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The three pillars of sustainability – made simple

Windmills generating electricity.

What are the three pillars of sustainability and why are these important? In this article I explain exactly this, so keep scrolling to learn all about the three pillars of sustainability and what these actually mean…

The three pillars of sustainability – what you should know

It is said that there are three pillars of sustainability – in the course of this article, I’ll dive into each of the three and explore what they mean (and how they connect) in a simple way that makes sense.
Sustainability is a huge buzzword right now, and rightly so; the planet has suffered some immense damage at the hands of the human population over the years, and governments and activists across the globe are desperately trying to reverse this as well as prevent future damage. This is why education into sustainability is so important! But it’s not just about the planet – which is what the three pillars of sustainability show.

What is meant by the three pillars of sustainability?

When people refer to the three pillars of sustainability, they are talking about a diagrammatical theory which suggests and represents three different pillars (or parts) of sustainability.

It isn’t clear who first conceptualised the trio of pillars themselves in this way; this research by Purvis, Mao and Robinson dives further into the origins of the three pillars. They found ‘that there is no single point of origin of this three-pillar conception, but rather a gradual emergence from various critiques in the early academic literature of the economic status quo from both social and ecological perspectives on the one hand, and the quest to reconcile economic growth as a solution to social and ecological problems on the part of the United Nations on the other’.

They go on to say that ‘one problematic facet of this conceptualisation, however, is its lack of theoretical development; there appears to be no original urtext from which it derives, seemingly just appearing in the literature and commonly taken at face value’. So although we don’t actually know for sure where the three pillars originally came from, it is clear that they are widely accepted across the fields of science, economics, sociology and more.

The three pillars of sustainability are labelled as:

  • Social equity
  • Economic viability
  • Environmental protection

They are sometimes simplified further as ‘social, economic, and environment’ – or as ‘people, profit and planet’.

As you can see, the concept of sustainability extends far beyond just the environment – which is what a lot of peoples’ minds spring to when they hear the word. This particular concept extends beyond that, and you’ll find out why as we examine each of the three pillars of sustainability further.

What is social equity?

The first of the three pillars of sustainability is social equity. Otherwise referred to as ‘people’ or simply ‘social’, this refers to anything that promotes a sustainable and safe society that serves people and communities. This includes policies, initiatives and planning that aim to fight or erase poverty, increase the quality of living, aid social justice and community development, promote diversity, provide access to education and healthcare, and improve the sustainability of culture and heritage.

Of course, these things are often linked to the economic and ecological side of sustainability. But social equity is all about ensuring that people across the globe can live and thrive in societies which meet their basic needs and beyond. A big part of social sustainability is human rights, and it can generally be labelled as quality of life. Sustaining a world in which people are safe and happy is so important.

Let’s look further into some of the examples which fall under this particular pillar of sustainability – and how they might be connected with the other pillars…

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