What is Sustainability, Anyway?

Good question, friend! To be honest, despite answering this question a bazillion times, I still sometimes find it hard to articulate.

Whenever I present on the topic of sustainability, I always ask people, “What do you think of when you think sustainability?” I always get answers like “Green”, “Recycling” “Reduce, reuse, recycle”, none of which are wrong, but none entirely right either.


The environment is only one “pillar” of sustainability. The other two are society and economics. Recently, I have seen some models even depicting culture as its own pillar. Sustainability and how we understand it is always evolving (as it should be).

So, some history: The foundational document for us folks that work in sustainability is the 1987 Brundtland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development. It defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The idea of longevity is central to our understanding of sustainability – but how far out is long enough? In an ideal world, we would be meeting our needs and the needs of the future indefinitely. Is that going to happen? Probably not. So, what should we aim for then? Seven generations, or about 140 years, according to the idea of Seven Generation Stewardship (which to be honest, may or may not be all that reliable, but at least it is quantifiable goal).

As I mentioned previously, there are a bunch of different sustainability models that seek to represent the intersection of the environment, society, and economics. There are two that I see quite frequently in my line of work. The first one is a traditional Venn Diagram. What I like about this model is it features the words “bearable, equitable, and viable” which I think helps people understand the intersectionality of sustainability a little bit better. However, this model makes it seem as though the environment, economy, and society are able to function independently of each other and overlap neatly to create sustainability. This is just not true. Each one of the pillars has impacts, intended or unintended on the others – which is why I like the triple nested dependencies model better.



Another way to think about the interconnectedness of the environment, economy, and society is to imagine they are the legs of a stool. If one leg of that stool is shorter than the others, its going to be wobbly, potentially jeopardizing the integrity of the stool.

So, real world scenario – you buy a cheap shirt, Your happy because it was cheap, but let’s look at that shirt a little closer. The tag says “Made in XXX”. It was probably made in XXX because their environmental regulations are more lax than those wherever you are reading this from, so to earn greater profit the production is outsourced. Then, being the environmental regulations are more lax, toxic waste and byproducts from production can be dumped into the nearest ecosystem of choice, which then impacts local communities and their access to resources. Did you know people of color are disproportionately impacted by global climate change? In case you are wondering, this is part of the reason why.

The communities impacted by the toxic waste are likely classified as low socio-economic, so there is little that they can do to push back against rich, foreign entities destroying their way of life. Further, members of the community are likely  employed to help make that cheap shirt and are paid unfair wages in unsafe working conditions. Then at the end of the day, the shirt has to be shipped back to wherever you are reading this creating a large amount of emissions, and the company you are purchasing the shirt from profits massively. When you are buying something cheap – someone else is paying along the way. The stool is uneven.

The cheap shirt* is an easy example of why sustainability is more than just the environment. In fact, you could say the environment is really an afterthought. Profit (or the economy) is the real driving factor here. So, to get to the point where we can make real environmental change, we might consider making economic regulations that reward industries for responsible production. Looking at sustainability through the lens of pillars helps us create environmental justice. Below are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They provide a great framework of how far reaching sustainability is and what it could look like.


Imagine if we lived in a world where there was strong environmental regulations everywhere, or fair wages and safe working conditions everywhere, we would be looking at a very different existence. If you want to know what a sustainably produced shirt looks like and the price it retails for ($50 USD) check out Rachel Brathen’s new Yoga Girl Movement at YogaGirl.com. Every ounce of the Yoga Girl shirt has been meticulously crafted. Your dollar is your vote and you get to use it everyday, so cast it well (we will talk more about this in a future post).

All of the above models and definitions are great. I have learned over time though, you need to have your own personal sustainability philosophy to turn those definitions into tangible actions. For me, I believe small actions will change the world. I try to live each day in congruence with my values to create a positive impact. I believe in education and doing the best you can, with what you have, and what you know. In conclusion, I leave you with a nifty YouTube video that sums some of this up!

In the future, look out for more detailed Sustainability 101 type posts that take a deeper look at the pillars of sustainability. Don’t be afraid to ask me your questions in the comments!

Also, let me know what your personal sustainability philosophy is below!

With love, love, love ❤ Cyndel

*To be clear, I own my fair share of the “cheap shirts” of the world. I am on a budget too. The market is counting on me being on a budget. It is all very systemic and interconnected! Since learning more about the fashion industry in particular, I have made a commitment to try to shop at local thrift stores and websites like PoshMark whenever possible. The one thing I hope I can share with you over time is that sustainability isn’t stuff and it doesn’t need to be expensive.

5 thoughts on “What is Sustainability, Anyway?

  1. This is such a thought-provoking article, Cyndel. 😊 I have never really thought of sustainability much further than recycling. I try to recycle as much as humanly possible to reduce the toll I take on the world. I used to buy a lot of cheap clothing as well but have since tried to buy more thoughtfully and buy less that’s more expensive and buy locally made items as much as possible. I unfortunately can’t stop buying cheap clothing entirely on my budget but where possible I rather spend more. I must say I wasn’t doing this specifically to reduce my carbon footprint but I am glad in some way it is making a bit of a difference which encourages me to continue doing so. 😊

    1. Thank you so much, Nadine! You raised such a good point I have added a paragraph at the bottom of my article. I own plenty of the “cheap shirts” of the world too! The market is counting on me needing cheap shirts. It is all very systemic! Since learning more, I try to do better where I can, but at the end of the day sometimes the cheap option is going to win out for me as well. We all gotta live! And honestly, there is so much to be said about the lengths people are willing to go to themselves to make a positive impact on the environment while the heavy hitters are not held responsible (which will likely be a future opinion piece). I truly do believe that small actions make all the difference, like recycling, or even just being conscious of our actions! They all add up!

      1. You are right, the heavy hitters like large companies that make things cheaply and, therefore, damage the environment are where it needs to start. But, like you said, it’s all systematic in that we can’t always buy the more sustainable option. Hopefully one day all the small actions will lead to a big change in the world. It’s sad that the environment suffers so because of us.

      2. There are numerous companies that are making sustainably oriented products. What we need is for more people to buy those, because this signals to the market that the demand for sustainability is on the rise.

  2. A sustainable culture is one that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just and does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs in the process of meeting our own needs.

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