Defining sustainability

If project managers/teams are expected to embed sustainability principles into their projects they first need to understand what sustainability is. Here are some definitions I’ve come across which might be useful.

One of the most referenced definitions of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission. It’s been adopted (albeit slightly reworded) by the Sustainable Development Commission, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, DEFRA, etc.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

(Brundtland, 1987)

The definition above is somewhat vague. I actually related more to the following definition.

“At heart, then, sustainable development is a way of thinking, of living, of governing, and of doing business. It is also an approach to evaluating plans, programs, and operations. It seeks to guide choices today to preserve choices for tomorrow, based upon the desire to maintain balance among the three elements of the living triangle.” (Cooper and Vargas, 2004)

Even that definition builds upon that of the Brundtland Commission. You might at this point be wondering what the three elements of the living triangle are? They are Economic, Environmental and Social. It’s interesting to note that the representation of these three elements have also developed over time. Based solely on my reading they started life as a triangle, before being represented as a venn diagram. A more recent definition exists from Prof. Charles Ainger (2011).

“…the correct structure would place society within the environment, and the economy within the society. Society is an interface within the environment through resources and waste. The environment places limits on the society (through ecological and carbon footprints). Society is qualified through the quality of life for people and their communities (human development index, HDI). The economy creates jobs and wealth, and the fair distribution of these by serving the other two components.”

Dresner (2008) makes an interesting point when summarising the work of Tim O’Riordan.

“‘Sustainable development’ is a meeting point for environmentalists and developers.”

All in all I’m more at ease with thinking about sustainability (or sustainable development) as a way of thinking and it was a poem by Ray Anderson’s (skip to about 13min 50s) colleague that really caught my attention.


Brundtland, G. H. (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2011).

Cooper, P. J. and Vargas, C. M. (2004) Implementing Sustainable Development: From Global Policy To Local Action. United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Dresner, S. (2008) The Principles of Sustainability. 2nd edn. London: Earthscan.

Pitelis, C. N., Keenan, J. and Pryce, V. (2001) Green Business, Green Values, and Sustainability. Oxon: Routledge.


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