What is Sustainability?

"We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we leave it for our children"

Sustainability is a complex concept and can be hard to wrap your head around when not clearly defined and articulated.


There are many ways to define sustainability. In 1987, the United Nations stated that "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. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities."


Sustainability can be spread through any field of study and connected to all aspects of life.


This idea is derived by connecting all the Social, Environmental, and Economic dimensions of sustainability, and creating a harmonious balance between these systems.


Where these three dimensions meet, it enables equitable, 'strong' sustainable change, paving a way where top down Governmental led initiatives and grassroots community led initiatives harmonise to help create and nurture prosperous societies.


Such connections can also be seen in the private sector with businesses using guiding concepts such as 'People, Planet and Profit', also known as the 'Triple Bottom Line' (TBL), coined back in 1994 by John Elkington.


However, 25 years later in 2019, Elkington proposed a "strategic recall to do some fine tuning." Why recall it? He explained that rather than achieving system change, in practice it became "just another accounting system." 

Elkington goes on to explain that "to truly shift the needle, however, we need a new wave of TBL innovation and deployment...Indeed, none of these sustainability frameworks will be enough, as long as they lack the suitable pace and scale — the necessary radical intent — needed to stop us all overshooting our planetary boundaries.

  • Environmental Sustainability -  focuses on the health of the earth, how do we best preserve and regenerate our environment and ecosystems? 

  • Social Sustainability - focuses on making life equitable and fair for all, highlighting social justice and valuing cultural differences between socioeconomic groups.

  • Economic Sustainability - aims to balance long-term economic prosperity with the environmental and social pillars.

  • People - aims to focus on the workers and customers, looking at how the products and services will impact people's lives.

  • Planet - aims to have a focus on preserving the environment, and different ecosystems while producing products and services.

  • Profit - aims to create a balance between maximizing profits with the planet, and people aspects of a sustainable business.


Systems Thinking

“Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.” - extract from Donella H. MeadowsThinking in Systems A Primer, 2009
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In a forest there are many elements that determine the overall health of the system, including the soil, plant life, animals, insects, and bacteria.


Take insects, for example, they aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, help control pests, and decompose detritus and foliage that helps build a nutrient-rich layer of soil that supports plant growth. Remove insects from the system and it will have far-reaching consequences.


Systems thinking is the ability to understand how the parts of a system interact to produce the behaviour of the whole. Donella Meadows describes it as a ‘way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify root causes of problems and see new opportunities’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if we apply reductionist (i.e. linear cause and effect) thinking to complex problems we will likely arrive at solutions that lead to unintended consequences. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the true story of Operation Cat Drop.


Systems thinking is an important element of sustainability and can help with creating the balance between the social, environmental, and economic systems.


Systems thinking can also be used for solving wicked problems that exist in society today.


It is a form of thinking that goes outside the box, away from linear modes of production towards circular ones.


It allows people to think about problems in a new way, and it is also how we can find new solutions. 


Brain Pop defines systems thinking as a means of understanding a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system.


Systems expert, Donella Meadows, describes a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’.

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Systems and the Circular Economy


The current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment.

We take resources from the ground to make products, which we use, and, when we no longer want them, throw them away. Take-make-waste. We call this a linear economy.


We now have the knowledge and tools to build an economy that is fit for the 21st Century.

It's called the CIRCULAR ECONOMY

As leading circular economy thinker, Ken Webster, points out, the circular economy is ‘a story about the possibilities of abundance, of meeting people’s needs by designing out waste, and recreating the kind of elegant abundance so evident in living systems.’




An old story with a timeless message


An ancient Sufi story tells of a city whose inhabitants were blind. One day a king arrived riding at the head of his army on the back of a mighty elephant. Curious to know what sort of animal it was, some of the blind men rushed forward to touch the elephant. One man, feeling the elephant’s trunk, claimed it was like a giant snake, strong and powerful. Another man, touching its feet, said it was like a sturdy tree trunk. And so the quarrel continued with each man claiming that his impression of the elephant captured its true form and likeness.

The lesson is simple: to understand something properly, the parts must be understood in relation to the whole. This story has universal appeal because its essential truth can be applied to all phenomena, from animals to economics. As John Muir observed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." The key, therefore, to real understanding is understanding relationships.



Firstly, it is important to understand some of the relationships that shape our economy.

At its most basic level an economy is the name we give to a process: society making use of natural resources to create products and services that people need or want e.g. homes for shelter, and food for nourishment.

Viewed in this way, our economy, society, and environment are interdependent systems - the vitality of one affects the vitality of them all. This is the simple yet profound reality that begins our understanding of systems.



