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Sustainability: Sustainability

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is a complex concept, subject to different interpretations and modifications throughout time. Sustainability was originally associated with the preservation of ecological systems. This appreciation of the importance of the environment, its vulnerability and limited capacity, is still a key pillar of the contemporary notion of sustainability, which has otherwise expanded.

Nowadays, sustainability is generally linked to sustainable development, which was famously defined in the Brundtland Report as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The report advocated sustainable development to address not only environmental problems, but also social justice and poverty.

Thus, sustainability can be understood as using resources in a considerate way, without compromising the ability of nature to replenish itself, and in an equitable way, so that everyone has a fair share.

Photo credit: Eleri Kyffin

What is your definition of sustainability?

Sustainability is a complex concept in constant evolution. What is your definition of sustainability? What do you think key features of sustainability are? Present your definition on this Padlet and compare with the definitions given by other visitors!

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a turning point in the global approach to sustainability, entrenching a commitment of all states to promote sustainable development. The Goals were set out in 2015 in a United Nations General Assembly resolution, supported by all member states, aimed at providing "a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future" (DSDG, no date). There are 17 SDG, to be achieved by 2030. 

The 17 SDGs are:

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequality
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life On Land
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

Thus, the SDGs cover the three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. This is captured in the following representation of the SDGs: 

Image credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University (CC BY 4.0)

Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) (no date). Sustainable Development Goals, DSDG. Available from [Accessed 12 May 2022].

United Nations General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution A/RES/70/1.  Available from [Accessed: 14 July 2022].

Brief History of Sustainability


Sustainability, as preservation of ecological systems, is rooted in pre-industrial agricultural societies, which had to live in harmony with the land, avoiding over-exploitation. A failure to use natural resources sustainably would create an ecological crisis and consequent loss of livelihoods.

The first sustainability laws were created in the Late Middle Ages to deal with the ecological crisis of the almost complete deforestation of Europe. These laws, issued by local townships and principalities, promoted re-forestation and also took into consideration the needs of future generations (Bosselmann, 2016).

Photo credit: Eleri Kyffin

Industrial civilisation and detachment from sustainability 

The modern industrial civilisation arguably departed from sustainability, favouring resource-intensive, short-term orientation, and absolute property rights. Such attitude has created multiple ecological crises (e.g. climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution).

Unlike the environmental crises occurred in the past, the recent crises cannot be dealt with at the local level exclusively. Due to globalisation, and the global consequences of practices that damage the environment, global action is needed.

Photo credit: John Cobb/Shutterstock, CC BY

The new era of sustainability 

In the last 50 years, sustainability has been gaining increasing recognition in world politics and international law. The Brundtland Report, released in 1984, marked a pivotal moment, defining sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and advocating for it to deal not only with environmental problems but also with social justice and poverty.

Since then, the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been subject to extensive study and theorisation, and have inspired new commitments and policies around the world. In terms of study and theorisation, it is important to point out that it is generally agreed that sustainability is not a purely ecological/environmental matter, but a multidimensional goal for societies which needs to be implemented in three areas: environmental, economic and social. In terms of commitments and policies, the SDGs represent a turning point in the global approach to sustainability. 

Photo credit: "Sustainable Edition" by Scoobyfoo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Bosselmann, K., (2017). The principle of sustainability. London: Routledge. 

Why Do We Need to Care About Sustainability?

Why do we need to care about sustainability? 

As sustainability entails using resources in a considerate way, without compromising the ability of nature to replenish itself, and in an equitable way, so that everyone has a fair share, we believe that sustainability should be a key concern guiding our individual and collective action.  

Do individuals and non-state actors also have a role in fulfilling the SDGs? 

The SDGs originate from a commitment among states. Do we have a role in fulfilling them too? Yes. Within the SDGs framework, there is scope for individuals to act for sustainability in two main areas (Vialta, Betts and Gomez, 2018): 

  1. All of us can contribute to influence countries to take the right decisions to achieve the goals.
  2. And all our individual decisions have an impact on sustainability. 

What is the role of students and staff in universities?

There are four main areas where universities can contribute to the SDGs: research, education, operations & governance, and external leadership (SDSN, 2017, p10).

  1. Universities must include the concept of RRI in all their research activities, support research on topics that address the SDGs, support social entrepreneurs, and support capacity building and science for and with society.
  2. Education needs to be meaningful and address sustainable development; universities can include sustainable development within their curricula and methodologies, foster necessary capabilities and skills, promote humanistic values, evaluate students in sustainability, develop courses aimed at teaching global awareness, and include online and lifelong learning opportunities.
  3. University governance structures should be in line with the principles of sustainability, and all actions within the university should be directed towards the sustainable goals: green campuses, campaigns on recycling and energy and water waste, ensuring gender equality, etc.
  4. Universities should advocate for sustainable development, provide opportunities for inter-stakeholder dialogues and actions as well as developing joint courses and programmes or research groups with other institutions in topics related to sustainable development and the promotion of capacity building.

