Sustainable development domains

Sustainable development, or sustainability, has been described in terms of three spheres, dimensions, domains or pillars, i.e. the environment, the economy and society. The three-sphere framework was initially proposed by the economist René Passet in 1979. It has also been worded as "economic, environmental and social" or "ecology, economy and equity". This has been expanded by some authors to include a fourth pillar of culture, institutions or governance, or alternatively reconfigured as four domains of the social - ecology, economics, politics and culture, thus bringing economics back inside the social, and treating ecology as the intersection of the social and the natural.

Environmental (or ecological)

Relationship between ecological footprint and Human Development Index (HDI)

The ecological stability of human settlements is part of the relationship between humans and their natural, social and built environments. Also termed human ecology, this broadens the focus of sustainable development to include the domain of human health. Fundamental human needs such as the availability and quality of air, water, food and shelter are also the ecological foundations for sustainable development; addressing public health risk through investments in ecosystem services can be a powerful and transformative force for sustainable development which, in this sense, extends to all species.

Environmental sustainability concerns the natural environment and how it endures and remains diverse and productive. Since natural resources are derived from the environment, the state of air, water, and the climate are of particular concern. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report outlines current knowledge about scientific, technical and socio-economic information concerning climate change, and lists options for adaptation and mitigation. Environmental sustainability requires society to design activities to meet human needs while preserving the life support systems of the planet. This, for example, entails using water sustainably, utilizing renewable energy, and sustainable material supplies (e.g. harvesting wood from forests at a rate that maintains the biomass and biodiversity).

An unsustainable situation occurs when natural capital (the sum total of nature's resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. Inherently the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale should imply an increase in human death rate until population falls to what the degraded environment can support. If the degradation continues beyond a certain tipping point or critical threshold it would lead to eventual extinction for humanity.

Consumption of natural resources State of environment Sustainability
More than nature's ability to replenish Environmental degradation Not sustainable
Equal to nature's ability to replenish Environmental equilibrium Steady state economy
Less than nature's ability to replenish Environmental renewal Environmentally sustainable

Integral elements for a sustainable development are research and innovation activities. A telling example is the European environmental research and innovation policy, which aims at defining and implementing a transformative agenda to greening the economy and the society as a whole so to achieve a truly sustainable development. Research and innovation in Europe is financially supported by the programme Horizon 2020, which is also open to participation worldwide. A promising direction towards sustainable development is to design systems that are flexible and reversible.

Pollution of the public resources is really not a different action, it just is a reverse tragedy of the commons, in that instead of taking something out, something is put into the commons. When the costs of polluting the commons are not calculated into the cost of the items consumed, then it becomes only natural to pollute, as the cost of pollution is external to the cost of the goods produced and the cost of cleaning the waste before it is discharged exceeds the cost of releasing the waste directly into the commons. So, the only way to solve this problem is by protecting the ecology of the commons by making it, through taxes or fines, more costly to release the waste directly into the commons than would be the cost of cleaning the waste before discharge.

So, one can try to appeal to the ethics of the situation by doing the right thing as an individual, but in the absence of any direct consequences, the individual will tend to do what is best for the person and not what is best for the common good of the public. Once again, this issue needs to be addressed. Because, left unaddressed, the development of the commonly owned property will become impossible to achieve in a sustainable way. So, this topic is central to the understanding of creating a sustainable situation from the management of the public resources that are used for personal use.


Sustainable agriculture consists of environment friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to human or natural systems. It involves preventing adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity, surrounding or downstream resources—as well as to those working or living on the farm or in neighboring areas. The concept of sustainable agriculture extends intergenerationally, passing on a conserved or improved natural resource, biotic, and economic base rather than one which has been depleted or polluted. Elements of sustainable agriculture include permaculture, agroforestry, mixed farming, multiple cropping, and crop rotation. It involves agricultural methods that do not undermine the environment, smart farming technologies that enhance a quality environment for humans to thrive and reclaiming and transforming deserts into farmlands(Herman Daly, 2017).

Numerous sustainability standards and certification systems exist, including organic certification, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, Bird Friendly, and the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C).

