The Environmental, Economic, and Social Components of Sustainability

Updated on April 24, 2018
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Chris is a registered professional civil engineer and has worked on a more than 300 public and private projects over the last decade.


It seems like every other day we hear someone talk about sustainability. Sustainability can be broadly defined as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. When it comes to describing sustainability in our world, we need to be concerned about three main areas of influence. There are three interconnected spheres of sustainability that describe the relationships between the environmental, economic, and social aspects of our world. These spheres are a related set of concepts that, when taken together, can form a solid ground from which major decisions and actions can be made. Examples of such decisions could include land use planning, surface water management, building design and construction, and even law making. When the concepts contained in the three spheres of sustainability are applied to real world situations, everybody wins. Natural resources are preserved, the environment is protected, the economy isn't harmed, and the quality of life for our people is improved or maintained. Below is a diagram showing the three spheres and how they are related.

The Three Spheres of Sustainability (Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Others)
The Three Spheres of Sustainability (Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Others) | Source

Basically what this is saying is that nearly everything we do or plan to do, has an effect on the sustainability of the human race.

Environmental Sustainability

In a truly sustainable environment, an ecosystem would maintain populations, biodiversity, and overall functionality over an extended period of time. Ideally, decisions that are made should promote equilibrium within our natural systems and seek to encourage positive growth. Unnecessary disturbances to the environment should be avoided whenever possible. If there is a disturbance, it should be mitigated to the maximum practicable extent. When decisions are made, one part of the discussion should always be the environmental impacts of the proposed outcome or result.

There are several items that are directly related to environmental sustainability. One of the concepts that is of the utmost importance is the proper management of our natural resources. Using the Z-squared approach to sustainability, we can minimize our impacts to the environment. In some cases we can even promote habitat restoration and preservation as means to negotiate a successful solution to a problem.

Economic Sustainability is a balancing act.  Profitability and cost of a decision must be balanced with the environmental and social impacts of its results.
Economic Sustainability is a balancing act. Profitability and cost of a decision must be balanced with the environmental and social impacts of its results.

Economic Sustainability

Similar to environmental sustainability, economic sustainability involves creating economic value out of whatever project or decision you are undertaking. Economic sustainability means that decisions are made in the most equitable and fiscally sound way possible while considering the other aspects of sustainability. In most cases, projects and decisions must be made with the long term benefits in mind (rather than just the short term benefits). Keep in mind that when only the economic aspects of something are considered, it may not necessarily promote true sustainability.

For many people in the business world, economic sustainability or growth their main focal point. On the large scale (globally or even locally), this narrow-minded approach to management of a business can ultimately lead to unsatisfactory results. However, when good business practices are combined with the social and environmental aspects of sustainability, you can still have a positive result that is for the greater good of humanity.

There are several key ideas that make up economic sustainability. For example, governments should look to promoting "smart growth" through no-nonsense land use planning and subsidies or tax breaks for green development. Strong financial support for universities, education programs, and research & development is an important part of economic sustainability as well. In addition to this, an emphasis should also be placed on other areas such as reducing unnecessary spending and cutting red tape.

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability is based on the concept that a decision or project promotes the betterment of society. In general, future generations should have the same or greater quality of life benefits as the current generation do. This concept also encompasses many things such as human rights, environmental law, and public involvement & participation. Failing to put emphasis on the social part of decision or action can result in the slow collapse of the spheres of sustainability (and society as well).

One great example of social sustainability is the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972 (and amendments in 1977) and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Overall, these sets of laws were great pieces of legislation that set minimum water quality standards for both surface and drinking water. This had the effect of positively promoting the health and well-being of everyone in America. The clean water act also served to protect our nation's water supply by making it essentially illegal to discharge pollutants in adjacent rivers, lakes, and streams. This period of time in our nation also saw many other improvements in our environmental laws. All of these laws (and other factors as well) lead to the overall betterment of society for Americans. The graph below illustrates the correlation between the passing of this kind of legislation and the average life expectancy for citizens of the United States.

Most of the important health and environmental laws were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Backup data compiled from various sources.
Most of the important health and environmental laws were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Backup data compiled from various sources. | Source

It's interesting to point out here that there seems to be a correlation between when these important environmental laws were passed and the average life expectancy of Americans.

Final Thoughts

For many people, the main concern in their lives is their overall well being and quality of life. Think about how this relates to the economy and the environment. In a poor economy, people experience a poor quality of life. The same also holds true for a poor environment. In a poor environment, the impacts on quality of life are not always easily observable. However, it doesn't take a trained individual to see how things such as polluted stormwater runoff, over-development of floodplains, and the poor management of our scarce resources can have an affect on our everyday quality of life. The three spheres of sustainability encompass many concepts which explain how decisions and actions can have an impact on the overall sustainability of our world.


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    • profile image

      Ahmed 4 weeks ago

      A solution for both economic progress and open spaces

    • profile image

      frank 4 months ago

      Please, how do I cite this journal ?

    • profile image

      ravi kumar 10 months ago

      thanks for such a useful topic

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      Komakech Robert Agwot 12 months ago

      Great work! However, achieving sustainability agenda then public procurement need to be reformed so that it encompasses the sustainability component and SDGs. Short of that then our discussion will remain on paper. The reason is obvious! All what we use on a daily basis are items obtained through procurement and if they are procured without considering the social, environmental and economic impact then global warming, unemployment, poverty and high cost of living will remain the great threats to all developed and developing countries....

    • profile image

      angel 16 months ago

      this earth needs your help!!!!!...SO HELP!!!!!!!

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 3 years ago from Arizona

      Kristen Howe - Sustainability is certainly an important topic these days. Thanks for reading!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub on a fascinating hub topic subject matter. Very useful and informative with great information. I believe it's the way to go to pave our path to the future. Voted up!

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 4 years ago from Pune( India)


      topic that adds my knowledge. This is real global problem and in brief you produced solutions too.

      thank you sir

      pramod gokhale

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 6 years ago from Arizona

      Maralexa - Yes a sustainable mindset is needed in today's corporate and business world. Sustainability is the new business model that could ensure that everything we do is done in the best way possible for the long term. In a finite world with limited resources, there really isn't any other way. Thank you for reading!

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

      This article is well-written and extremely timely. Sustainability laws, policies, programs MUST be implemented not just by citizens and not just by countries, but by international organizations and megabusinesses.

      We can no longer allow large, private organizations to run rampant in countries and areas of the world where sustainability is not yet a key operating principle. In poor and developing countries large businesses must be held accountable for acting responsibly in their development and business activities.

      Thank you for excellent hub! You have motivated me further. Up and awesome, and you have a new follower.

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      BigDT 6 years ago

      This will be great for my Sustainability essay- thanks CWanamaker! Your the BEST!!!

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 6 years ago from Arizona

      MSantana - Thanks for reading! It's great to have someone wth your background corroborate my writing.

    • MSantana profile image

      MSantana 6 years ago from Madison Wisconsin

      You presented the science really well and clear. That is actually the area I work with. I don't right too much of that on hubpages. Great job! I especially like your final thoughts.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 6 years ago from Arizona

      HSchneider - Yeah, the time to start thinking about he big picture when it comes to decision making is now. Our population is growing faster than ever before. If our attitudes and decision making processes don't change, there won't be anything left for future generations to enjoy. People need to realize that everything we do in this world has an impact on sustainability.

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      Howard Schneider 6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent and well explained article CWanamaker. We need to utilize and integrate all 3 aspects to create the proper policies for sustained life in our country and planet. We can no longer continue not caring about the impact of our life choices. We in conjunction with our governments must develop proper sustained systems that no longer destroy our environment.