Meaning of Sustainability (Plus What You Can Do!)

Photo by Iva Rajović on Unsplash

What is the Meaning of Sustainability?

One of the more talked about concepts these days: sustainability.

If you’ve tuned in to Netflix, you hear it on documentaries like Seaspiracy. Be on social media for a few days, and you’ll read about it. And if you’ve reflected about the most recent natural events that have unfolded – i.e., wildfires, floods, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic – many of these issues could easily relate to sustainability.

Sustainability means maintaining wellbeing over a very long or even indefinite period. It’s a whole system. We are part of it, our societal culture is a part of it, and our planet is a part of it.

Of course, while it’s very much related to the environment, sustainability isn’t only about being green. But it’s a component that cannot be separated from the whole concept.

For instance, have you ever wondered how much natural resources do we use every day? Maybe you’ve taken a bath, drank coffee, worn your favorite cotton shirt, and have been glued to your phone made of precious metals inside.

That morning routine alone uses a significant number of resources.

Sure, they may not cost you much. But in the grand scheme of things, many of these resources are being depleted faster than restored.

Sustainability is a balance between enjoying comfortable life and protecting the resources so future generations can enjoy them.

Let’s first look more closely into how this concept came about and see what steps we can take to put it into practice in our day-to-day lives.

A Deeper Dive into Sustainability

One definition of sustainability is that it is a holistic approach that involves three equally important facets: ecological, social, and economic dimensions - and considers a balance in all three as crucial to achieving lasting prosperity. It’s a form of intergenerational ethics where we, as the current generation, create environmental and economic actions that do not diminish the opportunities of future people.

Sounds daunting, yes. And, well, it is.

Especially when there are already people now who can’t enjoy what they are supposed to in terms of wealth and welfare.

If you’re the pessimistic type, you’ll be tempted to go, “How can we even think about the next generation when we can’t even solve our own problems?”

But this is exactly what sustainability tries to address.

Through real, sustainable actions, we can strike a balance between satisfying our wellbeing and at the same time preserving irreplaceable natural resources for future generations.

So, when did people start thinking about the definition of sustainability anyway?

Contrary to what many of us might think, the concept wasn’t rooted in environmental study. It’s a recent economic concept.

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defined it in their 1987 report entitled, Our Common Future. This is now commonly known as the Brundtland Report, after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the chairperson who adopted the idea.

The UN tapped Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister, to create a plan to address poverty. Even though industrialization had been happening across countries, there was still extreme poverty in developing countries.

Brundtland and her colleagues posed the question of, “How can the aspirations for a better life be reconciled with limited natural resources?”

And the agreed-upon answer is sustainability. In the Commission’s words, sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Source: McGill University

Essentially, it is a holistic approach that unifies the world’s economic, environmental, and social concerns. There are three main types of sustainability:

  • Economic Sustainability – communities across the globe can have access to essential resources. People can maintain their independence to strive for a financially sound life.
  • Environmental Sustainability – ecological integrity remains even if natural resources are being used. People consume at a rate where natural resources can replenish.
  • Social Sustainability – universal human rights and necessities are attainable by all people. Communities are led by just leaders who ensure personal, labor, and cultural rights are respected.

It’s all about balancing what we can do to move forward economically while ensuring that resources are distributed and used reasonably.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

In the ideal sense, sustainability is about restoring all the resources that we use up while ensuring that developing countries have the same opportunities to prosper as developed countries.

However, there are still many threats to sustainability. Political corruption, social inequality, and climate change issues are still threatening us. We are still in the process of learning which type of activities or practices is genuinely sustainable. Some activities (e.g. nuclear power; organic farming) are still up for debate.

Meaning of Sustainability Translated to Everyday

So, what can be done?

There are growing hurdles, but there are also solutions. While it’s tempting to blame it on political and economic systems, we’re still part of the whole system. The best thing we as individuals can do is get informed. We’ve talked about the myths surrounding sustainability.

Based on what we’ve learned, sustainable living describes a lifestyle that minimizes the use of natural resources and considers the social impact of a product or activity.

It’s a more conscious approach to our lifestyle and consumption.

Take note; this is not about pushing any agenda.

We know that there’s no one right way to practice sustainability. It’s a nuanced journey; there are different strategies that we could focus on.

But that’s the beauty in it! We’re not forced to just one plan; one strategy; one route.

As long as we know what sustainable development looks like, we’re then equipped to weigh which practices we could adopt.

Here are some impactful, sustainable practices, and how we as individuals can make a difference:

Renewable Energy

The biggest elephant in the room – how to stop using fossil fuels. These non-renewable fuels, which include coal, oil, and natural gas, make up around 80% of energy consumed worldwide.

Why are they so bad? Well, first off, they are a non-renewable resource. If we don’t focus on going independent from fossil fuels, eventually there’ll be none left. Their extraction pretty much destroys our natural land as well.

And perhaps the biggest harm in fossil fuels is that when they are burned, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We know that these gases trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change.

There’s a lot of movement now to shift to renewable energy sources. Ideas for sustainable living involve alternatives. Solar power is a lot more common (and affordable now) compared to decades ago. Wind, water, geothermal, biomass energy all provide potential. Even algae is being tested as vehicle fuel.