Ecological economics

Man's economic system viewed as a subsystem of the global environment 

It has been suggested that because of rural poverty and overexploitation, environmental resources should be treated as important economic assets, called natural capital. Economic development has traditionally required a growth in the gross domestic product. This model of unlimited personal and GDP growth may be over. Sustainable development may involve improvements in the quality of life for many but may necessitate a decrease in resource consumption. According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation.

As early as the 1970s, the concept of sustainability was used to describe an economy "in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems". Scientists in many fields have highlighted The Limits to Growth, and economists have presented alternatives, for example a 'steady-state economy'; to address concerns over the impacts of expanding human development on the planet. In 1987 the economist Edward Barbier published the study The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development, where he recognised that goals of environmental conservation and economic development are not conflicting and can be reinforcing each other.

A World Bank study from 1999 concluded that based on the theory of genuine savings, policymakers have many possible interventions to increase sustainability, in macroeconomics or purely environmental. Several studies have noted that efficient policies for renewable energy and pollution are compatible with increasing human welfare, eventually reaching a golden-rule steady state.

The study, Interpreting Sustainability in Economic Terms, found three pillars of sustainable development, interlinkage, intergenerational equity, and dynamic efficiency.

But Gilbert Rist points out that the World Bank has twisted the notion of sustainable development to prove that economic development need not be deterred in the interest of preserving the ecosystem. He writes: "From this angle, 'sustainable development' looks like a cover-up operation. ... The thing that is meant to be sustained is really 'development', not the tolerance capacity of the ecosystem or of human societies."

The World Bank, a leading producer of environmental knowledge, continues to advocate the win-win prospects for economic growth and ecological stability even as its economists express their doubts. Herman Daly, an economist for the Bank from 1988 to 1994, writes:

When authors of WDR '92 [the highly influential 1992 World Development Report that featured the environment] were drafting the report, they called me asking for examples of "win-win" strategies in my work. What could I say? None exists in that pure form; there are trade-offs, not "win-wins." But they want to see a world of "win-wins" based on articles of faith, not fact. I wanted to contribute because WDRs are important in the Bank, [because] task managers read [them] to find philosophical justification for their latest round of projects. But they did not want to hear about how things really are, or what I find in my work..."

A meta review in 2002 looked at environmental and economic valuations and found a lack of "sustainability policies". A study in 2004 asked if we consume too much. A study concluded in 2007 that knowledge, manufactured and human capital (health and education) has not compensated for the degradation of natural capital in many parts of the world. It has been suggested that intergenerational equity can be incorporated into a sustainable development and decision making, as has become common in economic valuations of climate economics. A meta review in 2009 identified conditions for a strong case to act on climate change, and called for more work to fully account of the relevant economics and how it affects human welfare. According to free-market environmentalist John Baden "the improvement of environment quality depends on the market economy and the existence of legitimate and protected property rights". They enable the effective practice of personal responsibility and the development of mechanisms to protect the environment. The State can in this context "create conditions which encourage the people to save the environment".

Misum, Mistra Center for Sustainable Markets, based at Stockholm School of Economics, aims to provide policy research and advice to Swedish and international actors on Sustainable Markets. Misum is a cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder knowledge center dedicated to sustainability and sustainable markets and contains three research platforms: Sustainability in Financial Markets (Mistra Financial Systems), Sustainability in Production and Consumption and Sustainable Socio-Economic Development.

Environmental economics

The total environment includes not just the biosphere of earth, air, and water, but also human interactions with these things, with nature, and what humans have created as their surroundings.

As countries around the world continue to advance economically, they put a strain on the ability of the natural environment to absorb the high level of pollutants that are created as a part of this economic growth. Therefore, solutions need to be found so that the economies of the world can continue to grow, but not at the expense of the public good. In the world of economics the amount of environmental quality must be considered as limited in supply and therefore is treated as a scarce resource. This is a resource to be protected. One common way to analyze possible outcomes of policy decisions on the scarce resource is to do a cost-benefit analysis. This type of analysis contrasts different options of resource allocation and, based on an evaluation of the expected courses of action and the consequences of these actions, the optimal way to do so in the light of different policy goals can be elicited.

