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A Brief History: Sustainability

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Sustainability is not a new buzzword - it is the future of the planet with a 40-year-old history.

A Crash Course on Sustainability illustration
glad you asked by Nivedita Bansal

Sustainable fashion, sustainable architecture, sustainable food… the word seems to be dominating the twenty-first-century landscape. But what does it really mean to be sustainable, to achieve sustainability?

Introduced as an ecological concept for the first time in the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability was conceptualised as a way of moving forward such that the needs of the present are satisfied without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs; it, in a way, placed the environment, the economy and equity on a uniform pedestal. However, the idea evolved both as a concept and practice after having gone through countless revisions through praxis and the scrutiny of many alike. This is to the extent that today sustainability can signify a way of life, an approach or “a paradigm for thinking about the future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life”. As a result, it draws on multiple disciplines from the natural and physical sciences to the arts and even philosophy to achieve its end goal. It is imperative to note that sustainability differs from sustainable development; the latter is a way of achieving the former. In other words, while sustainability is a long-term goal, sustainable development refers to both the short and long-term methods of reaching that goal. But why should you care about it?

While sustainability may seem like an issue concerning only the environmentalists at first glance, it concerns us all. It holds the potential to dictate the trajectories of our lives and the lives of those not born yet. Not only that, but it also helps us recognise the interconnectedness of the economic, social, cultural and environmental and gauge the collective impact of each on the Earth. This can help us recognise the ramifications of our actions on our lives and communities.

The Dimensions of Sustainability

Sustainability has four dimensions: environment, culture, society, and economy. All of which are entwined and not separate. The first one focuses on environmental protection such that it requires us to realise the finite nature of its resources and calls for rational use of the same. The cultural and societal dimensions centre social development such that community cohesion and cultural rights and satisfaction are respected and maintained. The last dimension, the economic one, calls for economic growth in a manner that generates equitable wealth for all without compromising environmental health. Together these dimensions need us to focus on ways of moving forward that align with the ideals of sustainability.

Models of Sustainability

While there are many ways of conceptualising sustainability, the most widely known one is John Elkington’s 1994 “Triple Bottom Line”. As a planner, psychologist and sustainability consultant, Elkington devised a three-pronged approach to sustainability that emphasised economic development, environmental impact and social outcomes equally. This led to the development of the “three sectors” model for representing the challenges of sustainability. Although well-received, many have scrutinised the model owing to its biggest demerit in its equal emphasis on the three sectors. This is because, historically, economic growth was valued as much as (if not more than) environmental soundness, which ultimately brought us to this state. As a result, newer formulations have attempted to change this approach and shift the narrative, such as in the social ecology model. By merging the economic with the social and introducing a new personal paradigm, the social ecology model shifts the focus from the economic and underscores involvement on a personal level in achieving sustainability.

Attaining Sustainability

Given the gravity of the situation and the shared responsibility of action across institutions, sustainability can only be achieved through collective, consistent personal and structural changes. Different institutions have adopted unique approaches that align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in line with this. For example, governmental institutions have introduced several measures, from policy changes and legislation to financial instruments, in order to bring about changes on multiple levels. Similarly, corporate institutions, too, have launched various initiatives to achieve short goals such as fair-trade sourcing, zero-waste packaging, no carbon footprint, and sustainable delivery systems, to name a few. With increased recognition of the need for sustainability, educational institutions too have started training their staff, faculty and students it while offering specialisations in sustainability. In parallel, many groups and communities have begun reviving old sustainable ways of living to do their part, while individuals have started incorporating sustainable practices into their daily lives.

The examples above tell of sustainability's complexity, diversity and subjective nature. This is to say that, although essential, there is no singular way of being sustainable. While all else remains mobile, what holds is that achieving sustainability is necessary for securing our future and the onus of doing so lies on every single one of us.


Jaganmohan, M. (2022, February 23). Sustainability - statistics & facts. Statista.

Mason, M. (n.d.). What Is Sustainability and Why Is It Important? | Environmental Science.

Mulligan, M. (2017). An Introduction to Sustainability: Environmental, Social and Personal Perspectives (2nd ed.). Routledge.

UNESCO. (2015, August 20). Sustainable Development.

What is sustainability? (2016). Active Sustainability.

What is sustainability? | myclimate. (n.d.). Myclimate.

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