The three pillars of sustainability, and why we need them

March 24, 2021
By: natasha

I have an entire Master’s degree with the word ‘sustainability’ right in the title (sustainable  architecture) and even I just don’t buy into the idea that we have to aim to produce zero waste to make a difference. Sustainability isn’t purely environmental, though obviously that’s a  major part of it. 

True sustainability equally considers social, financial, and environmental factors. This idea is  known as the “triple bottom line” (shout out to our boy, socio-economic powerhouse John  Elkington for this one), or more colloquially as the ‘three pillars of sustainability’. 

I first  encountered the notion of the three pillars in highly academic environments, but the concept is a  simple one and can be applied to pretty much any circumstance. Every aspect of our lives are  encompassed by at least one, if not two or all three, of these key factors. For clarity’s sake, let’s  break this down a bit from an individual perspective, shall we?

Conversations about sustainability often circle around waste and resource use.  Things like refusing single-use plastics, using reusable tote bags or coffee cups, driving an electric car or cycling, are all examples that would fall within the environmental pillar. However, these  circumstances all overlap with the social and financial pillars too. Maybe you can’t afford an  electric car, maybe you don’t have time to brew your own coffee at home and have to hit the drive-thru in the morning, and, maybe you were given plastic cutlery even though you didn’t ask for it. 

The realities of a sustainable lifestyle is going to look a little different from person to person, and  that’s okay! I bring up the three pillars as a simple way to think about daily choices, and to frame  the idea that a sustainable lifestyle is so much more than being ‘zero waste’ and that sustainability  is not a one-size-fits-all kind of vibe. 

As zero waste advocate Annie Marie Bonneau said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing  zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” There is power in numbers,  and many small changes add up fast. Taking the first step is, for pretty much any venture, the  most difficult one of all. Even though it may be tempting, the first step doesn’t have to be a triple  sow-cow ollie 360 backflip cliff-jump kind of leap. It can, and possibly even should, be a baby  step. I’m a huge fan of baby steps. Babies really knew what they were doing with that one.