The word sutainability on an offwhite background with hexagons

What are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

We all know that sustainability is a hot topic – but what does it mean? It means that we can no longer afford to ignore the future at the cost of the past or the present. Some of the obvious signs that we need to become sustainable are:

  • Satellite footage has confirmed that the polar ice caps are melting
  • Acidification is killing the oceans
  • We see increasingly destructive hurricanes
  • An increasing number of tornadoes extending into new regions
  • We are experiencing greater droughts
  • An increase in massive floods and landslides
  • Heat domes are settling over large geographical areas
  • The wildfire season has increased in size and scope

In 2021 alone, thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands were displaced and millions have been affected by these extreme weather events. It is conservatively estimated that each major atmospheric event costs approximately $1 Trillion in lost revenue, repair and collateral damage. And 2021 was a record-breaking year for these types of events. Then add the effects of a global pandemic on top means that it is time for each of us to realize there is only one way forward: to build a sustainable future.

At the heart of sustainability, there are three pillars: environmental, social and economic. The environment pillar emphasizes reducing our impact on nature. The social pillar focuses on improving equity by empowering individuals and communities. The economic pillar promotes innovation. For a company or country to be truly sustainable all three pillars must be working together within their value systems.

Think of sustainability as a three-legged stool: if one of the legs is missing, the other two are not enough to sustain the stool, and it experiences a critical failure. A critical failure is not just a failure, but a failure in the performance of an action that has additional negative cascading effects. A good example of this is the Ever Given. It was the massive container ship that was wedged in the Suez Canal after high winds blew it onto a shoal. It blocked hundreds of ships and their goods from reaching their destinations for 106 days in 2021. Goods couldn’t reach manufacturers, so products could not be made and retailers could not stock their shelves. This drove the cost of products up and sparked fear of scarcity. In turn, this resulted in hoarding, which then actually created a shortage of goods. And then this drove the prices up again. It demonstrates how fragile our systems are when one small mishap can create cascading effects across industries and continents.

The 3 components of sustainability are often referenced when discussing sustainable development, and are also known as the triple bottom line or the 3P’s: Planet People, Profit. They must be equally considered and balanced to achieve sustainability. In ESG terms for companies and governments, sustainability begins with tone-at-the-top, or at the Governance level.

“We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril.”

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum

What are the 3 main principles of sustainability?

1) Social equity – including fair wages for employees, opportunities for disadvantaged individuals and groups, and the participation of all individuals in decisions affecting them, gender parity and the equitable distribution of resources both within and between generations.

2) Economic Development – The preserving of the ability of future generations to meet their own needs through maintaining an economically viable society today. This means having a strong GDP to make sure that the economy stays afloat. It also includes making sure that sustainable energy is being used, which leads to less dependence on other countries or sources

2) Environmental Protection – The preservation of the environment; conservation of natural resources, protection of bio-diversity and abatement of pollution. This also includes minimizing waste and byproducts like greenhouse gases.

These principles are relevant to sustainability because they have to be kept in mind when creating policy and planning for the future. For example, if a new technology is created with no regard for environmental protection it could cause more problems than it solves. Or, if an economy is growing too fast, then it may lead to unsustainable practices. If it is growing too slowly, it may prevent people from being able to meet their basic needs.

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Who defined the 3 pillars of sustainability?

The three pillars of sustainability were first defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 to focus on economic, environmental, and social development. The need for all three to be included was recognized through this commission because if one was taken out, it would lead to negative outcomes for either the economy or society. They are also referenced as the 3 P’s – Planet, People, Profit.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is still in its nascent state. But with the swift pace of change and disruption to business and society, the time to join in is now.”

Gary Coleman, Global Industry and Senior Client Advisor, Deloitte Consulting

The Social Pillar of Sustainable Development

Social pillar – equity, human rights and happiness. This includes social justice, development that is people-centered and ensuring that the poor are not excluded from economic growth. It also includes quality of life issues such as access to culture, religion, education, public health and recreation.

The Social pillar also refers to equality between genders, social justice and protection against discrimination. This is an important component of sustainable development because it includes protecting vulnerable groups like minorities and indigenous populations from harm or exploitation. Social equality is also part of the idea of “leaving no one behind.”

The Economic Sustainability Pillar

Economic pillar – growth, efficiency and prosperity. This includes economic efficiency, resource management and technological progress. Economic development is good for society when it has equity (inclusion in decision-making) and environmental protection in mind.

