical values Potable water Industrial growth
Population Climate change and sea level Agricultural growth
Empowerment Use of natural resources Efficient labor use
Social mobility Waste disposal Economic stability
Social justice Biotechnology Productivity

Despite the belief that all three pillars are equally important and must all be considered in order for there to exist a healthy balance, the social pillar has been often forgotten or pushed aside, the issue here being that the social-environmental link is weaker and less obvious than the environmental-economic link. However, it is possible to examine the social pillar through the use of welfare economics, by either determining a social welfare function or looking at social issues as externalities.

It may be difficult to respect the three pillars of sustainable development simultaneously. One way to put this concept into practice is to develop standards and indicators that can be used to assess whether sustainable development is being achieved. Indicators such as the domestic per capita consumption of water, the ratio of threatened species to total native species, annual energy consumption, GINI coefficient, human development index, the percentage of population with access to health care, female to male wage ratio, etc. can help to bring important issues to the political agenda, help identify trends, promote dialogue, and help to assess programs and progress toward targets, all with the aim of development that is sustainable.

-Natalie Giggy