There are many barriers that people must overcome to push for sustainable development. According to a survey performed in Poland in 2020, some of the pushbacks for sustainable development included:
- Additional costs
- Lack of knowledge
- No prioritization
- Little consumer pressure
- Non-sustainable business models
- Legal barriers
The Stanford Social Innovation Review found that approximately 87% of consumers have concerns over sustainability, but only 33% purchase green products. The reason is that 61% of these consumers expect businesses and corporations to take the lead.
Sustainable development meets present needs without preventing future generations from fulfilling theirs.
Sustainability refers to the preservation of something by developing and implementing a project. In this instance, sustainability has a broad definition. Pursuing exclusively economic sustainability may hinder the conservation of some land or a group’s culture. Development must be responsible from multiple perspectives.
That’s where the four pillars of sustainability come in. These sustainability principles cover different perspectives of our society to help us become more sustainable.
What Are the Four Pillars of Sustainability?
The four pillars of sustainability are:
- Social equity
- Economic development
- Environmental protection
- Cultural/Human sustainability
More About the Four Pillars of Sustainability
The four pillars of sustainability separate the different aspects of sustainability. One can consider sustainability from a social, economic, environmental, or cultural viewpoint. These areas often overlap, and one must keep each in mind when developing something that should be sustainable.
Ideally, each of the pillars should be strong. Hyper focusing on one area can cause depletion in other ones. These losses can make the gained benefits seem worthless.
Cultural sustainability was the most recent addition to this list. By adding culture, one can engage in sustainable development without erasing people’s backgrounds. It accommodates more of society and encourages more balance now.
1. Social Equity
Social sustainability is about promoting the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of people now in a way that allows future generations to have the same benefits. Social sustainability relates to people and human capital. Social equity and concerns things like:
- Fair employee wages
- All decisions in a group are made by the group
- Opportunities for those with disadvantages
- Healthcare access
- Caring for the disabled
- Gender parity
- Equal distribution of resources
- Educational quality and equality
- Social justice efforts
- Community welfare
- Social acceptance programs
In terms of social sustainability, social equity covers communities and personable developments. It shows how the environment and people are intertwined as well. It relates global aspects to investments in a way that supports society and social capital.
The pillar of social sustainability considers that we need to protect future generations and recognize that our actions have an impact on the world.
Social sustainability involves recognizing and preserving diversity. Societal sustainability gives everyone fair access to cultural heritage while letting them benefit from spreading culture. It helps people feel like they belong while also teaching them to respect others.
One example of a social equity initiative is enacting a policy that requires law enforcement to undergo implicit bias training to reduce instances of police brutality and unfair treatment of marginalized groups.
2. Economic Sustainability
Economic sustainability is a form of sustainability that involves managing investments and companies without harming the environment. Promoting economic sustainability creates stable, high-quality jobs in activities like:
- Traditional therapy
- Food production
Economic development involves creating an economically viable present society while also allowing future generations to meet their needs and promote economic growth.
The focus of economic development is monetary capital on a regional level. Economic sustainability is the ability of a group of people to support economic growth. It requires the maintenance of profitability by using a region’s assets.
One can measure economic development using the gross domestic product (GDP). GDP varies between areas and describes how much money a region earns. It also changes annually. However, a country is seen as having a stronger economy if they have a high GDP. Also, using renewable energy cultivates greater independence of a region.
Some criticism of economic sustainability is that indefinite development might not be possible. Furthermore, growth isn’t always defined monetarily — just because a country has a high GDP does not mean it will have a high quality of life. Also, most companies opt to make products that are cheap to produce and sell, such as single-use plastics and fast fashion.
However, some economic sustainability initiatives exist. One involves extracting liquid water from the vapor in the air. Source uses a solar-powered to capture air with a fan. It then filters the air and separates the water. This system is installed in 40 countries, and it provides clean water to people worldwide while reducing plastic use.
Many companies also search for new ways to mechanically and chemically recycle products.
Urban farming initiatives help communities grow their food to share with their neighbors. Even busy cities like Orlando, Florida, have these organizations. Fleet Farming encourages homeowners to create edible landscapes from their lawns to supply food for their neighborhood.
3. Environmental Sustainability
When most people think of sustainability, they think of environmental protection. Environmental sustainability involves preserving the environment, conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, reversing environmental damage, and protecting biodiversity.
