Economic production, trade and consumption are driving changes to the natural environment. The natural environment encompasses the physical, chemical, and biological surroundings that support life on earth. The economy is dependent on the environment for (i) the extraction of resources to be used as inputs to production, (ii) the disposal of waste, (iii) the provision of environmental services.

However, the earth’s resources are finite and there is a theoretical upper limit to the quantity of resources that can be extracted and a limit to the capacity of the natural environment for the assimilation of waste. For the economy to be  sustainable, the production of economic goods must not diminish the capacity of the environment to provide resources and environmental services or contribute to social difficulties such as poverty, unemployment or inequality (Hirsch, 1976)

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future in 1987. This report identified ‘sustainable development’ as a crucial and integral component to future economic growth:
“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”   -(WCED, 1987) Our Common Future, p.16

The modern definition of sustainable development recognises three principle aspects to sustainability: economic, environmental, and social. The objective of sustainable development can be thought of as maximising the synergies between these elements through an adaptive process of trade-offs, such as that shown in Figure 1 (Barbier, 1987).

A large circle represents the system boundary of the environment. Three circles are titled ‘social’, ‘economic’, ‘ecological'

Figure 1. Conceptual model of sustainability, comprising the social, economic and ecological principles and their overlapping dimensions within the environment.
Accessible description for Figure 1: A large circle represents the system boundary of the environment. Within this circle, a Venn diagram contains three overlapping circles. The three circles are titled ‘social’, ‘economic’ and ‘ecological’. Where the social and environmental circles overlap, the area is titled ‘equity’, where the economic and ecological circles overlap this is titled ‘viable’, where the ecological and social areas overlap this area is titled ‘bearable’. Where all three circles overlap, this is titled ‘sustainable’.

In 2015, leaders of all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Agenda 2030 introduced the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere (United Nations, 2015).

Icons representing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Figure 2. The United Nations (2015) Sustainable Development Goals
Accessible description for Figure 2: Icons representing the following united nations sustainable development goals: Alt text for Figure 2: Icons representing the following united nations sustainable development goals: 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 and Justice Strong Institutions, 17. Partnerships to achieve the Goals

Pause and reflect

Take a moment to familiarise yourself with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Which goals fit into one or more of the ‘economic’, ‘social’, and ‘ecological’ principles of sustainability?


Barbier, E. B. (1987). The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development. Environmental Conservation14(2), 101–110. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892900011449

Hirsch, F. (1976). Social Limits to Growth. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/HARVARD.9780674497900

United Nations. (2015). Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. https://sdgs.un.org/publications/transforming-our-world-2030-agenda-sustainable-development-17981

WCED. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development : Our Common Future. UN,. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/139811

Last modified: Monday, 27 Sep 2021, 14:45