What's the position of the University of Westminster?

Sustainable Development is one of the University of Westminster's top three priorities within the Being Westminster Strategy (together with wellbeing and inclusion). According to the strategy: "We take inspiration from the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in how we drive our actions, activities and governance across our University, in line with our progressive, responsible and compassionate values. As a community, we bring together our collective energies to play our part in addressing the climate crisis and inequalities to enable a more sustainable and socially just world."

Vilalta, J.M., Betts, A., Gomez, V., (2018). Higher Education’s Role in the 2030 Agenda: The Why and How of GUNi’s Commitment to the SDGs. In: Vilalta, J.M., Betts, A., Gomez, V., eds. Sustainable Development Goals: Actors and Implementation A Report from the International Conference, GUNi 2018. Barcelona, Spain. 18-19 September 2017. Barcelona: GUNi 10-14.Available from [Accessed 12 July 2022].

SSDN (2017). Getting Started with the SDGs in Universities, SSDN. Available from [Accessed 12 July 2022].

Critical Perspectives

While the general concept of sustainability is seldom disputed, its practical application, especially as sustainable development and SDGs, is critiqued from different perspectives. Such views often carry ethical and practical insights that need to be considered. Some of the main critiques are summarised below.   

Development and growth cannot be sustainable. 

Some critics argue that "sustainable development" may be an oxymoron and impossible to achieve (Spaiser et al, 2017; Verner, 2020). It is also pointed out that the Brundtland's definition of sustainable development presupposes that the needs of the present be met, but this, in fact, is not happening. Those who do not subscribe to the notion of sustainable development see a predicament: shall we aspire to more restraint or more growth?

According to the limits to growth theory, environmental sustainability should have priority over development and growth: the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion need to be reduced substantially to avoid eventual civilisation collapse (Meadows et al, 1972; Turner, 2008; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2013). Indeed, it has been observed that consumer societies are socially and ecologically self-destructive (Blühdorn, 2017).

On the other hand, Williams argues that development and growth should have priority over sustainability which he dubs as a "malign philosophy of misanthropy, low aspirations and restraint". He therefore calls to abandon sustainability in favour of a "reinstatement of the notions of development, progress, experimentation and ambition" (Williams, 2008, p13). As, adjusted for the purchasing power in each country, 85% of the world population live on less than $30 per day, it has been estimated that "a five-fold increase is a minimum estimate of the economic growth that is necessary to reduce global poverty substantially" (Roser, 2021) . 

The environmental dimension of sustainability does not make justice of nature and our role within it. 

Dawe and Ryan are unsatisfied with the "three-legged-stool model" as "with this model, humanity is once again placed outside the environment... this model fails to encourage us to recognize our place within the biosphere. Worse, it suggests that if we can only find an equal balance between our economic needs, our social well-being, and the environment, we can simply continue to tread our current path, business as usual" (Dawe and Ryan, 2003). Taking a step further, Monbiot writes beautifully that the concept of environment is reductionist and does not suffice to describe life's wonders (Monbiot, 2017).

The social dimension of sustainability is not given due weight

There is little consensus on what the social dimension of sustainability really entails, and this dimension has generally been neglected (Janker and Mann, 2020; Casula Vifell and Soneryd, 2012; Colantonio, 2009).

Sustainability masks and neuters complex issues. 

There is concern that sustainability is a mantra used uncritically and pre-empting moral discussion (Williams, 2008; Newton and Freyfogle, 2005). The sustainability model tends to gloss over important trade-offs within sustainable development. For example, in developed countries, should we buy local (reducing food miles) or import from developing countries (supporting the poor who earn their living from agriculture)(Chi, MacGregor and King, 2009; Berg 2020)? 

Being vague, sustainability is difficult to measure and put in practice (Phillis and Andriantiatsaholiniaina, 2001). Such malleability is used by corporations in their "greenwashing" PR campaign, that is, disguising poor environmental performance with positive communication about environmental performance (Delmas and Burbano 2011, p65; de Freiras Netto et al, 2020). Sustainability can be even manipulated into "corporate oxymorons" such as sustainable mining (Benson and Kirsch, 2010). In fact, how green is it to produce and and consume sustainable products? Should we not simply aim to reduce consumption (Kepner and Cole, 2013; )? 

On the other hand, the quantification of the SDGs through indicators has been criticised as selective and reductionist, considering that much cannot be quantified (Balil Swain, 2018; Mair et al, 2018). Numbers do not present the "stories behind the data" (Cheney, 2018).

