An exchange in the comments on this question got me thinking: what is the standard definition for sustainable?

Does it include such things as:

  • Geographic extent
  • Time frame
  • Economics
  • Other factors?
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    Shouldn't this go in Meta? Nov 20, 2016 at 22:56
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    I thought about that... but it seems there should be some definition of "sustainable" on the main site - even the tag I used here doesn't actually have any Q/As with definitions. I'll edit the question to make it less meta.
    – LShaver
    Nov 21, 2016 at 16:12
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    I'm voting to leave open. See what happens. Make even take a crack at answering it. It's certainly not off topic. If it gets a good answer, it should be grist for the site definition. Nov 29, 2016 at 3:27
  • @SherwoodBotsford, I'd love to read your proposal for an answer, if you have the time, and I'd very much appreciate some feedback/recommendations for the complete rewrite of my previously unpopular answer. I'm trying to work out something universal and was excited when LShaver raised the question. Dec 31, 2016 at 19:20
  • ok, @DouglasDaseeco I took a swing at it. Tried to keep it simple. Dec 31, 2016 at 19:50

4 Answers 4


There isn't really a single agreed-upon definition of sustainability. Everyone has a basic idea of what it is, but the exact meaning differs from person to person.

Most common definition

The most common and often-cited definition of sustainability, or to be more precise that of sustainable development, is the one in the Brundtland report "Our common future":

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Although this definition does give some direction, it is not very usable. What exactly is a 'need'? Where do we draw the line between a need and a want? How can we know the needs of future generations?

Context and time dependent

The exact meaning of sustainability often depends on the context. A sustainable supply chain for example usually considers primarily the economics of it, whereas a sustainable building is usually about energy-efficiency and perhaps also about the environmental impact of the used construction materials.

The meaning of sustainability also changes with time. In the 'early days' sustainability was all about environmental protection. Nowadays a common view on sustainability is that of the 'triple bottom line' or the 3 pillars;

This is also referred to as the 3 Ps; people, planet, profit. Although this view is widely accepted, for some it doesn't go far enough and they propose to add culture as a 4th pillar of sustainability.

Sustainability on this website

On Sustainable Living SE we've tried to define sustainability by describing its relations with other concepts (which is the purpose of the tag). Since sustainability can mean many things, when an OP refers to sustainability in a question without further clarification, it is recommended to ask what aspect of sustainability he/she is interested in. When answering questions, it is a good idea to mention what aspects of sustainability you've taken into account in your answer.

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    Perhaps sustainability should be defined in its relation to the biosphere (as Vladimir Vernadsky originally defined it). More specifically, it may best be defined in terms of risk to life. Since the toxification of the environment or the depletion of vital resources are the primary risks, it may be wise to define sustainability of human processes as functions of those risks. It is such an important concept, that I'd recommend redefining other related terms AFTER first obtaining a functional and quantifiable definition of sustainability. Dec 25, 2016 at 23:21
  • It is good you noted that the definition quoted is of sustainable development. The kinds of sustainability ratings we consider in the laboratory have much more to do with evaluating combinations of technologies and components. We call them, "Biospheric Energy Acquisition Topologies." We have a tree of them: transeed.com/cc/biosphere/energy/… Dec 31, 2016 at 19:16
  • I'd like to point out that the notion of sustainable development that is often put into practice by policymakers has been widely criticized (see for instance the work by french economist Serge Latouche). This is a natural consequence in growth-based economies that, even by investing more in green technology, increase their environmental impact progressively.
    – vaz
    Jan 2, 2017 at 12:54
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    The question wasn't looking for a definition of either "sustainable development" or "sustainable living". The question is what does the adjective "sustainable" mean in a practical sense. What makes some activity or design one that will probably last for thousands of years without breaking something on earth that should be preserved? As the world population grows, this question grows in importance. Jan 2, 2017 at 18:49
  • @FauChristian I disagree. The exact question is what is the standard definition for sustainable? I chose to answer this by describing the standard definition of the noun 'sustainability', which has the same meaning as the adverb 'sustainable'
    – THelper
    Jan 5, 2017 at 10:43

Sustainable: To continue a practice over a long period with little or no impact on the underlying resource.

