What It Means to Be Sustainable in the 21st Century

By now, sustainability as a concept has worked its way into everyday life. But knowing the definition will not by itself bring sustainability into your life. What does sustainability mean to you, and how can you incorporate it into your everyday life?

In a sustainable life, we aim to meet our needs – food, shelter, and clothing – without harming future generations’ ability to meet their needs. Do you want to rob your descendants of a chance for a fulfilled life so you can use more than your share of natural resources and obtain evermore possessions?

Sustainability since the 1980s

Sustainability has evolved. The modern-day concept was developed with the 1987 release of the United Nations’ Brundtland Report. Many understood it to be a way to conserve resources so humankind could continue to exploit them. But this idea was replaced with a concern that renewable ecological resources such as water, forests, and soils were in fact limited, just like any other finite resource that can and will run out when tapped beyond its ability to self-renew. Sustainability at its most basic level implies that the survival of humankind and other living things depends upon the ability of the environment to continue to provide adequate water, food, clean air, and all the other necessities of life.

How business fits into the sustainability model of life

One model of the sustainability concept, especially for the business sector, emphasizes the triple bottom line, an idea that the environment, economy, and society (also known as planet, people, and profit) must all be considered when planning developmental activities that could impact one or more of those three factors of sustainability. When a business runs sustainably according to the triple bottom line, environmental and societal aspects of its operations are considered to be as important a factor as profitability.

Sustainability is now commonly understood to be a good business practice. Savings could be had as a result of energy cost-cutting, and a firm legitimately adding “sustainable” to its list of attributes could earn the trust – and the dollars — of sustainably-minded consumers.


Humanity's Population -- 5000 BCE to present

Our growing population

The pressure on the Earth’s limited resources increases along with the growth of the world’s population. Population growth has increased exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. The population hovered around a billion people in 1804; by the 1920s that figure had grown to 2 billion. The turn of the 21st century brought the number of people living on Earth to more than 6 billion. And now the United Nations reports that that number will increase to 8 billion in 2022. If the ability of the Earth to renew vital natural resources is limited, it seems that the ability of people to continue to reproduce is not.

Sustainability and the United Nations

Consumption of resources by all these people occupies a major place in the thinking of some planners, developers, government officials, and individuals. The United Nations held an Earth Summit in 1992. Most countries in the UN determined they would work to achieve economic goals while protecting the Earth’s environment and natural resources. In 2015, the UN introduced the 2030 Agenda to answer the urgent need to provide for all people alive today and those who will follow them. It identified 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to relieve the relentless exploitation of the Earth’s resources. These goals are designed to protect the environment, reduce poverty, and provide for human rights among all people. The 17 SDGs were implemented early in 2016 with the overarching goal of meeting them all by 2030. Time is running out to complete the work of the goals. Indeed, if the current fires, floods, and storms continue, we will have even less time and resources needed to achieve a society capable of meeting its needs while guaranteeing that future generations will be able to meet their needs.

Sustainability and individual responsibility

So given what could credibly be seen as a dire future, what can we do to increase the likelihood that our descendants can live a life of freedom from want of vital resources like food, water, and oxygen? Urgent activities need to be taken on the governmental, corporate, and individual levels to achieve a livable world for ourselves and those who will follow us.

Environmental activities individuals can pursue include:

  1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle everything possible.
  2. Cut off or turn back all possible electrical appliances and equipment when they’re not being used. You can make this easier by using a power strip to turn off multiple appliances at once.
  3. When it comes time to replace your home’s appliances, select those with a high energy star rating.
  4. Use energy-efficient light bulbs.
  5. Cut back on the use of fossil fuels whenever possible. These resources are not only finite, but their use is also the main contributor to global warming. And we are now all seeing what global warming means to humanity.
  6. Be mindful of your use of water: take shorter showers; run water only as needed; and landscape with non-invasive, native plants that work with your climate’s naturally available water.
  7. Be mindful of your carbon footprint and work to minimize it. If you want to find out how much carbon your household is contributing to the environment, use the S. EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator. https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/ The site also includes ways you can reduce your emissions.

If we are to survive as a species, if life itself is to continue, sustainability must be top of mind for all, individuals and business, nonprofits and government. So do your part and create a sustainable household. Take your business to those with sustainability procedures in place, and urge your elected officials to do all they can to ensure a future that allows our descendants to enjoy the quality of life available today.


Thompson, P. B. (2012) “Sustainability: Ethical Foundations.” Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11 https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/sustainability-ethical-foundations-71373239/

“United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3-14 June 1992” https://www.un.org/en/conferences/environment/rio1992

U.S. EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator.  https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

Worldometer, “World Population by Year” https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/