Sustainability Defined

The term sustainability can have different meaning to different  people. Natural Capitalism uses the following definition. Below that are others we like.
Sustainability is the careful and efficient stewardship of resources by businesses, communities and citizens. It is the practice of meeting our needs in ways that are respectful of future generations and restorative of natural, cultural and financial assets.  Sustainable management is a whole systems approach to achieving superior performance in delivering desired outcomes to all stakeholders by business, government and civil society. It is achieved by implementing the three principles of Natural Capitalism.
Sustainable actions improve the human condition, meet the legitimate development aspirations of all people while they protect, preserve and restore the integrity of the earth’s life support systems.

Sustainable livelihoods are ways of living and working that honor the interconnections between healthy human communities, intact ecosystems, and prosperous economies for current and future generations.

Productive use and restoration of all forms of capital creates greater wealth and well being, while solving many of the crises now facing the world.

  • human capital, in the form of labor and intelligence, culture, and organization deriving from intact community;
  • financial capital, consisting of cash, investments, monetary instruments, and societally regulated financial institutions;
  • manufactured capital, including infrastructure, machines, tools, and factories;
  • natural capital, made up of resources, living systems, and services delivered from intact ecosystems.

Current economics values, measures and seeks to enhance financial and manufactured capital. But maintaining and enhancing true wealth requires intelligent management and restoration of all of the forms of human and natural capital, without which there is no life, and thus no economics. As David Brower put it, “You can’t do business on a dead planet.”

Studies by almost 50 management consulting houses, management journals, and others (Sustainability Pays) show that the companies that are the leaders in environment, social and good governance policies outperform their less sustainable competitors. When those wild-eyed environmentalists at Goldman Sachs show that the sustainability leaders have 25% higher stock value, faster stock value growth, better financial performance, and outperform the general market, there’s a business case for sustainability. Conversely, the worst performing companies are most likely to have no one in charge of sustainability.

But current financial metrics miss much of the value that sustainability confers to companies and communities. NCS uses an approach we call the Integrated Bottom Line. It demonstrates that behaving in ways that are more responsible to the earth and to people:

  • reduces costs through eco-efficiency;
  • provides easier access to capital;
  • reduces risks by being more responsible;
  • better attracts and retains the best talent;
  • drives innovation by setting such ambitious goals as rapid carbon neutrality;
  • enhances labor productivity by constructing green buildings;
  • enhances brand equity;
  • better manages supply and value chains;
  • reduces the costs of distrust by operating in an ethical and transparent manner.

Such companies find themselves more immune to economic downturns. Sustainability is a competitive advantage strategy in normal times, a turn-around strategy in a downturn and a survival strategy in a collapse.

As the world shifts from the wasteful, polluting technologies of the first industrial revolution to the post-carbon age, the mental model that drives industry is also shifting. Today’s industrial capitalism has been financially profitable but only because it is based on liquidating such forms of wealth as natural and human capital. The natural resources, and more, the trillions of dollars worth of services that intact ecosystems give to our economy, and the adaptive values that intact community gives to our society, have all been treated as having a value of zero.

This is neither good business nor good capitalism. The Next Industrial Revolution will deliver genuine human well-being and happiness while enhancing the agility of the biosphere to sustain life’s diversity and integrity.

- L. Hunter Lovins

Sustainable Development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

- Brundtland World Commission on the Environment and Development


Sustainable development is a process which enables all people to realize their potential and improve their quality of life in ways which protect and enhance the Earth’s life-support systems.

- Sarah Parkin & Jonathan Porritt, Forum for the Future


Continuous improvement of life quality that protects and balances the ecological, social and economic environments.

- California Student Sustainability Coalition


Diverse and rewarding lifestyles that many would want to emulate, and if they all did, the planet’s natural systems and wildlife populations would flourish, increasingly, each generation.
Satisfying lives for all people while living within the means of nature. This requires that people do not use more ecological services than nature can regenerate.

- Randy Hayes, International Forum on Globalization

Ever wondered what a negawatt was? Does your skins get all itchy at the mention of mips? Never known why a keystone species was important? Wrinkle your brow at the thought of reverse logistics? Frown no more. These, and other such terms bandied about by the sustainability movement, have been neatly assembled into a searchable dictionary. Founded by Nathan Shedroff, check out the Dictionary of Sustainable Management project.