The Environmental Sustainability Pillar

Environment pillar – ecosystem integrity, natural habitat and carrying capacity. These concepts refer to the ability for us to use our planet’s resources without harming the environment or upsetting the balance of life as we know it as well as the ability for our planet to support human demand and activity. This includes things like ecosystem stability, biodiversity conservation and protecting the quality of natural habitats.

“You cannot wait until a house burns down to buy fire insurance on it. We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Robert J. Shiller, 2013 Nobel laureate in economics, Professor of Economics, Yale University

Why are the 3 pillars of sustainability important?

The World Commission’s report, “Our Common Future” (1987) used the idea of the 3 pillars to describe the idea that sustainable development requires balancing social, economic and environmental concerns using all available information. It went on to clarify that “sustainable development requires that each of the three pillars be equally emphasized.”

The Pillars defined for future generations

The 1987 report set out a definition of sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It remains an influential view today. In 2016, it was updated to define sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present “in ways that are not at the expense of future generations, yet more inclusively.”

The report looks ahead to 2050 and the need for humans to live within planetary limits. It sets out a goal to be achieved by sustainable development in order to achieve environmental stability while also maintaining economic growth.

Looking at the world through a sustainability lens not only helps us ‘future proof’ our supply chain, it also fuels innovation and drives brand growth.

Paul Polman

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the ability of a system to keep from being destroyed by change or events over time. In order for a system to be sustainable, all three parts must be improved and kept healthy in order to not only survive but thrive. If our environment collapses then our societies would not be able to function. If our economic systems collapse then the environment would likely also fail. There must be balance between all 3 pillars in order for us to achieve sustainability.

Why is sustainability important?

The 3 Sustainability Pillars are important because if any one pillar is ignored, the system will collapse or fail. For example, if we focus on economic growth while neglecting environmental protection, humans will experience health issues due to pollution. If we focus on conserving our environment at the expense of human progress, then there will be no economic growth which would also influence social justice. The 3 Pillars are all equally important in order for us to achieve developmental sustainability.

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What are some examples of corporations demonstrating the three pillars of sustainability?

There are many companies today whose operations attempt to reflect the 3 Pillars of Sustainability. They include…

Tesla is an electric car company that also deals with sustainable energy storage solutions which include solar panels and batteries. Their goal is to reduce carbon emissions globally, while promoting social equality through providing clean, renewable energy. Tesla has invested in developing more efficient batteries for home energy storage, which will become important as more people transition away from fossil related fuels. Tesla’s mission reflects all 3 pillars of sustainability.

Google is another example of a company that demonstrates the 3 Pillars of Sustainability. Google has invested in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power that reduces carbon emissions into our ecosystem while also providing new jobs. In addition, Google is also invested in electric vehicle development as a way to reduce the carbon emissions produced by gasoline powered engines.

Another example is Patagonia who has made a commitment to sustainable business practices. Patagonia has created the 1% for the Planet movement, where they have pledged to donate one percent of their total sales each year to grassroots environmental groups. They are dedicated to conserving natural resources by using organic cotton, recycled down fill and corduroy fabrics, recyclable and biodegradable packaging, and recycled paper in their catalogs. Patagonia’s mission is dedicated to reducing the impact on the environment while also providing sustainable economic growth for themselves and others around the world. Patagonia demonstrates all 3 pillars of sustainability.

What are some examples of countries demonstrating the 3 pillars of sustainability?

Norway is one example of a country that has shown excellence in all three pillars. Norway has been able to reduce their emissions while also achieving economic growth and providing social justice for everyone within the country. Firstly, they have invested in renewable energy sources such as hydropower and wind to help provide them with power so that they do not need to rely on fossil fuels. They have also implemented a carbon tax in order to reduce their emission output which has helped them balance economic growth with environmental protection. Norway’s investment in renewable energy sources has also allowed them to create jobs for themselves while also helping other countries transition away from oil power sources. Their commitment to social justice is demonstrated through the living wage, public services, 85% taxes on the oil industry, and increased employment opportunities.

China is another example of a country that demonstrates all 3 sustainable pillars. China has managed to balance economic growth with social justice by providing more equal opportunities for their citizens, allowing them to become educated in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), allowing women to be educated, and reducing discrimination within their country. China has also invested in sustainable energy sources to reduce carbon emissions which has allowed them to become the leading producers of solar panels globally. They have also implemented laws against environmental pollution by having fines for companies that do not monitor their emissions output.

How are the 3 Pillars important for businesses?