Benefit-cost analysis basically can look at several ways of solving a problem and then assigning the best route for a solution, based on the set of consequences that would result from the further development of the individual courses of action, and then choosing the course of action that results in the least amount of damage to the expected outcome for the environmental quality that remains after that development or process takes place. Further complicating this analysis are the interrelationships of the various parts of the environment that might be impacted by the chosen course of action. Sometimes it is almost impossible to predict the various outcomes of a course of action, due to the unexpected consequences and the amount of unknowns that are not accounted for in the benefit-cost analysis.


Sustainable energy is clean and can be used over a long period of time. Unlike fossil fuels and biofuels that provide the bulk of the worlds energy, renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, solar and wind energy produce far less pollution. Solar energy is commonly used on public parking meters, street lights and the roof of buildings. Wind power has expanded quickly, its share of worldwide electricity usage at the end of 2014 was 3.1%. Most of California's fossil fuel infrastructures are sited in or near low-income communities, and have traditionally suffered the most from California's fossil fuel energy system. These communities are historically left out during the decision-making process, and often end up with dirty power plants and other dirty energy projects that poison the air and harm the area. These toxicants are major contributors to health problems in the communities. As renewable energy becomes more common, fossil fuel infrastructures are replaced by renewables, providing better social equity to these communities. Overall, and in the long run, sustainable development in the field of energy is also deemed to contribute to economic sustainability and national security of communities, thus being increasingly encouraged through investment policies.


One of the core concepts in sustainable development is that technology can be used to assist people meet their developmental needs. Technology to meet these sustainable development needs is often referred to as appropriate technology, which is an ideological movement (and its manifestations) originally articulated as intermediate technology by the economist E. F. Schumacher in his influential work, Small is Beautiful. and now covers a wide range of technologies. Both Schumacher and many modern-day proponents of appropriate technology also emphasise the technology as people-centered. Today appropriate technology is often developed using open source principles, which have led to open-source appropriate technology (OSAT) and thus many of the plans of the technology can be freely found on the Internet. OSAT has been proposed as a new model of enabling innovation for sustainable development.


Transportation is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is said that one-third of all gasses produced are due to transportation. Motorized transport also releases exhaust fumes that contain particulate matter which is hazardous to human health and a contributor to climate change.

Sustainable transport has many social and economic benefits that can accelerate local sustainable development. According to a series of reports by the Low Emission Development Strategies Global Partnership (LEDS GP), sustainable transport can help create jobs, improve commuter safety through investment in bicycle lanes and pedestrian pathways, make access to employment and social opportunities more affordable and efficient. It also offers a practical opportunity to save people's time and household income as well as government budgets, making investment in sustainable transport a 'win-win' opportunity.

Some Western countries are making transportation more sustainable in both long-term and short-term implementations. An example is the modification in available transportation in Freiburg, Germany. The city has implemented extensive methods of public transportation, cycling, and walking, along with large areas where cars are not allowed.

Since many Western countries are highly automobile-oriented, the main transit that people use is personal vehicles. About 80% of their travel involves cars. Therefore, California, is one of the highest greenhouse gases emitters in the United States. The federal government has to come up with some plans to reduce the total number of vehicle trips in order to lower greenhouse gases emission. Such as:

  • Improve public transit through the provision of larger coverage area in order to provide more mobility and accessibility, new technology to provide a more reliable and responsive public transportation network.
  • Encourage walking and biking through the provision of wider pedestrian pathway, bike share stations in downtowns, locate parking lots far from the shopping center, limit on street parking, slower traffic lane in downtown area.
  • Increase the cost of car ownership and gas taxes through increased parking fees and tolls, encouraging people to drive more fuel efficient vehicles. This can produce a social equity problem, since lower income people usually drive older vehicles with lower fuel efficiency. Government can use the extra revenue collected from taxes and tolls to improve public transportation and benefit poor communities.

Other states and nations have built efforts to translate knowledge in behavioral economics into evidence-based sustainable transportation policies.


The most broadly accepted criterion for corporate sustainability constitutes a firm's efficient use of natural capital. This eco-efficiency is usually calculated as the economic value added by a firm in relation to its aggregated ecological impact. This idea has been popularised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) under the following definition: "Eco-efficiency is achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle to a level at least in line with the earth's carrying capacity" (DeSimone and Popoff, 1997: 47).

