Sustainability vs. Sustainable Development: Examining Two Important Concepts

Considering sustainability vs. sustainable development is essential to understanding these two crucial concepts. This understanding plays a critical role in helping solve some of the challenges in the world today, such as extreme weather, poverty, climate change, armed conflicts, and inequity across society.

Sustainability and sustainable development also play a central role in business, across industries and in almost every field. Trends suggest consumers prefer to buy products from companies that subscribe to the pillars of sustainability and sustainable development. According to Barron’s, a brand’s sustainability is a deciding factor for 70% of U.S. consumers.

Students interested in exploring an education and career in sustainability can benefit from examining the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development to gain an understanding of how they intertwine and where they differ.

Two persons discussing about a sustainability project.

Definitions: Sustainability vs. Sustainable Development

Sustainability and sustainable development are often used interchangeably. Both speak to the danger of consuming resources faster than they can be replenished. However, a close look at sustainability vs. sustainable development reveals nuances that differentiate them.

Sustainability is a broad term that describes managing resources without depleting them for future generations. This concept goes beyond environmental sustainability, which concerns earth’s natural resources, to include economic and social sustainability, which relate to meeting people’s current economic and social needs without compromising future generations.

Sustainable development describes the processes for improving long-term economic well-being and quality of life without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

Individuals with a comprehensive understanding of these two essential concepts can help support society’s current needs and plan for the future. Professionals in the sustainability field can use their knowledge to help organizations integrate the principles of sustainability and sustainable development into their operations. They can also guide government and business leaders in developing sustainability goals, defining sustainability success, and assessing the effects of their decisions. Their actions can make an impact on equity, responsibility, and social justice.

The Pillars of Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Sustainability encompasses three pillars: economic, environmental, and social, also represented as profits, planet, and people.

  • Economic/profits 一 This pillar centers on the idea of an efficient and responsible use of resources that leads to long-term profitability. In business, profitability can equal longevity. In other words, transitioning to a sustainable business can improve a company’s chances of operating over the long term.
  • Environmental/planet 一 In business, reducing carbon footprints, waste, and water usage while maximizing energy efficiency can provide both environmental and financial benefits, and shows responsiveness to community opinion. According to Pew Research, 63% of Americans believe that climate change affects their local community.
  • Social/people 一 The social pillar of sustainability focuses on the interrelationship of systems and processes that support the creation of healthy and livable communities that can sustain themselves. In business, social sustainability initiatives often include promoting fair labor practices and wages; employee health, safety, wellness, and work-life balance; and diversity and equity.

The pillars of sustainability are often visualized as a Venn diagram, where the three pillars, represented as a circle, intersect to share a common center 一 the area of sustainability. This visual illustrates that sustainability can only be achieved when all three pillars are addressed together.

Integrating sustainability and sustainable development is fundamental to designing effective short- and long-term strategies. Sustainability professionals can apply their understanding of these pillars to specific issues, such as problems related to climate change or biodiversity. They can also help organizations align themselves with the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs), 17 interconnected goals focused on creating a more sustainable future for all.

Challenges to Sustainable Development

Sustainable development relies on the different pieces of the puzzle working together. The misconception that sustainability is only about protecting the planet endangers our collective effort to achieve the SDGs. Sustainable development goals include eliminating poverty, ending hunger, providing good health and education, achieving gender equality, reducing inequality, and promoting economic development.

The U.N.’s SDGs provide a path forward, but buying into the global vision requires participation from all sectors of society. Without collaboration on working toward the shared vision of sustainable development, progress is slow and piecemeal. Governments that fail to enact coherent policies around sustainable development put their own populations at risk. Those governments that do participate need partners from other governments and businesses to overcome roadblocks and streamline the implementation of sustainability and sustainable development strategies.

Those in sustainability roles can use their leadership, critical thinking, and negotiation skills to help organizations and communities mitigate the effects of these challenges.

Become a Sustainable Leader

Globalization and digitization have played a central role in improving lives around the world since 1990. An estimated 1.1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty, according to the World Economic Forum. The New Climate Economy reports that the economic benefit of sustainability could measure in the trillions of dollars by 2030. How can we continue to improve life for all?

Sustainability professionals can use their interdisciplinary knowledge to help organizations, governments, and businesses adopt sustainable practices. They can help set the stage for a cleaner environment, healthier communities, the smarter use of resources, higher profits, and more equitable societies. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability program can help you play a pivotal role in creating a more sustainable future.

Recommended Reading

Careers in Sustainability with a Bachelor of Science Degree

What Is a Degree in Sustainability?

Careers in Urban Planning: Sustainability in Action


Barron’s, “Two-Thirds of North Americans Prefer Eco-Friendly Brands, Study Finds”

Cogent Social Sciences, “Sustainable Development: Meaning, History, Principles, Pillars, and Implications for Human Action: Literature Review”

Earth System Governance, “Governance for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: How Important Are Participation, Policy Coherence, Reflexivity, Adaptation and Democratic Institutions?”

International Institute for Sustainable Development, Sustainable Development

International Society of Sustainability Professionals, Our Mission

Investopedia, “The 3 Pillars of Corporate Sustainability”

Investopedia, “What Is Sustainability?”

The New Climate Economy, “The 2018 Report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate”

Pew Research Center, “Most Americans Say Climate Change Affects Their Local Community, Including 70% Living Near Coast”

ScienceDirect, Sustainable Development

United Nations, The 17 Goals

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Sustainable Development

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, “Overcoming Inequalities in the Context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Learn About Sustainability

World Economic Forum, “Fairer Economies: What Are the Challenges in Making Economies More Sustainable?”

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