The United Nations SDGs are a collective call to action to close the poverty gap and look after the planet. There are 17 SDGs, including decent work and economic growth, responsible consumption and production, and climate action.
Companies that aim to be a part of this change adopt SDGs as a means of supporting sustainable development while driving business growth and impact.
This is where the three pillars of sustainability come into play. These distinct pillars break down the three main elements of sustainable development—namely, environmental, social, and economic—and instruct companies on how to apply such elements.
We break down the three pillars to understand how companies attempt to achieve growth and profit while striving for sustainable development, asking the question: what are the three pillars of sustainability? Is the world in need of a new model?
Business sustainability definition
Sustainability is the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. In the context of business and policy, sustainability seeks to prevent the depletion of natural or physical resources and looks at ways of ensuring resources are available for the long term.
Harvard Business School lists two ways to measure sustainable business practices: the effect a business has on the environment and the impact a business has on society.
Gijs van Houwelingen (pictured) is a sustainability professor at the University of Amsterdam.
"The thinking is we can achieve economic growth, or we can achieve profits and do something for the climate and social justice," he explains.
Sustainable development requires a company to contribute and promote environmental sustainability and protection, economic viability, and social equity.
The three pillars of sustainability explained
1. Environmental pillar of sustainability
The environmental pillar is often the one that receives the most attention. This pillar is based on companies' ability to encourage and promote the protection of the environment by limiting the risks posed by their production.
Companies often focus on reducing carbon emissions and footprints, packaging waste, water usage, and other environmental damage.
For example, Walmart focused on packaging through its zero-waste initiative. It pushed for less packaging throughout its supply chain and for more of that packaging to be sourced from recycled or reused materials.
Jo Meehan (pictured) is a professor of responsible procurement and the director of the Centre for Sustainable Business at the University of Liverpool Management School.
While looking to reduce environmental damage is important, Jo argues that it’s not enough to fix the climate crisis that is well underway.
"The sustainability measures that businesses and governments are doing are about being less harmful, but it doesn't mean we're fixing the problem,” she says.
Jo explains that, while we are slowing down the harm we are inflicting on the planet and our society, we are still causing harm.
“We're slowing the digging down, but we're still actually digging."
2. Economic pillar of sustainability
The economic pillar of sustainability refers to a company's ability to contribute to economic development and growth. While some companies view this as profitability or GDP growth, the economic pillar concerns compliance, proper governance, and risk management.
"It’s assumed that the economic pillar is about business profitability yet it was never meant in that way; it’s meant to be about the economic sustainability of a market and fostering a healthy and diverse market," Jo says.
These misinterpretations are a large part of why the effectiveness of the three pillars of sustainability are starting to wane.
"We need a different way of doing business because of the extremity of the environmental emergency, and the social emergency," says Jo.
3. Social pillar of sustainability
The social pillar of a company's sustainable development promotes equality and respect for individual rights. This includes combatting social exclusion and discrimination while promoting solidarity and reducing inequalities.
The idea is that a company is more likely to prosper if its employees feel happy in their work as they will stay with the team longer, and their work dynamic will improve.
While the social pillar of sustainability attempts to encompass the human-interest aspect of sustainable development, Gijs from the University of Amsterdam feels that its focus is still on profit, and it needs to go beyond this.
He believes businesses must alter their mindset, think beyond profit and GDP growth, and instead think of development differently.
"We need a broader understanding of what economic flourishing and growth is. It's broader than just profit. We should have policies that are more aimed at increasing biodiversity levels or efforts teaching children in poverty."
The problem with the three pillars of sustainability
Corporate social responsibility is struggling as the three pillars of sustainability, or the 'triple bottom line', is no longer sufficient for effective sustainability.
"I think a lot of people misinterpret it as saying we can still do everything we want, and we can still own every car and buy an extra car and do something for the climate," Gijs says.
Jo from the University of Liverpool Management School believes companies often feel focusing on one pillar means they can ignore another, a sort of trade-off.
John Elkington, who coined the term triple bottom line 30 years ago, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that it’s time for a rethink.
He argues that while you may point out the successes of the sustainability sector—UN Sustainable Development Goals forecast to generate market opportunities of over $12 trillion a year by 2030—sustainability goals cannot only be measured in terms of profit and loss.
"It must also be measured in terms of the wellbeing of billions of people and the health of our planet. While there have been successes, our climate, water resources, oceans, forests, soils, and biodiversity are all increasingly threatened," he says.
To turn things around, companies need to change their model, not just to slow things down but regenerate the system and regrow it back.
"We've now reached a point where there's no way we can carry on doing what we're doing and making it less harmful. We now must fundamentally change how we do business," says Jo.
Alternative approaches to the three pillars of sustainability
So what can we do? How can businesses achieve sustainability and start pushing toward an effective model for sustainable development?
Jo posits the idea of a restorative and regenerative model.
"It requires businesses to think about their impact on the environment or human rights and to restore that damage,” she says.
"This might involve moving to a regenerative economy where we regenerate and have a net positive impact on the world. Everybody seems to have got behind Net Zero, which is about stopping the digging, but it still doesn't fill in the hole and doesn't put nice flowers on top."
Policies are already being implemented in the EU that will look toward impact accounting. Rather than trying to implement one or two of the three pillars where possible, businesses are legally required to reduce carbon emissions.
"The thinking is we should step away from the model where we rely on the altruistic or good-hearted nature of our business leaders, and we start trying to set standards that business leaders need to achieve," Gijs says.
These ideas are ambitious, but both Gijs and Jo believe that nothing will change without a complete overhaul of the idealistic win-win view of sustainability and that, while it may not feel it in the short term, this model will make for a more impactful business world.
"Businesses inherently want to do good things, but it's such a complex environment, and it's easy just to continue doing what they're doing until somebody tells them not to,” Jo says, "shifting our thinking to a more regenerative and restorative model will put businesses on a different trajectory and will future proof them to some extent."
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Amsterdam Business School - University of Amsterdam
Great education system but terrible administrative system.
I spent my last 3 years at UvA to study Business. Overall, I loved it. I don't regret it at all. - I loved most of the professors I met, and I liked their education system. - Exams were fair and assignments were very helpful to develop my skills in the field (they were pretty tough tho) - I am an Asian student but I never experienced any type of racism while studying at UvA and I felt welcomed all the time. - Very international atmosphere and open-minded staff/students. - Great facilities. I enjoyed studying at the different libraries, and very clean cafeteria and classrooms - Perfect location, and beautiful sight.