Other aspects of environmental protection include minimizing greenhouse gasses, waste, and other toxic byproducts. Unfortunately, human actions have led to increased greenhouse gases, waste, and environmental toxins which have led to depleted natural resources.
Strengthening natural capital can promote environmental sustainability by improving people’s welfare. Some natural capital resources include solar power, fossil fuels, water, wind, minerals, air, land, and biomass.
Environmental initiatives include things like government and business programs to reduce greenhouse gasses, recycle waste, and utilize biomass for energy. These government policies will do things like reducing landfill waste, fossil fuel use, and land exploitation. Businesses can introduce procedures, processes, and governance.
The Environmental Protection Agency set a methane emission-reduction mandate for municipal solid waste landfills. It set a landfill tipping fee, which is the cost for haulers to take materials, which increases by about 2.8% per year. Also, landfill operators need to install methane-capturing technology.
The polypropylene in disposable blue face masks can be used with asphalt and concrete to reinforce it. Also, creating an alloy with these materials can make a road material that costs about 30% less to make.
Berkeley Lab is also developing a new polymer that does not experience hysteretic energy loss and is infinitely recyclable. Polydiketoenamine (PDK) has strong enough material properties to be used in car parts and packaging.
One can submerge the polymer in an acidic solution to separate the initial monomers, which can be combined again without energy loss.
See Related: What is the Current Greatest Threat to Agricultural Sustainability?
4. Cultural Sustainability
This concerns human culture, assets, and resources. Investments in health services, welfare, safety, and education can maintain and improve a society’s well-being. This is also defined as human sustainability.
In this lens, businesses need to consider themselves a member of society. They need to learn about the customs and heritage of the people they reside around. With this information, they can promote and appreciate the values of their customers in a way that shows that they respect the local cultures.
However, some businesses do not have a positive perceived impact on society. The customer might not agree with their products or business practices. Depending on their background and morals, they may define human sustainability differently. By understanding the general viewpoint of the surrounding people, a business can mitigate these risks.
Customers will look into the project’s production, source, sales, and design to determine if it adds cultural value. A culturally sustainable idea places high importance on humans while also regarding the other three pillars.
Human sustainability requires a slight modification of cultural customs to preserve the culture for longer. For instance, traditional homes can receive eco-friendly insulation that reduces the energy a house’s HVAC system consumes.
This insulation can be made from spray foam, wool, rigid bio-polystyrene, cotton, and aerogel. Little changes like this can reduce someone’s carbon footprint and help them maintain their culture.
See Related: What is Sustainable Fashion?
Why Are the Pillars of Sustainability Important?
The four pillars of sustainability are important because they strengthen and protect the future. Without them, we would struggle to continue as a society. However, there are some other vital aspects to sustainability.
Sustainability drives innovation while mitigating risks. It can maintain or increase a resource supply, which benefits the present and future requirements of people and businesses.
Sustainability also benefits stakeholders as it encourages their engagement. It can reduce costs, improve quality, and provide an edge over the competition. Many people desire a product they find responsible in some way, so integrating the four pillars of sustainability can boost your customer base and staff.
Using the four pillars of sustainability can provide an elucidated view of a region’s status in terms of society, economy, environment, and culture.
It also helps create clear sustainability goals and introduces multiple perspectives to sustainability initiatives. These pillars can also show you the cause and effect of any issues, while also letting policymakers know what moves to make.
Potential Drawbacks of the Four Pillars of Sustainability to Sustainable Development
Sustainable development seems like an obvious choice. However, there are many obstacles to its integration.
Using the four pillars of sustainability costs a lot of capital. We would need to replace tons of existing infrastructure and machining with new ones. Also, things like renewable energy and bioplastics are not as efficient as fossil fuel-based options. People would have to use a lot more of each to achieve the same results, which drives up costs.
Also, current consumption patterns would need to be changed entirely. High-quality clothing produced with sustainable processes costs significantly more than fast fashion, which presents a financial barrier to going green for many people.
Many industries are entirely based on non-sustainable practices. Those who work in the fossil fuel industry would lose jobs and need retraining to get a new career. While the long-term effects would improve their quality of life, it greatly harms their present state as they suffer from unemployment.