However, these alternatives are still at a much smaller scale compared to the abundance and affordability of fossil fuel.

Canada fares better in terms of using renewable energy than the United States. Renewable sources like hydroelectricity, wind, and bioenergy provide 18.9% of the country’s primary energy supply. This is a bit higher than the U.S., which derives only 11% of their energy from renewable sources.

What you can do: First, you could research if there are any renewable energy providers in your area. If your city has an alternative, make the switch. This doesn’t need to be limited to your home; even your workplace might be encouraged to make the switch.


Regenerative Farming

We humans are now at over 7 billion. And what do we need in common? Food!

Unfortunately, agriculture is another huge factor that depletes resources and emits greenhouse gases. In fact, 10% of U.S.’ emissions during 2019 were from agri-related activities like livestock, rice production, etc.

Regenerative farming is one viable solution if we want to promote sustainable communities. Varied techniques are involved, but basically the ideal practices include: little to no-tillage; placing cover crops to prevent erosion; rotating crops; using compost to improve soil health; sequestering carbon, and reducing fertilizers and pesticides (which are greenhouse gas intensive).

What about organic farming?

It’s very popular right now. According to USDA, there’s a 12% average increase in organic farmers per year. In Europe as well, around 2.2% of agricultural land is used for organic farming.

It’s dominating the health conscious market, but is it actually sustainable? While some supporters view it as practically synonymous to sustainable farming, there are still some experts who aren’t convinced.

According to, organic farming may even contribute more to global warming! Because it doesn’t use fertilizers, organic farming usually requires more land to produce the yield that conventional farming could provide. This could lead to deforestation in other parts of the world to compensate for the required yield.

Further, there’s a risk of contamination (e.g. E.coli) in using organic manures if the farmer completely passes on fertilizers.

In short, the jury’s still out whether organic farming is truly sustainable.

What you can do: Organic doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet and us. Keep this in mind when you see ‘organic’ stamped on labels. Instead of looking for organic, try to check if the produce is farmed using regenerative methods. Check with local farmers markets or online sellers. If you’re able to afford the extra cost, support them. This will help bring down the cost eventually.


Plant-rich Diet

What does sustainable food mean? Regardless of farming techniques, it’s still pretty clear that consumption of animal products, specifically beef and milk products, are less sustainable than crops.

Livestock requires substantially more for its activities. Feed production, breeding, fertilizer use, water consumption, and energy use for operations. These all use a massive number of resources – considerably more than crops.

UCLA explains that if every person in the U.S. goes meat- and dairy-free just one or a few days a week, we could offset thousands of tons of carbon emissions. Livestock emissions equal that of the entire transport sector! That’s how impactful the move could be.

What you can do: If you can, go for a more plant-heavy diet. You don’t have to go completely vegan to support the sustainable philosophy. We know that not everyone could thrive on a vegan diet due to certain health conditions or personal preferences. Trust us, we love our steak too. If you’re one of these folks, maybe just consider eating less animal products? Even going once a week with that Meatless Mondays thing will have a big bearing over time.


Food Waste

And while we’re on the subject of food, there’s another issue to it that creates big challenges for our economy and environment: food waste.

Food waste is edible food that’s thrown away for whatever reason. Not only does this waste money, food waste releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2.

How distasteful is the food waste problem?

Food is the single largest material dumped in our municipal landfills. The FDA reports that food waste makes 30-40% of the total food supply! Shockingly insane when there are so many food insecure families and communities, even in developed countries.

According to Project Drawdown, a global nonprofit focused on climate solutions, food waste is the 3rd most impactful solution to cutting carbon footprint.

What you can do: Food waste occurs in businesses and in homes. The good thing is it’s easily preventable. Best practices include improving inventory of perishable supplies, keeping dishes simple, and reducing impact of transport and packaging. Knowing its impact, we can then create small but meaningful changes in our households to curb food waste.

Efficient (and Reduced) Transportation

In EPA’s stats, transportation creates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not surprising, as millions of cars, trucks, planes, ship,s and trains are traveling daily. Around 29% of total emissions in the U.S. for instance, are from our modes of transport. This is in large part because most vehicles use petroleum products.

But the sustainability issue doesn’t just impact the environment. The World Bank reports that the transport industry is off-track regarding things like universal access, safety, efficiency, and of course, green mobility.

What you can do: Sustainable transport means optimizing it – at the industrial and individual level. Businesses must prioritize efficient and safe deliveries with well-maintained vehicles. Individuals must minimize single-car use.

And if possible, we should opt for more sustainably sound options like hybrid cars, mass-transport and non-powered modes of travel (e.g. cycling).

Sustainable Living: The Takeaway

The meaning of sustainability is multi-faceted; it can vary depending on culture, approach, and economic standing. Whatever the lens is, sustainability’s persisting philosophy is that it examines how economies, societal rights and cultures, and our natural environment could thrive now and in the future.

Governments and big organizations indeed play a significant role in making it happen (or not). But as we highlighted, we common folk can also do a lot to shift to a more sustainable lifestyle.

We, the people of today, must create solutions and adapt.

What is the meaning of sustainability for you? In what way do you practice sustainability? We’d like to hear your ideas and experiences.

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