No less than that is what sounds from the debates on the topics of environmental pollution and climate change that are being held in almost all areas of life and work nowerdays.

What is the underlying causality?

What does sustainability actually mean in the sense of the word and what could be a broader interpretation?

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The increasing effects of human activity on the global ecosphere, especially in the recent past, are creating an ever more present public debate on sustainability. Since the Club of Rome published the report “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, numerous conferences have been held, such as the UN climate conferences in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto 1997 and Paris 2015. Institutions and NGOs were created, including the Brundtland Commission in 1987, which coined the term sustainable development and the Global Reporting Initiative, which focuses on corporate transparency with its reporting standard.

The examples mentioned are only a very small selection of the activities and organizations that together helped to keep the discourse public and created initiatives with the objective to limit climate change.

Why has all this had so little effect that today climate change has become one of the greatest challenges our modern society faces?

The answer to this question is as complex as the task of combatting climate change itself. It has been proven that human activity, especially as a result of industrialization, has far-reaching effects on numerous ecosystems, which in turn entail changes to our habitats and living conditions. The consequences of unsustainable behavior are scarcity of resources, pollution, population growth, climate change, soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity.

In the prevailing thinking of the industrial age, it has not been possible to adapt general, i.e. global priorities to the knowledge about the ecological challenges. Economic and political measures in the past have been reluctant to follow the facts presented by researchers. In some cases, this remains the case to this day, although the effects are becoming increasingly obvious. Only recently a paradigm shift towards a sustainable use of our resources been slowly initiated.


The term “sustainability” originally derives from forestry and is generally understood as an ecological principle, according to which a ressource or a good may not be consumed more than it can grow back, regenerate or otherwise be made available again in the future. However, this definition does not describe the entire scope of the contemporary concept of sustainability: besides ecological matters, sustainability today also refers to economic and social contexts.


The three pillars of sustainability can be understood like the three dimensions of the so-called magic triangle, that is used in project management. Cost, quality and time expenditure: a change in one of these factors always has an impact on at least one of the other two. The surface of the triangle in the figure on the right always remains the same.

Sustainability economic - ecological - social
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Magic triangle - quality, cost efficiency, time efficiency



From an economic point of view, an action or behavior is sustainable if it enables permanent business activity, in the sense of capital preservation and maintenance of the related employment, ensures competitiveness and proportionate growth and at the same time maintains the external balance.

The economic dimension of sustainability thus takes into account, the effects of organizations on the economic situation of all stakeholders, on the economic system at local, national and international level and the financial situation of the organizations themselves. There are overlaps with the ecological approach, as this includes not consuming resources to such an extent or not polluting in a quantity, that would put the sustainability of a business at risk.

In addition, the economic understanding of sustainability refers also to another level of the term. A well-known sustainability researcher defines it as follows: Sustainability does not mean generating profits that are then invested in environmental and social projects to compensate for the damage. Sustainability means that the generation of profit happens in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. This definition shows that there is also an overlap with the social dimension of sustainability. For instance, with regard to security of employment or the ability to consume.


In a social context, sustainability refers to numerous different aspects of social coexistence: In connection with a temporal component, one speaks of intergenerational equity. The aforementioned Brundtland Commission defines it as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without risking future generations not being able to meet their own needs.” In addition, the concept of social sustainability includes, among other things, a just distribution of resources, access to opportunities, the securing of basic needs, combating poverty and gender equality.


General consensus is, that a sustainable product, project or company should embody a balanced combination of the three aspects – i.e. it should be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. This must be taken into account at all levels: economically and politically, globally and at company level. This emphasizes the universality of responsibility. Furthermore, the intergenerational justice mentioned above shows that sustainable action is always related to future circumstances and people.

In addition, the term sustainability includes a local component. Most of the goods consumed in the western hemisphere are partly or wholly produced in other parts of the world due to the advancing globalization. This also has an impact on all three dimensions of sustainability. In this context, non-productive sectors exert a great influence, in the past decades for example through financial speculation at international level.

Dimensions of sustainability

Sustainable action includes considering all the effects of all action, regardless of where and for whom. This shows yet another component of sustainability: Only that which is sustainable for everyone can be sustainable. Ergo there is a societal component as well. The international center for sustainable development at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences calls this component the ethical component and adds three more: the political, the technological and the socio-cultural component (see illustration).


“In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the use of resources, the goal of investments, the direction of technological development and institutional change harmonize with one another and increase the current and future potential to meet human needs and desires.”


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