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What does Sustainability even mean?

Sustainability is a common term used in everyday language. However, many people do not have a clear understanding of what sustainability actually means. The United Nations defined sustainability as the state when "Humanity has the ability to […] meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This concept also entails three different dimensions: economic, social and ecological.

The Economic Dimension

The economic dimension of sustainability is focused on economic growth and the maximization of economic benefits and wealth for all of society. It aims at promoting trade on an international level, while reducing public debt and stabilising global financial systems. The focus here is on all sectors of the economy: primary (agriculture and forestry), secondary (industry), tertiary (services).

The Social Dimension

The social dimension of sustainability takes various factors into account. On the one hand, poverty, food insecurity, child and infant mortality, crime, violence, war, corruption and discrimination should be reduced or eliminated. On the other hand, public health, education, access to drinking water, electricity and sanitation facilities, personal safety, equality, human rights, decent jobs and infrastructure have to be improved.

The Ecological Dimension

The ecological dimension of sustainability is focused on healthy ecosystems on land, in the water and in the air and atmosphere, as well as reducing climate change and global warming. On land, it is important to counteract negative changes such as deforestation, desertification, melting of glaciers, the arctic and Antarctica, loss of habitat and biodiversity, soil degradation, mass agriculture, waste and the excessive use of natural resources. In the water, ecosystems are challenged by rising sea levels, increasing water temperatures, loss of wetlands and biodiversity, as well as waste. In the air and atmosphere, issues like greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, smog and acid rain put the ecosystem in danger.

It is important to protect our environment since all of our livelihoods depend on its health.

As extreme weather events and natural disasters caused by climate change increase in their frequency and severity, we will not be able to sustain our current way of living. The coming decades are crucial to defining the extent of irreversible damage to the earth’s systems. We can and must all work together to minimise the scale of climate change.

Implications for your daily life

Now how can you use this in you daily life?

For example, when you hear "This business is sustainable", that means that it is not just focused on short-term benefits for a few people, but on long-term benefits for many. It also means, that the business has decent working conditions and is taking action to minimize its environmental footprint.

If a "farming practice is sustainable", it will make sure that there is as little as possible disruption of the ecosystem, no toxic chemicals are used and that the revenues from the practice will not just go abroad to some multi-national company, but will benefit the farmers and workers directly.

When you make the promise to "consume food sustainably", you will pay attention to buy local food that does not require long transportation ways, as well as making sure that the production of the product is not using toxics, not harming the environment, as well as providing decent pay and good working conditions for the employees working in the production or growing and harvesting.

Meaning, if you want to know if an action is…

…economically sustainable, ask yourself, whether the action is focused on long-term benefits for all of society.

…socially sustainable, think about, whether the action is contributing to the social wellbeing of society.

…environmentally sustainable, make sure that the action is not harmful to the ecosystem and is trying to possibly even reverse the human impact on the environment.

So now the question is, what are you going to do to make your life more sustainable?

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