The living systems analogy is a strong theme in the work of Michael Braungart, co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle design concept, which is a central pillar of circular economy thinking. In The Wisdom of the Cherry Tree, he explains that effectiveness rather than mere efficiency should be the end goal for an economy:

The cherry tree is just one part of a much bigger, interdependent natural eco-system and it is this interdependence that matters. For example, the blossoms of the cherry tree not only bring forth a new generation of cherry trees… they also provide food for micro-organisms which in turn nourish the soil and support the growth of future plant life. The ‘outputs’ – indeed ‘waste’ – of one process (the cherry tree and its blossoms) have become inputs for other processes. When viewed in isolation, each element within this natural system may be highly inefficient. But as a whole, the system is stunningly effective – and doesn’t produce any waste at all. We need to apply the cherry tree’s wisdom to the world of production and consumption.’

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The Doughnut
21st Century Economic Thinking 

Think of it as a compass for human prosperity in the 21st century, whose goal is to meet the needs of all people within the means of the planet.

Doughnut Economics proposes an economic mindset that's fit for the 21st century context and challenges.

It's not a set of policies and institutions, but rather a way of thinking that brings about the regenerative and distributive dynamics that this century calls for.

Drawing on insights from diverse schools of economic thought - including ecological, feminist, institutional, behavioural and complexity economics - it sets out seven ways to think like a 21st century economist in order to bring the world's economies into the safe and just space for humanity.

“Back in Ancient Greece, when Xenophon first came up with the term economics, he described the practice of household management as an art. Following his lead, Aristotle distinguished economics from chrematistics, the art of acquiring wealth—in a distinction that seems to have been all but lost today.”

― Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

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Starting Point

Change the goal from endless GDP growth to things in the doughnut.

Begin economic analysis by seeing the big picture, recognizing the economy is embedded within, and dependent upon society and the living world.

It recognizes human behavior, and is natured to be cooperative and caring as it can be competitive and individualistic. Recognizes society, economy, and the living world are complex, interdependent systems. 

Best understood through systems thinking turning degenerative economics into regenerative economics.

Recognizes growth is part of life and nothing grows forever. Things that succeed grow till it's grown up, and thrive instead. 

1. The social foundation – below which lies critical human deprivation

2. The ecological ceiling – beyond which lies critical planetary degradation

The Social Foundation

(Below which lies critical human deprivation)

The 12 dimensions of the social foundation are derived from the social priorities agreed in the Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2015).


The Ecological Ceiling

(Beyond which lies critical planetary degradation)

The 9 dimensions of the ecological ceiling are the nine planetary boundaries defined by Earth-system scientists (Steffen et al., 2015).

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7 Ways to think like a 21st century economist

1. Change the Goal

Need to meet the needs of all within the means of the living planet.

Challenge: Create a local and global economy that ensures no one falls short on life essentials

  • From food to housing to health care, to police voice, and safe guarding earth's life supporting systems.

  • Which will transform the meaning and shape of economic process, 'from endless growth to thriving in balance'.

2. Big Picture (self contained embedded economy)

Why GDP growth as the main priority is problematic...


A New Economy Story

One that sees the economy's dependence upon society and the living world.

  • This story recognizes the power of markets so it needs to be embedded wisely as part of the state.

  • They are needed to be held to account and the core role of household is valued by its contradiction.

  • Along with the creativity of the commons so their potential is unleashed.

3. Nature and Human nature

Time to put a new portrait of humanity at the heart of economic theory so economies can start nurture the best of human nature.

  • This will give us -all 10 billion of us to come - a great chance of thriving together.

4. Get Savvy with Systems

  • 21st century economists embrace complexity and evolutionary thinking instead of being blinded by equilibrium theory.

  • Smart starting point for for understanding the economy's dynamism in systems thinking summed up by a simple pair of feedback loops.

  • Putting dynamic thinking at the heart of economics opens up new insights, from the boom and bust of financial markets to the self-reinforcing nature of economic inequality and the tipping points of climate change.

5. Designed to Distribute

​In the 21st century there has been a design error within the economy causing great inequality.

  • In the 21st century, economists recognize there are many ways to design economies to be more distributive of value among those who generate it.

  • Beyond redistributing income to new ways of redistributing wealth, such as wealth lies in controlling land, enterprises, and power to create money.

6. Create to Regenerate "growth will clean it up again"

Economic theory portrays a clean environment as a luxury good, for only the well off.

  • Where pollution has to increase before it declines, and growth will  eventually clean it up. With inequality there is no law.

  • Degenerative industries degrade and ruin the environment and we need economic thinking unleashing regenerative design to create a circular (not linear) economy.

  • Restoring ourselves as part of earth's cyclical process of life. 

7. Be Agnostic about Growth

Growth addicted --> Growth Agnostic

  • We need economies that make us thrive as we grow.

  • There needs to be a radical flip in perspective to become growth agnostic (skeptical and look at all options).​​

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Doughnut Principles of Practice 

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