Similar to the eco-efficiency concept but so far less explored is the second criterion for corporate sustainability. Socio-efficiency describes the relation between a firm's value added and its social impact. Whereas, it can be assumed that most corporate impacts on the environment are negative (apart from rare exceptions such as the planting of trees) this is not true for social impacts. These can be either positive (e.g. corporate giving, creation of employment) or negative (e.g. work accidents, mobbing of employees, human rights abuses). Depending on the type of impact socio-efficiency thus either tries to minimise negative social impacts (i.e. accidents per value added) or maximise positive social impacts (i.e. donations per value added) in relation to the value added.

Both eco-efficiency and socio-efficiency are concerned primarily with increasing economic sustainability. In this process they instrumentalise both natural and social capital aiming to benefit from win-win situations. However, as Dyllick and Hockerts point out the business case alone will not be sufficient to realise sustainable development. They point towards eco-effectiveness, socio-effectiveness, sufficiency, and eco-equity as four criteria that need to be met if sustainable development is to be reached.

CASI Global, New York "CSR & Sustainability together lead to sustainable development. CSR as in corporate social responsibility is not what you do with your profits, but is the way you make profits. This means CSR is a part of every department of the company value chain and not a part of HR / independent department. Sustainability as in effects towards Human resources, Environment and Ecology has to be measured within each department of the company."


At the present time, sustainable development can reduce poverty. Sustainable development reduces poverty through financial (among other things, a balanced budget), environmental (living conditions), and social (including equality of income) means. 


In sustainable architecture the recent movements of New Urbanism and New Classical architecture promote a sustainable approach towards construction, that appreciates and develops smart growth, architectural tradition and classical design. This in contrast to modernist and International Style architecture, as well as opposing to solitary housing estates and suburban sprawl, with long commuting distances and large ecological footprints. Both trends started in the 1980s. (It should be noted that sustainable architecture is predominantly relevant to the economics domain while architectural landscaping pertains more to the ecological domain.)


A study concluded that social indicators and, therefore, sustainable development indicators, are scientific constructs whose principal objective is to inform public policy-making. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has similarly developed a political policy framework, linked to a sustainability index for establishing measurable entities and metrics. The framework consists of six core areas, international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change and energy, measurement and assessment, natural resource management, and the role of communication technologies in sustainable development.

The United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme has defined sustainable political development in a way that broadens the usual definition beyond states and governance. The political is defined as the domain of practices and meanings associated with basic issues of social power as they pertain to the organisation, authorisation, legitimation and regulation of a social life held in common. This definition is in accord with the view that political change is important for responding to economic, ecological and cultural challenges. It also means that the politics of economic change can be addressed. They have listed seven subdomains of the domain of politics:

  • Organization and governance
  • Law and justice
  • Communication and critique
  • Representation and negotiation
  • Security and accord
  • Dialogue and reconciliation
  • Ethics and accountability

This accords with the Brundtland Commission emphasis on development that is guided by human rights principles.


Framing of sustainable development progress according to the Circles of Sustainability, used by the United Nations.

Working with a different emphasis, some researchers and institutions have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainable development, since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society. In this context, the Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Executive Bureau lead the preparation of the policy statement "Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development", passed on 17 November 2010, in the framework of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders – 3rd World Congress of UCLG, held in Mexico City. This document inaugurates a new perspective and points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through a dual approach: developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. The Circles of Sustainability approach distinguishes the four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.

Other organizations have also supported the idea of a fourth domain of sustainable development. The Network of Excellence "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World", sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development. The Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development Theory has been referenced by executive director of IMI Institute at UNESCO Vito Di Bari in his manifesto of art and architectural movement Neo-Futurism, whose name was inspired by the 1987 United Nations’ report Our Common Future. The Circles of Sustainability approach used by Metropolis defines the (fourth) cultural domain as practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express continuities and discontinuities of social meaning

Similar pages

Page structure

Sustainable development

Environmental sustainability

Ecological economics

Sustainable agriculture

Environmental economics

Sustainable energy

Sustainable transport

Sustainable architecture