I don't think that "sustainable" is an absolute. And too many people are using it that way. E.g. "Meat animals are unsustainable" "Coal power is unsustainable" "Organic farming is unsustainable due to weed issues" "Zero till is unsustainable due to chemical use."

Sustainable is better used as a relative measure, used with a given metric, and usually a handful of caveats. This will make the word unusable in sound-bite journalism.

Often a an adjective needs to come first.

e.g. Managed timber leases, where a single company has century long management of a block of land, and is responsible for maintaining a cutting policy that keeps more or less constant inventory on a decade long time scale is more economically sustainable than the U.S. Forests Service policy of auctioning off timber blocks.

This leaves open whether or not it is ecologically sustainable.

The time frame is important. Often the present practice will result in the destruction of the underlying resource in a short or medium period of time. E.g. Slash and burn agriculture in tropical rain forests. This results in infertile parking lots or mudscapes in a few years. Conventional plough, disk and harrow agriculture in many climates loses top soil at a rate of inches per century. By this metric PDH temperate agriculture is more sustainable than S&B tropical agriculture.

The ultimate measure of sustainability is to be able to continue the practice over geologic time.

  • I really love what you said about metric usage, caveats, adjectives, and geologic (practically indefinite) time. I've spent some time thinking about the sound-bite journalism issue you mentioned. I've concluded that continuously challenging viewers, readers, and listeners to think beyond the thought-bite mentality and comprehend what sustainability must mean to be functional is necessary. It may be swimming against the stream, but then I'm a trout that values other trout and the whole trout calling. :) Jan 1, 2017 at 4:24

Imho, if you are talking about sustainability, you should care about each factor that is connected to an object you use or an activity you do.

It's clear that you can't be always sustainable on everything you do, but it is already good if you know more in detail about things that happen around you.

Regarding your post, it must be clear, that the production of meat is not sustainable at all. You need to produce or buy additional food for them, the people working in this field have to get payed and then you still have the distribution taking a lot of effort till the meat is at the customers home. I think it would be better to find a different lifestyle regarding food we eat and even discover the real diversity that is out there instead of just talking about meat all the time. I also eat meat from time to time but I don't have to talk about it all the time and I know it is not sustainable.

And you also have the same problem with all the other things, that you can purchase, that have been produced in another place or with the everything that you do. To be sustainable, you have to be aware of what you consume and how you do it, the quantity. And that's the hardest thing, because we do not all have a correct relation to our consumption. Also because everybody has a different way to live.

Being sustainable means to consume in a level that gives even generations after us the possibility to live and have enough of everything. In a level that everybody has the same possibilities to do it, everywhere in the world.

  • Yes, as with any rigorous analysis, one must clearly define the boundaries around what is being analyzed. Otherwise the results of the analysis may be cloudy (ambiguous) and lead to misunderstanding and misapplication. Dec 31, 2016 at 19:17

The most often used definition of sustainable development is that proposed by the Brundtland Commission (Cerin, 2006; Dernbach J. C., 1998; Dernbach J. C., 2003; Stoddart, 2011). In the application of this definition of sustainable development, one issue concerns the substitutability of capital. There are several types of capital: social, natural, and man-made.

The Concept of Sustainable Development: Definition and Defining Principles by Rachel Emas, Florida International University

  • This is a reference poiting to a definition, not a definition in itself.
    – user2451
    May 20, 2019 at 7:31
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    @bobkinch welcome to the site. We're looking for answers to be self-contained, rather than pointing to the real answer elsewhere. Please can you edit your answer to include the actual definition from the Bruntland Commission?
    – 410 gone
    May 20, 2019 at 9:14

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