Understanding sustainability

Questions about understanding economic, environmental, and social sustainability, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and who to contact at the University.

Back to: Sustainability

What is sustainability?

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Simply defined, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of wellbeing, which in turn depends on the wellbeing of the natural world and the responsible use of natural resources. Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Therefore, to sustain life on Earth we must use our resources in a manner that allows us to thrive without infringing on the ability of future generations to do the same. This entails acting in a manner that promotes economic vitality, environmental conservation, and social equality.

Sustainability is often broken into three main pillars: economic, environmental, and social.

  • Economic sustainability includes sustainable industry and innovation, job creation, profitability, and proper accounting of ecosystem services for optimal cost-benefit analyses.
  • Environmental sustainability focuses on the well-being of our environment, including water quality, air quality, sustainable land and resource management and reduction of carbon emissions.
  • includes environmental justice, human health and wellbeing, equality and diversity, resource security, sustainable communities and education, etc.

To be truly sustainable, the three pillars should work in connection with one another and be balanced.

A great way to understand sustainability is to familiarise yourself with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Is sustainability just about the environment?

While it is true that current CO2 emission levels are not sustainable if we want to maintain a liveable climate, sustainability is not only about this. The definition is much wider and covers all human activity. We need a sustainable climate, but we also need a sustainable economy and sustainable political systems in order to achieve overall sustainability. 

Sustainability is made up of three pillars: the economy, society, and the environment. 

The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  

The Sustainable Development Goals form the framework for improving the lives of populations around the world and mitigating the hazardous man-made effects of climate change.  

What is social sustainability?

Social sustainability should not be overlooked and is just as important as environmental or economic aspects of sustainability.

The UN states 'Social sustainability is about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people. The quality of a company's relationships and engagement with its stakeholders is critical.'

The first six UN SDG's focus on the social dimension of corporate sustainability, of which human rights is the cornerstone. Social sustainability also covers the human rights of specific groups: labour, women's empowerment and gender equality, children, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, as well as people-centered approaches to business impacts on poverty. As well as covering groups of rights holders, social sustainability encompasses issues that affecting them, for example, education and health.

What are the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)?

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They provide a framework to address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.  In 2020, the University formalised its commitment to the SDGs by signing the global higher education sector’s SDG Accord in partnership with the Liverpool Guild of Students. In signing the SDG Accord the University has pledged to put the UN SDGs at the heart of all of its activities.

Who can I contact with questions concerning sustainability?

You can contact the Sustainability Team by emailing sustainability@liverpool.ac.uk or click here for a full list of contacts.