What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

These pillars offer a solutions-oriented approach to sustainability issues.

Three wind turbines on a landscape of rolling hills and blue sky.

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Sustainability is often broken into three intertwined categories: social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Together, these three forms of sustainability are known as the "three pillars of sustainability." The three pillars of sustainability provide a framework for applying a solutions-oriented approach to complicated sustainability issues like fisheries management.

The concept of the "three pillars" is fundamental to many companies, institutions, and government agencies today including the United Nations (UN) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Despite their widespread application, the three pillars have no clear origin. Instead, the three pillars of sustainability are thought to have formed gradually through economic, environmental, and social critiques in early academic literature. It wasn't until the 1980s that the three pillars of sustainability became a part of mainstream culture.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability lack a clear and consistent definition. Today the three pillars, along with the definition of "sustainability" itself, are subject to several different interpretations. While interpretations of the individual pillars vary, together the three pillars are meant to work in connection to one another with true sustainability occurring when the three pillars are balanced.

Building blocks shaped into three pillars labeled economic, social, and environment.

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Social Sustainability

Social sustainability includes environmental justice, human health, resource security, and education, among other important social elements of society. Under the three pillars concept, efforts to promote social sustainability should also aim to foster economic and environmental benefits, too.

For businesses, efforts to generate social sustainability could include focusing company efforts on employee retention instead of economic priorities. For example, investments in the well-being of employees are likely to generate economic benefits for the company by increasing employee motivation.

Efforts to increase social sustainability can also benefit the environment. For example, people's diet choices can have a substantial impact on both human health and the health of the environment, therefore advocacy for healthier eating can benefit the environment, too.

Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability includes job creation, profitability, and proper accounting of ecosystem services for optimal cost-benefit analyses. When it comes to the job market, research shows high rates of employment benefit both the economy and the people's social well-being through the resource security employment provides. In this way, the economic drivers requiring companies to need employees and for people to need jobs can also foster social sustainability if employment offers people security.

However, today's gig economy places social and economic sustainability at odds with one another. The gig economy causes many people to contribute to the economic sustainability of companies without receiving the social safety nets typically provided by employment in return.

Efforts to be more environmentally sustainable can also benefit the economic sustainability of an organization. For example, recycling valuable materials, such as electronic waste and textile waste, can lower operating costs and reduce the intensity of resource extraction required to sustain businesses.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability focuses on the well-being of the environment. This pillar includes water quality, air quality, and reduction of environmental stressors, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Human health depends greatly on the quality of a person's environment, inextricably linking human health and the state of the environment. Therefore, efforts to preserve and restore the environment benefits people, too.

The environment also provides natural resources necessary to foster economic sustainability. Companies rely on the extraction of natural resources to be economically sustainable. Efforts to extract resources at levels that are sustainable for the environment will also provide economic sustainability through the continued availability of resources.

Applications of the Three Pillars

Since the 1980s, when the three pillars were widely popularized, businesses, governments, and organizations have applied the pillars to their practices with variable success. Conceptually, true sustainability requires even consideration of the three pillars.

Commercial Fishing

When it comes to the three pillars of sustainability, some say the economic drivers of the fishing industry are in direct conflict with both environmental sustainability and social sustainability. To achieve economic sustainability, the fishing industry is accused of overfishing the world's oceans to the detriment of both the environment and the people who depend on its resources.

Fishers maneuvering a fishing net on a commercial fishing vessel.
Some say the economic drivers of the fishing industry are inherently in opposition to environmental sustainability.

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Despite the apparent conflict between the commercial fishing industry's economic sustainability and the other two pillars, a recent study argues that when it comes to the fishing industry, the three pillars of sustainability are actually complementary.

The key, the study explains, is to eliminate the trade-off between the fishing industry's short-term economic gains and long-term social and environmental destruction through proper fisheries regulations because the short-term economic drivers of overfishing also hurt economic sustainability itself. To correct the incentive structure, the study suggests the establishment of harvest rights through catch shares, cooperatives, or territorial use rights for fisheries (TURFs).


The United Nations applies the three pillars of sustainability to its development initiatives. Today, the UN agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals. However, the UN's goals have been criticized for being too simple to where they are rendered weak, impractical, or altogether meaningless. Others argue the UN's goals would be better met if each goal focused on a single pillar.

However, based on public perception of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN's work to achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals appears to be successful considering all three pillars. In fact, public feedback indicated each pillar was relatively equally represented by the UN's goals. Since even consideration of all three pillars is fundamental to proper implementation of the three pillars of sustainability, public sentiments indicate the UN is successfully implementing the three pillars framework to its Sustainable Development Goals.

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