Lastly, there are many steps for sustainable development. People would have to drastically change their mindsets, consumption patterns, business strategies, and lifestyles.
Companies would need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and search for new ways to treat waste. These steps would reduce the efficiency and production yield of work, which drives up production and sale costs. Many people would likely slip back into their more cost-effective habits.
How to Use the Four Pillars of Sustainability
When considering implementing the four pillars of sustainability, keep these questions in mind:
- What sustainability goals can we implement?
- What pillars of sustainability do we directly impact?
- How will we measure success?
- How can company leaders contribute to sustainability initiatives?
- What standards can we follow that ensure sustainability?
Workplace Sustainability Initiatives
Here are some workplace sustainability initiatives a company can use in their workplace.
You can incentivize employees to use public transportation, carpooling, biking, or walking to work rather than using individual vehicles.
This step reduces the total carbon emissions of the company. You could start a biking club or subsidize public transportation. Additionally, letting employees work from home some days can reduce the number of fossil fuels burnt to get to the office.
Label bins and place them around the office to separate various forms of waste. Have some for recyclables, plastic bags, compost, and trash.
Inform your employees of each one’s purpose and put some examples of items that go in each. Ideally, little trash would reach the landfill as most would go towards compost or recycling. Ensure that the building management disposes them correctly instead of putting them all in the trash.
Minimize the amount of waste you send to customers as well. Don’t send mail directly to customers. Instead, use email or social media promotions. Any promotional items you provide should be useful and biodegradable. For instance, a reusable water bottle provides more use than a keychain.
You could either switch your energy supply to a more environmentally friendly one or generate energy yourself. People can readily install solar panels on their buildings to generate cost-effective renewable energy. Perhaps you could produce heat through an anaerobic digester powered by your office food waste.
If you generate enough renewable energy, you can sell the excess power to a utility company for an extra stream of income.
Reduce the amount of paper your company produces by implementing printing credits for your employees. Each person can only print a specific amount of paper each month.
After they finish printing, they can ask for online statements and invoices. If your power is supplied by renewable energy, switching to digital can significantly reduce your company’s environmental impact.
Search for recycled paper for the stuff you need to have. Also, recycle anything you do end up using. If possible, search for a local vendor.
When working with a supplier, ensure that they source their materials sustainably. Check the source, whether it is paper, pens, pencils, computers, electricity, light bulbs, or anything else.
If you get your supplies from ethical sources, you can drastically reduce your carbon emissions. Start with small changes and work your way up until you have a green office.
Also, check that the materials are Fair Trade certified. They should be produced by people who offer livable and fair wages to their employees. Furthermore, look for products made of biodegradable, recyclable, or renewable materials. Some examples of these products include:
- Corn starch
- Potato starch
- Bagasse paper
- Degradable bubble wrap
Additionally, search for biodegradable packaging consisting of only one type of polymer. Try to minimize the amount of packaging used as well, or make what you have to use functional.
Sustainable investing involves making decisions about capital allocation while considering the four pillars of sustainability.
You can engage in sustainable investing by following environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles. Investors would look for companies that take a long-term view of their practices and how they impact the environment and world.
By using the ESG investing framework, one can invest sustainably, grow their wealth, and push for sustainable practices.
Any investment that brings a positive environmental, social, or governance change could be considered sustainable. They need to push for the betterment of society.
Many groups participate in sustainable investment. These individuals include:
- Socially-conscious people
- Development banks for low-income communities
- Religious institutions
- Pension plans for environmentally friendly corporations
- Non-profit foundations
Environmental investments include things like solar panel manufacturers and biogas plants. They consider the sources of resources and the impact the company has on the climate. Low carbon emissions, clean energy, recycled products, and reusable goods all count.
Social investments consider diversity and human rights. They strive to uplift people who are marginalized based on their race, sexuality, gender identity, class, or anything else. Many human rights organizations exist, and one can invest in them to promote the furtherment of these rights.
Governance investments pertain to companies that promote ethics, transparency, compliance, and trust in a marketplace. Companies that make ethical choices and engage in ethical business practices are included. Ethics and moral codes need to take center stage in the company, not profits.
They treat employees and customers well. Ethical labor practices, fair wages, health benefits, and a positive work environment all fall under this category. Investing in an ethical company can lead to more companies following suit.