What Is Sustainability? (And Why It’s Important)

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about the concept of sustainability and why it’s important to maintain a balance between our environment and economic growth.

[Featured Image]:  Public Health manager discussing sustainability concepts with the team.

Sustainability is a long-term goal for our society to meet the needs of economic growth at its current speed with the least amount of impact on the environment. But it’s more than preserving the natural world and its fragile ecologies. Sustainability is about enabling growth and development of businesses and government entities so that all parts of society work symbiotically to ensure that our future generations have the natural resources needed to survive.

This article will dive into what exactly sustainability is and why it’s important.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is our society’s ability to exist and develop without depleting all of the natural resources needed to live in the future. Sustainable development supports this long-term goal with the implementation of systems, frameworks, and support from global, national, and local entities. 

The concept of sustainability is built on the notion that natural resources on Earth are finite, so supporting sustainable practices helps maintain a balance between environment, economy, and equity [1]. It’s the movement and energy behind ensuring that Earth can continue to be liveable, all the while controlling and reducing resource depletion. 

Brief history of sustainability

The concept of sustainability sprouted from the movement that grew out of the notions of social justice, ecological conservation, and globalism toward the end of the 20th century.

In 1983, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked to run the World Commission on Environment and Development for the United Nations. Many countries were still in poverty after decades of industrialization which had come at a cost to social equity and the environment. The Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future defines the need for sustainable development, a holistic approach that considers the environment, economy, and equity [2]. 

Three pillars of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability (environmental, economic, and social) can help us to pave a path toward a sustainable future.

Environmental sustainability: The principle of maintaining ecological integrity and ensuring that Earth’s environmental systems remain balanced as natural resources such as air, water, soil, forests, and animals are being consumed by humans.

Economic sustainability: The goal for humans on Earth to maintain independence and be able to get a job or acquire other resources to meet their needs. Economic systems must be in place and accessible to all.

Social sustainability: The principle of ensuring that basic human needs are attainable by all and that there are enough resources available to all within a community. Strong social systems can ensure healthy, happy communities whose human rights such as labor, health care, and equality are respected.

Free classes on sustainability

Interested in sustainability but not yet ready to pay for a class? Coursera offers Circular Economy - Sustainable Materials Management taught by professors from Lund University, Delft University, and more. You’ll learn where important materials come from and how closed-loop supply chains can ensure these materials are used again. 

We also offer Strategy and Sustainability for free, which focuses on the way the lofty concepts of business strategy and sustainability inform each other.


Goal of sustainability 

Beyond preserving our natural world and resources, the ethos of sustainability and creating lasting change can be infused into sustainable practices and everyday actions. While the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals serve as an excellent framework, more can be done.

To truly work towards sustainable development requires continuous and consistent collaboration from global businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements. On an individual level, learning about sustainability can make a world of difference.

Start learning about sustainability

Sustainability is important to our world at large and at a human level. Consider enrolling in the course Introduction to Sustainability from the University of Illinois for a quick overview of key concepts of sustainability. You’ll gain interdisciplinary knowledge, pulling from both natural and social science to measure the challenges of sustainability, and more.



Introduction to Sustainability

This course introduces the academic approach of Sustainability and explores how today’s human societies can endure in the face of global change, ecosystem ...


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Article sources


UCLA. “What is Sustainability?, https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/what-is-sustainability/.” Accessed November 15, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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