“Sustainable development can be defined as progress that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” – Brundtland Report, 1987.

Over the years, the definition of sustainable development has fluctuated and changed. Likewise, there is no set definition or even origin for the pillars of sustainability – they appear to have been slowly developed and changed by different academics over the years to define what sustainability and sustainable development means to them (1).

The pillars of sustainability are exactly that – columns that provide support to the very notion of sustainable development. If we visualise sustainable development as the roof of a building, the environment, economy, social inclusion, and culture are the structures that hold up that roof. Sustainable development cannot exist without these pillars, just as the pillars cannot exist without each other. 

This is reflected in the sustainable development goals, which cover a range of topics from poverty, equality, energy, climate action, as well as economic growth. They are intrinsically linked and provide support to each other, as well as to the ‘roof’. So, for example, if we were to have a balance between the social and environmental pillars, future development would be ‘bearable’ – as society would strive towards a greener future, as it is aware of the impact it can have on the earth’s resources. Social and economic balance would result in a future where society is ‘equitable’, and a high standard of living is available to everyone. Economic and environmental balance results in a ‘viable’ future. An economically sound future that also takes the environment into account would thereby result (2).

Once all three of these goals (bearable, equitable, and viable) are combined, we will have a fully sustainable future. Of course, this model does not take the cultural pillar into account, as it is a newer addition. But this does not mean that its role in the sustainable development model isn’t just as important as the other pillars.

Figure source: Sustainability X. Pie chart showing goals for sustainable development.

Environmental pillar

The individual pillars all cover different areas which are essentially as described. The environmental pillar focuses on the health of our environment and the humans that live in it by protecting the quality of air, water, ecosystems, and many other aspects. It is a particularly important and large pillar, encompassing the entire biosphere. It also stresses the importance of not living beyond our means — which is where overshoot day comes in. Overshoot day (the day beyond which we are living unsustainably, and undeniably beyond our means) is calculated using national footprint data. Not every country has an overshoot day — only those where citizens are living beyond their environmental and ecological means. With Ireland reaching its overshoot day in April of this year, recognising the importance of the environmental pillar is more essential than ever. 

Economic pillar

The economic pillar represents the production and distribution of goods and services, and good market practices for environmental health and sustainability (3). The economic pillar is important in that it maintains a certain standard of living, but it can create problems for the environmental pillar. However, as the importance of sustainability in businesses becomes more widely recognised, practices that serve both the economy and the environment are also becoming more common. An example is the development of new technologies that are both more environmentally friendly and cost efficient, such as the use of electric vehicles for public transport in China, which are cost saving and also result in much cleaner air quality (4).

Social pillar

The social pillar of sustainability refers to the need for the social wellbeing of a community to be sustainable in the long run. This can be enhanced by laws, and open communication around equality, human rights, and environmental justice (5). By improving the social wellbeing of a community, the environmental, economic and cultural wellbeing will also be improved. This improvement can be brought about by increasing accessibility to education around sustainability and environmental issues, which can then motivate the masses to demand more investment in sustainable technologies and other practices.

Culture pillar

Culture as a pillar of sustainability is a relatively more recent addition. However, it is already evident that it is just as essential for sustainable development as the other pillars (6). Without pride of place and a sense of cultural wellbeing, people see no need to preserve or protect their surrounding environment for future generations. As well as linking strongly with the environmental and social pillars, culture is also linked to the economic pillar — cultural tourism can generate revenue, which can then be used for research into a more sustainable future.  

It is clear that sustainability requires a working relationship between all four pillars. However, the required balance between the pillars is not always easily achieved. For example, working on the environmental pillar can negatively impact the economic pillar — and suddenly we find that the ‘roof’ of sustainable development is tilted, and in a precarious position. Implementing this balance is easier said than done, however, which partially explains why global sustainable development has not yet been achieved. Sometimes trade-offs must be made to benefit one pillar over the others.

Although it would be against the nature of most environmentalists and naturalists to risk the integrity of the environmental pillar in favour of the economic, social, or cultural one, a truly sustainable world is one that also has economic, social, and cultural justice. When it comes to the future of sustainable development, the entire world is in it together, for better or worse. 

By Eve Moore


  1. Purvis, B., Mao, Y. and Robinson, D., 2018. Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, 14(3), pp.681-695.
  2. Bascom, C., 2016. From Economic Growth To Sustainable Development. Sustainability X, [online] Available at: <https://www.sustainabilityx.co/post/from-economic-growth-to-sustainable-development> 
  3. myWaste. 2022. Understand the three pillars of sustainability – myWaste. [online] Available at: <https://meuresiduo.com/en/blog-en/understand-the-three-pillars-of-sustainability/> 
  4. Temboo. 2022. The Three Pillars of Sustainability. [online] Available at: https://blog.temboo.com/the-three-pillars-of-sustainability/
  5. Allen, L., 2021. What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?. Treehugger, [online] Available at: <https://www.treehugger.com/what-are-the-three-pillars-of-sustainability-5189295> 

Sabatini, F., 2019. Culture as Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development: Perspectives for Integration, Paradigms of Action. European Journal of Sustainable Development, 8(3), p.31.

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