The Different Definitions of Sustainability

The Different Definitions of Sustainability

“Sustainability” originates from the word “sustain” which means “to support” and is also the word “sustainable” which corresponds to something that can be supported or maintained at a certain rate or level. It is now used as a concept in natural and social sciences to represent ideals and goals aimed at promoting coexistence between the human population and the environment.

The exact definition of sustainability varies. Scholars and organizations have provided their respective take to define this concept. The literature has also featured different descriptions. This is understandable because of the multidisciplinary underpinning of the concept. Nevertheless, this article highlights some of the most notable definitions of sustainability.

A Look Into The Different Definitions of Sustainability

Earlier Usage in Forestry

Researcher J. Morelli noted that sustainability was first used as a concept in the field of forestry and agriculture to denote the practice of imposing limitations in harvests based on the capacity of a forest or agricultural land to yield new growths.

The usage of the term in forestry has been traced back specifically to Saxon tax accountant and mining administrator Hans Carl von Carlowitz. It appeared in his 1713 work “Silvicultura Oeconomica” which argued for the long-term responsible use of natural resources

Nevertheless, based on historical usage and as noted by researchers T. Kuhlman and J. Farrington, the concept was first used in the field of forestry to introduce and promote the importance of sustainable forest management.

Sustainability was later defined as practices or initiatives pertaining to the conservation of natural resources for future use. Its definition expanded further to take into consideration greater initiatives aimed at conserving the environment while benefitting from its resources.

Usage and Definition in Economics

The concept also found application in the field of economics. To be specific, in 1798, British clergy and economist Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus developed a theory that illustrates the probability of looming mass starvation due to the natural inability of available agricultural land to produce yields enough to feed a growing population.

American economist Harold Hoteling also developed a theory in 1931 that provided a model for determining the optimal rate at which nonrenewable resources can be exploited. His theory is called the “General Mathematical Theory of Depreciation.”

The fact that economic activities depend on the extraction and consumption of finite resources has compelled other economists and scholars to use sustainability as a socioeconomic concept needed to create and implement new models and practices for careful consideration of resource requirements, and effective and proactive utilization of resources.

Nevertheless, in economics, sustainability is defined as the practices that support long-term economic growth minus the negative impacts of economic activities and economic progress on the social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community.

Modern and Integrated Definition

Others have criticized the concept because of its supposed vagueness or the lack of consensus as regards its scope. Some have specifically noted that it is a mere buzzword devoid of practical application and relevance or due to its failure to be relatable.

However, notable organizations and scholars from different fields have defined and used “sustainability” to communicate the need to address the long-term survival of the human population.

The United Nations through the 1987 “Our Common Future” or the Brundtland Report of its Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Note that the Brundtland Report has become the widely accepted definition of the concept. It set the stage for fueling more discourses through conferences and publications aimed at exploring and defining further its scope and its specific practical applications.

Furthermore, the expansion of the literature has resulted in a more integrated and expansive definition and description of the concept. This is evident from the introduction of the pillars of sustainability. There are different versions of these pillars. The most common ones include human, social, economic, and environmental sustainability.


  • Hoteling, H. 1931. “The Economics of Exhaustible Resources.” Journal of Political Economy. 39(2): 137-175. JSTOR: 1822328
  • Kuhlman, T and Farrington, J. 2010. “What is Sustainability?” Sustainability. 2(1): 3436-3448. DOI: 3390/su2113436
  • Morelli, J, 2011. “Environmental Sustainability: A Definition for Environmental Professionals.” Journal of Environmental Sustainability. 1(1): 19-27. DOI: 14448/jes.01.0002
  • United Nations. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Available via PDF
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