What we make of this

Sustainability is a complex, multidimensional concept. Like all aspirations, its realisation is not devoid of challenges, conflicts, dilemmas and trade-offs. We should not sweep these problems under the carpet, espousing a dogmatic notion of sustainability. We believe that sustainability should be a key factor influencing our decisions, and such decisions should take into consideration environmental, economic, social, ethical, cultural and historical issues. In fact, we believe that this is the spirit of sustainability - to consider such different dimensions and consequences of our actions. 


Benson, P. and Kirsch, S. (2010) “Corporate oxymorons,” Dialectical anthropology, 34(1), pp. 45–48. Available at:

Berg, C. (2020). Sustainable ActionOvercoming The Barriers. Routledge.

Blühdorn (2017). "Post-capitalism, post-growth, post-consumerism? Eco-political hopes beyond sustainability"Global Discourse, 7(1), 42–61.

Delmas, M., and Burbano, V. (2011). The drivers of greenwashing. Calif Manag Rev 54(1):64–87

Vifell, A.C and Soneryd, L. (2012). "Organizing Matters: How the 'Social Dimension' Gets Lost in Sustainability Projects." Sustainable Development 20(1), 18-27.

Cheney, C. (2018). The two big problems with SDG data. Devex, 27 September 2018. Available from [Accessed 19 July 2022]

Chi, K.R., MacGregor, L. and King, R (2009). Fair Miles: Recharting the food miles map. IIED/Oxfam.

Colantonio, Andrea (2009). Social sustainability: a review and critique of traditional versus emerging themes and assessment methods. In: Horner, M., Price, A., Bebbington, J. and Emmanuel, R., (eds.) Sue-Mot Conference 2009: Second International Conference on Whole Life Urban Sustainability and Its Assessment: Loughborough University, Loughborough, 865-885. 

Dawe, N.K., and Ryan, K.L. (2003). The Faulty Three-Legged-Stool Model of Sustainable Development. Conservation Biology, 17(5), 1458-1460. 

de Freitas Netto et al (2020)Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic reviewEnvironmental Sciences Europe, 32(19).

Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H. (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? In Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Available from 

Janker, J., Mann, S. Understanding the social dimension of sustainability in agriculture: a critical review of sustainability assessment tools. Environ Dev Sustain 22, 1671–1691 (2020).

Kepner, V.K., Cole, P.M. (2013). Green Consumerism: A Path to Sustainability?. In: Karagiannis, N., Marangos, J. (eds) Toward a Good Society in the Twenty-First Century. Perspectives from Social Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 

Mair S et al (2018). A Critical Review of the Role of Indicators in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. In: Leal Filho W (Ed.), Handbook of sustainability science and research. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham: 41-56.

Meadows, Donella H; Meadows, Dennis L; Randers, Jørgen; Behrens III, William W (1972). The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.  Retrieved 26 November 2017.

Monbiot, G.,2017. Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders,'the%20environment'%3A%20we,wonders%20%7C%20George%20Monbiot%20%7C%20The%20Guardian

Newton, Julianne Lutz, and Eric T. Freyfogle. 2005. “Sustainability: A Dissent” Conservation Biology 19, no. 1 (February): 23-32. Online: dissentt.pdf

Orr, D., 2003, Four Challenges of Sustainability,

Phillis, Yannis A. & Andriantiatsaholiniaina, Luc A., 2001. "Sustainability: an ill-defined concept and its assessment using fuzzy logic," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 37(3), pages 435-456, June.

Roser, M. (2021). How much economic growth is necessary to reduce global poverty substantially? Our World in Data, 15 March 2021. Available from

Spaiser, V., Ranganathan, S., Swain R.B and Sumpter D.J.T (2017). The sustainable development oxymoron: quantifying and modelling the incompatibility of sustainable development goals, International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 24(6), 457-470.

Swain, R.B. (2018). A Critical Analysis of the Sustainable Development Goals. In: Leal Filho, W. (eds) Handbook of Sustainability Science and Research. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham. 

Turner, G. (2008), A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, Global Environmental Change, 18(3), 397–411

Verner, P. (2020). SDG8 Is Sustainable Economic Growth an Oxymoron? Responsible Investor, 7 October 2020, Available from

Vucetich, John A., and Michael P. Nelson. 2010. “Sustainability: Virtuous or Vulgar?” Bioscience 60, no. 7 (July/August): 539-44. Online:

Wicker, A. (2017). Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world. Quartz, 1 March 2017. 

Wynen, Els; Vanzetti, David. 2008. No Through Road: The Limitations of Food Miles. © Asian Development Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

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