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Sustainability has been brought into sharp focus in recent years, as business owners and consumers alike become more engaged with issues of long-term viability. Climate change, enforced labor and irresponsible business practices make the news on a regular basis, and it is becoming clear that global society cannot survive unless we make profound changes to the way in which we do business.

Not only do these changes need to be profound, but they also need to happen quickly. We risk doing irreparable damage to the planet and destroying entire communities — unless direct action is taken swiftly.

But sustainability is a complex issue. There are a number of different aspects that combine to make up true sustainability — sustainability that will provide real advantages to individuals, communities and ecological systems in the future. Learn more about this and about sustainability best practices for 2021 and beyond, as we explore this issue in more detail.

The three pillars of sustainability

To be a truly sustainable business, companies need to commit to a comprehensive approach. This means adhering to the three principles of sustainability. These three principles are:

  • Environmental sustainability
  • Social sustainability
  • Economic sustainability

It is important to note that, while each pillar is certainly important in its own right, none can be considered in isolation. Instead, true sustainability is achieved with a combined focus across all three pillars, creating a meaningful foundation of viability far into the future.

Learn more about each of these individual pillars and their relationships below.

What is environmental sustainability?

Environmental sustainability refers to practices and responsibilities that preserve and conserve our natural world on an indefinite basis. There are many different aspects to this kind of sustainability, but most focus on the resources we use and on the impact we have on ecological systems.

For example, non-renewable resources are not generally considered to be environmentally sustainable. By their very definition, these resources cannot be renewed and, once they are depleted, they will be gone forever. Most definitions of environmental sustainability require that the rate of depletion be equal to or less than the rate of development of renewable resource substitutes.

This brings us to renewable resources. While renewable resources are certainly considered to be environmentally sustainable, they should still be approached with care. The rate of usage must be managed carefully so as not to exceed the rate of sustainable yield.

Finally, we must be aware of our impact on the planet, chiefly in terms of the pollution we leave behind. Pollution rates should be exceeded by rates of sustainable waste management and disposal.

What is social sustainability?

While environmental sustainability focuses on the impact we have on ecological systems, social sustainability pertains to the impact that business has on people — both in terms of individuals and broader communities. The United Nations highlights the impact that businesses have on their employees, workers elsewhere in the value chain, customers and local communities.

The UN’s definition goes beyond simply limiting the impact of business on these groups. Instead, businesses must work proactively to uphold the rights of all individuals and groups that are directly or indirectly affected by business activities. This definition includes supporting labor rights, the rights of people with disabilities, efforts to eliminate poverty, empowerment of women and non-binary communities and the protection of indigenous communities. Education, health and prosperity are key tenets here.

What is economic sustainability?

Economic sustainability has always been a pillar of business. After all, businesses exist to make money, which means they need to remain aware of the cost of their operations and the resulting revenue. In the modern world, however, economic sustainability has more far-reaching implications.

Communities depend on businesses to provide critical products and services. For larger-scale businesses, this dependency is even more acute, as these companies represent major employment options and broader economic stimuli to the local region. As such, businesses have a responsibility to remain economically sustainable and viable in the long term.

Environmental and social sustainability drives tend to require significant investment. While such initiatives do provide revenue boosts to an extent — through better relationships with partners and improved brand reputation — the capital investment may outweigh this, at least at first. This means a delicate balancing act is required, focusing on environmental and social stability in the long term while remaining economically viable.

Sustainability best practice for 2021: Bringing it all together

As we’ve seen, it’s not enough for businesses to simply focus on one of these three pillars. For example, improving the ecological stability of your business cannot come at the detriment of local communities or of communities elsewhere in your supply chain. Similarly, your efforts to support human communities will be undermined if you are damaging natural ecosystems in the process. Instead, a balanced approach is required.

This balance can be difficult to achieve. However, as business owners become increasingly aware of the impact they have and the profound connections between social and ecological structures, they are finding it easier to service both aspects of sustainability in a meaningful way.

Introducing the third pillar adds a further level of complexity. The days of putting profit above everything else are long gone, and modern business must be engaged with achieving profit in a responsible manner. Increasing revenue while destroying ecosystems and communities will significantly harm the reputation of the business, resulting in severe loss of ground in the market. What’s more, businesses who pursue this antiquated model may find themselves falling foul of compliance regulations, resulting in fines and even criminal proceedings in some cases.

By drawing upon data and leveraging the power of digital technology, businesses can identify sustainable and responsible paths to revenue growth. They will be able to do this while continuing to work proactively to protect the environment and to uphold the rights of individuals and communities across the world. This comprehensive approach is the key sustainability best practice for 2021 and beyond, and it will reap significant rewards for businesses in the long run. Of course, the real winner is the Earth and all the human communities and ecological systems that call this planet home.