The 3 sustainable pillars are important for businesses because they reflect well on the company which could lead to increased sales and profits. Moving forward toward 2030 after Covid 19, companies will be required to reduce their carbon footprint by becoming more sustainable and investing in sustainable projects. This can provide economic growth because building and maintaining these projects will require new workers who need to be paid. These projects might include renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which would create jobs for the community, while also reducing the demand on fossil fuels which could help reduce the price of gas. In addition, companies will also need to focus on social justice in order to reduce their carbon footprint and provide a better life for everyone throughout the community they are impacting. By investing in renewable energy sources, countries can create jobs while simultaneously reducing their environmental impact. The best way that a company could show this is through donations and funding to support social justice and education.

What does B Corporation status have to do with sustainability?

Businesses that pursue B Corporation status are required to meet higher standards of social and environmental impact in order to be considered a benefit corporation. They must also do this while they continue to grow their company or else they will not be able to keep their certification and cannot use the B Corp name. The B Corp status was originally created so that companies could follow the 3 pillars of sustainability while also showing economic growth.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Peter Drucker, management consultant

Sustainable companies do better

Companies that are found to be sustainable tend to do better in the long run because they are seen as responsible and will be rewarded for their efforts. This means not only increased sales and profits for the business, but more customers who feel comfortable supporting them because they are invested in the well-being of their company as well as the products and services.

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B Corp’s and sustainability

This was first created to help sustainable businesses put out a product that would reflect their practices in the market. If consumers saw this, they would prefer to buy products that are made by companies who are socially and environmentally conscious. They can also support these businesses when it comes to voting on legislature because they know what kind of impact their votes will have on the company. B Corporation status will help reduce the negative impact of unsustainable practices in the market which could lead to improved relationships with stakeholders, increased sales, and better company reputation.

What are the benefits of adhering to the 3 Pillars?

As companies become more sustainable, they will also begin to develop a better relationship with their stakeholders. They can create this by committing themselves to investing in that community and improving the quality of life for their employees and shareholders while also reducing carbon footprints. If companies did not invest in sustainable practices, it will lead to negative consequences for both the business and the environment. By adhering to the 3 pillars, businesses can show that they are committed to creating a better world while also showing stakeholders how much they care about their actions.

Why acting in a sustainable manner is good for business

The 3 sustainability pillars are important for businesses because it reflects well on them when they operate in an ethical and sustainable manner while also reducing negative impacts on their business and the environment. If companies are sustainable, they can improve their relationship with stakeholders, reduce carbon footprints, and continue to grow the company while also creating better quality of life for people throughout the community.

“If you ask the wrong question, of course, you get the wrong answer. We find in design it’s much more important and difficult to ask the right question. Once you do that, the right answer becomes obvious.”

Amory Lovins, physicist, environmental scientist and writer

Which of the three sustainability pillars is most important?

This is a trick question. It is like asking which leg of a tripod is more important? All three pillars are equally important because without one of them, it will be very difficult to support the weight with only two. It is most important for companies to invest in sustainable practices because this is what they need in order to reduce their carbon footprint and develop a better relationship with stakeholders. If companies do not make sustainable choices, it can lead to problems for both their business and the environment. This is why it is most important for companies to make sustainable choices when it comes to investing in renewable energy sources while also funding social justice. See SDG and ESG.

What is a simple definition of sustainability?

Sustainability is the ability for business to operate in an ethical, economically viable, and environmentally conscious way. It consists of the three pillars which are investing in practices that reduce carbon footprints while also improving their relationship with stakeholders while also being socially just. Ultimately, acting sustainably helps companies become more profitable because it reduces negative impacts on both the environment and the company while building a better relationship with stakeholders which will help grow their customer base.

Caveats, disclaimers & what are the 3 pillars of sustainability

At ESG | The Report, we believe that we can help make the world a more sustainable place through the power of education. We have covered many topics in this article and want to be clear that any reference to, or mention of strategy, economic, wellbeing, food, fashion industry, production, quality goals, developing nations, systems continual growth, human system conceptual framework, natural capital, industrial revolution and establishment, raw materials, world war, other companies, the uk government or chain in the context of this article is purely for informational purposes and not to be misconstrued as investment or any other legal advice or an endorsement of any particular company or service. Neither ESG | The Report, it’s contributors or their respective companies or any of its members gives any warranty with respect to the information herein, and shall have no responsibility for any decisions made, or action taken or not taken which relates to matters covered by ESG | The Report. Thank you for reading, and we hope that you found this article useful in your quest to understand ESG and sustainable business practices. We look forward to living in a sustainable world.

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