Sustainability Versus Sustainable Development: What’s the difference?

Contributors: Liette Vasseur & Jocelyn Baker

Sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural, social, and cultural resources in ways that allow all living things —not just humans — to thrive long into the future.

Sustainable development, on the other hand, aims to create growth and progress through the addition of physical, economic, environmental, and social components that can improve quality of life without depleting resources for the future.

In the previous blog, we saw that sustainability comes from the practice of “nachhaltigkeit”, a German term coined in 1713. Except in technical articles, the word sustainability was rarely used until 1972, when a then-leading magazine published a series of articles entitled Blueprint for Survival. This series, which involved more than 30 scientists, recommended that we should live in small, de-industrialized communities to help prevent a breakdown of society. In this series, the meaning of sustainability was much broader than its original, 18th century usage: suggesting a change in lifestyle, the implementation of population controls. better management of natural resources, and the establishment of “no-growth” economies.

Sustainable development first appeared in 1987, when the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission included a definition for the term in its Our Common Future publication. The author defined the concept of sustainable development as an approach designed to “meet the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 2002, the report from the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development prescribes the need to “promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development—economic development, social development and environmental protection—as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” (1 p.8)

So where are we today?

As part of the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, all UN Member States adopted a 15-year plan to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, for short. The 17 goals and 169 targets form the basis of a critical call to action to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”

The SDGs have become a set of guiding principles used to ensure that development is environmentally low impact, socially just, and economically efficient and fair, as well as to justify interventions. These principles apply to development of all scales and in all locations, whether it is the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Amazon or a plantation of trees in Africa. Even in these examples (and in many more), the economy still rests at the heart of all development.
Even with environmental and societal considerations becoming part of the equation, is this model of development really sustainable in the long run? We only have one planet — and if we are to protect it, we must go even further to ensure sustainability for generations to come.

  1. Hens, L., & Nath, B. (2006). The world summit on sustainable development: The Johannesburg conference. Springer Science & Business Media.
Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog