What are the three pillars of sustainability?

What are the three pillars of sustainability?

Team ErbologyErbology

With climate change an ever more pressing issue, many of us are looking for ways to live more sustainably. Part of this is knowing what to demand from our governments and the companies we buy from. One famous theory, the three pillars of sustainability, can help us understand what it takes to be sustainable. We’ll also look at how we apply the pillars at Erbology.

April 27, 2022 4:40 pm

What does ‘sustainability’ mean?

While you might think that the meaning of the word ‘sustainability’ is pretty obvious, it’s worth clarifying as it can mean different things in different contexts.

The first definition of ‘sustainability’ in the Cambridge dictionary relates to ‘the quality of being able to continue over a long time’.(1)

Economists, for example, might use the term ‘sustainable growth’ to describe the steady and continuous growth of wealth.

However, many of us associate sustainability with the environment. In recent years, ‘sustainability’ has become shorthand for any effort to protect the natural environment.

Nowadays, we expect companies to be sustainable, and for governments to support sustainable practices, meaning that they don’t take actions which harm the environment.

Indeed this is the Cambridge dictionary’s second definition: ‘the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore being able to continue for a long time.’

In the way we talk about sustainability today, the concept of continuing for a long time can sometimes be lost. We often think about making sustainable choices as using the right kind of materials or reducing what we use and waste. Both can be sustainable, as long as they can be continued long-term.

So now we’ve cleared up the word ‘sustainability’, what are its three pillars?

Three pillars of sustainability

The theory of the ‘three pillars of sustainability’ is a method we can use to understand how we can create a sustainable society.

It’s based on the idea that any given project can only be sustainable if each of the following criteria are met and work together:(2)

  • Social sustainability
  • Economic sustainability
  • Environmental sustainability

The theory is often presented as a Venn diagram, where each pillar intersects with overall sustainability right at the centre. This means that overall sustainability can only truly be achieved when all of the three pillars are in place.

three pillars of sustainability

Likewise, if one of the pillars crumbles, then the goal of overall sustainability becomes impossible. The theory maintains that if any given project is socially and environmentally sustainable, but not economically so, then it can’t be defined as fully sustainable.

The same is true if either of the other two pillars are missing.

Governments, businesses and even individuals can use the model of the three pillars to help them determine whether their plan is sustainable.

Who came up with the three pillars of sustainability?

Curiously, nobody really knows who first came up with the three pillars theory.

It seems to have come together organically from the scholarly thinking of the ‘80s and ‘90s. While many academics make use of the model, none can say definitively where it first originated.

Despite its unclear origins, though, the model is so well-known that from 2001, it was considered to be the ‘‘common view’ of sustainable development’.(2)

It’s worth noting that while most scholars agree on what the three pillars should be, a few have different ideas. Some have said that there should be extra pillars such as cultural, institutional or technical sustainability.(2)

However the most widely accepted version of the three pillars seems to just include the three original pillars: social, economic and environmental.

So, let’s take a closer look at what each of those mean. To make it simple, we’re going to use a real life example: us! Every time we launch a new product, we have to make sure it’s sustainable. So let’s take the example of one of our recent launches: our Ceremonial Grade Matcha Tea.


organic ceremonial matcha

What is social sustainability?

The first of the three pillars is ‘social sustainability’. In this context, social sustainability essentially means ‘wellbeing’.

According to the UN, if a company wants to be socially sustainable, it has to identify and manage the effect it has on people.

According to the website of the UN Global Compact, ‘directly or indirectly, companies affect what happens to employees, workers in the value chain, customers and local communities, and it is important to manage impacts proactively.’(3)

That means that, as a company, we have to make sure that we’re doing business in a way that ensures the wellbeing of the people within and around us. If we have any negative effect on people, it’s our responsibility to manage or mitigate it.

How do we make sure we’re socially sustainable?

To take the example of our matcha, being socially sustainable means that we had to make sure we were sourcing responsibly.

Ceremonial grade matcha can only be grown in Japan, so we set out to look for small, independent farmers. As the ‘little guy’ ourselves, it’s really important to celebrate and support other small businesses, and work with people who really love their craft. That’s exactly how we found our matcha supplier.

Their farm is just outside Kyoto, Japan, and their matcha is grown using traditional methods. We recognised a kindred spirit and immediately wanted to work with them.

For many years, big corporate companies have tipped the balance of power away from small producers, often paying them scandalously small amounts for their produce. (Indeed, this is why the Fairtrade movement began).

So, we make sure we pay a fair price for our matcha. This means the farm can continue to produce matcha for us at the same brilliant quality for the long term.

But it’s not just our suppliers we need to look after. We need to make sure that our impact is positive when it comes to our customers, those who live and work near our storage facilities, our supply chain partners, and indeed anyone who comes into contact with our business.

We also make sure our employees are happy by providing great working conditions – and lots of free Erbology goodies!

So, how about the next pillar?

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sustainable matcha

"It's not just our suppliers we need to look after. We need to make sure that our impact is positive when it comes to our customers, those who live and work near our storage facilities, our supply chain partners, and indeed anyone who comes into contact with our business."

What is economic sustainability?

Often, it seems as though the unstoppable force of economic growth can be at odds with sustainability.

However, economic sustainability in this sense simply means: is the business or project viable? Can it take the resources it has and transform them into profit?

This makes a lot of sense, given that if the project runs out of the money needed to keep it going, then it grinds to a halt. If it’s a business, it goes bust. Thus, it’s pretty clear that if a project isn’t economically sustainable, it’s not sustainable in any sense.

How do we make sure we’re economically sustainable?

In some ways, this one is quite straightforward for us, as we’re a private business! To be economically sustainable, we have to make sure that we make enough money from our products to ensure that we can pay our employees, keep our products in stock and make sure our supply chain runs smoothly.

Essentially, all businesses strive to be economically sustainable.

To return to our previous example, this means that when considering whether to stock matcha powder we have to think about whether we can make a profit from the product while still buying it at a fair price.

In a broader sense, we have to make sure that it’ll be a valuable addition to our product range, and will help the company to grow.

As a young company, it’s important to make sure we continue to grow, not just so we can cover our overheads, but also so we can continue to innovate and expand our range!

So, that’s two pillars ticked off; how about the third?

What is environmental sustainability?

The environmental pillar is probably the one we think of first when we hear the term ‘sustainability’.

It means that the company, project or institution ensures that its activities consume environmental resources responsibly. These include energy, water, materials and fossil fuels, among many others.

The aim is to make sure that we consume natural resources at a rate we can maintain, giving them time to regenerate.

This is precisely what has not been happening over the last century, when we have been consuming fossil fuels at a rate far, far faster than they can be regenerated.

Eventually, in the not-too-distant future, we will run out of them. But even before that happens, we will have caused an enormous amount of damage to the planet as a consequence of using them. This includes causing carbon emissions which raise the temperature of our atmosphere, and emitting dangerous levels of pollution which damage our health.

That’s why companies, governments and institutions around the world are now teaming up to find ways to place a lot more focus on environmental sustainability. Some of the ways they can do this is to reduce waste, switch to renewable energy and change their business practices if these have a negative environmental impact.


matcha latte

How do we make sure we’re environmentally sustainable?

Environmental sustainability has been a key tenet of our company since the day it was founded. It’s a requirement that we apply to every stage of our business.

For example, we insist on using only organic suppliers not just because we think it’s better for our health, but also because organic farming methods are much less destructive to the environment. Organic farms do not use harmful pesticides which can disrupt the local ecosystem.

They are also legally banned from using synthetic hormones or genetic modifications, both of which can have unintended consequences for the wildlife within and around the farm.

We produce our products in small batches. Again, this has multiple benefits; on one hand, it means that our products are made with care and attention. On the other, it means we can greatly reduce waste.

It also means we can carefully plan out our supply chain and product transport to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible.

Next, we carefully design our packaging to be both eco-friendly and protect the product inside.

Let’s go back to our matcha. For this product, we chose a recyclable amber glass jar with a black plastic lid. The amber glass protects the matcha from degradation by the light, and means all components of the jar are fully recyclable.

All this means that we can operate our business long-term, without damaging the environment.


matcha farm kyoto

Our more ambitious aims

When we set up Erbology, we weren’t just doing it to create fabulous healthy foods (although that was certainly a big part of it!).

We did it because we wanted our life’s work to have a positive impact on the world.

We’re still a young company, but we have plenty of ambition when it comes to making a positive impact.

For starters, we’re working with universities to conduct much-needed research into the health benefits of powerful plants, such as our range of adaptogens.

We’re also working towards making our snack packaging compostable, thanks to technological advances which allow us to do this while still protecting the product inside.

Finally, we’re a proud cheerleader of small, sustainable businesses all over the world. We regularly collaborate with fabulous independent ethical brands, because we know that a win for one sustainable business is a win for all of us.

More on the three pillars of sustainability

If you’d like to learn more about the three pillars, you might be interested in an online course you can take on FutureLearn, in collaboration with the University of Nottingham.

The course itself is called ‘Sustainability, Society and You’, and it has a section devoted to the three pillars.

Head over to FutureLearn for more details.

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