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Environmental Sustainability: What It Means & Why It Matters

Environmental sustainability is often described as “saving the planet.” But our planet survived for billions of years before humans existed, and it'll continue to survive after we’re gone. Sustainability is really about saving ourselves—ensuring that our species can survive and prosper long into the future. And since we don’t have another planet to move to, environmental sustainability means preserving the resources on this planet that we need to live and to thrive.

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A tiny plant growing alone in a sandy desert-like field.

Economists often talk about a problem they call “the tragedy of the commons.” It goes like this: Suppose several small farmers all share a single pasture. Grazing sheep on this shared land saves them money on feed. So naturally, they all make as much use of it as they can.

The problem is, if too many animals share the same pasture, it will become overgrazed. There won’t be enough grass left to support all the sheep. Their health will suffer, and some could even die.

The farmers would all be better off if they agreed to use the pasture more moderately. For instance, they could promise to let only a few sheep graze there on any given day. Then there would be enough grass for them all, and all the farmers would prosper.

This is a small-scale picture of what environmental sustainability looks like. It’s about managing our planet’s shared resources so they can support all of us, both now and in the future.

What is environmental sustainability?

Our entire planet is a shared “commons,” just like that sheep pasture. All of us—all humans on the planet—rely on its resources for everything we do. We need air to breathe, water to drink, plants to eat, wood and metal to build things. Our energy sources, from the harmful fossil fuels to greener renewable resources like  wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal energy all come from or are powered by nature or natural processes. And there are countless other resources we rely on to support modern industries.

But if we use up these resources too fast, they won’t be there for future generations. If we want our species to survive and prosper, we have to learn to use them in a sustainable way. Like the sheep farmers, we have to bring our usage in line with what our environment can support.

That’s what environmental sustainability means. It’s about managing resources so that we have what we need today and still have enough for tomorrow.

Some people use the term “sustainable” as a synonym for green or eco-friendly, but it’s more than that. A green activity, lifestyle, or society is one that minimizes the harm it causes to the environment right now. But a sustainable activity, lifestyle, or society is one that can continue indefinitely for the future.

Here’s an example: Recycling is green because it reduces waste and energy use. But it’s not sustainable, because most materials can’t be recycled over and over. Eventually they wear out and new material needs to be added. Composting, on the other hand, is sustainable. You can turn plant waste into compost that feeds new plants, and you can repeat that cycle over and over.

Plastic bottles on a beach.

Why is environmental sustainability important?

Right now, our species isn’t living sustainably. Instead, we’re using up ever-increasing levels of natural resources and energy.

We rely on fossil fuels, a limited and nonrenewable resource, for heat, electricity, and transportation. We cut down forests that support other species and absorb carbon. We deplete the soil with intensive farming. We pollute the air, water, and land. And we emit greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet so much that it could become uninhabitable.

To survive, we need to bring our consumption into balance with what the planet can produce. But we need to do it in a way that allows humans to prosper as well. We want to help human societies develop while still protecting the natural world.

A truly sustainable society must meet three equally important goals, called the three pillars of sustainability:

Environmental protection

This goal is all about taking care of our planet and its natural resources. It includes protecting air, water, land, and the plants and animals we share the planet with. Achieving it means reducing waste, relying on renewable resources, and controlling carbon emissions.

Economic development

This goal is about helping human societies to grow and thrive. It includes providing good jobs and raising people out of poverty. To achieve it, we need to cultivate healthy businesses that can make a profit without hurting people and the planet.

Social development

The final goal is to support human health and emotional well-being. It includes promoting education and curbing hunger and disease. Reaching this goal means combating poverty, pollution, and droughts that lead to famine. As you can see, these are aims that overlap with environmental and economic ones.

A man planting a crop into soil on a farm.

Examples of environmental sustainability and how it’s achieved

To make the whole world sustainable requires action from everyone. Individuals, companies, and governments must all do their part to move toward a sustainable society.

Individual actions

Nearly anything you do to help the environment can be a step toward sustainability. Some examples include:

These actions support all three pillars of sustainability at the same time. For instance, driving less and walking or biking more protects the environment by preventing pollution. It helps you economically by saving you money on gas. And it improves your personal health by helping you get more exercise.

Corporate actions

Companies are bigger than individuals, and thus their actions can have a bigger effect on the environment and society. Corporate sustainability can mean:

  • Making products from renewable materials
  • Reducing or eliminating packaging waste
  • Reducing “miles to market,” the distance from where a product is produced to the to where it’s sold
  • Reducing energy use and switching to renewable energy for factories, warehouses, offices, transportation
  • “Cradle to cradle” design, or developing products that are easy to break down and recycle into new products

Government policies

Actions by governments have the biggest potential of all to affect society. Laws passed within a nation can determine the behavior of all individuals and companies in that nation. Wise government policies can support all three pillars of sustainability—sometimes all at once.

Examples include:

  • Environmental laws to prevent pollution and halt deforestation
  • Carbon taxes and fees, which reduce fossil fuel use by making it more expensive
  • Tax credits for renewable energy or electric vehicles
  • Combating disease by distributing medicines, including vaccines
  • Protecting the food supply by supporting farmers
  • Promoting economic growth by supporting small businesses

What is the goal of sustainability?

Some people describe sustainability as “saving the planet,” but that’s not actually true. Our planet survived for billions of years before humans existed, and it will continue to survive after we’re gone. What’s less clear is how long it will be able to support us.

What sustainability is really about is saving ourselves. Its ultimate goal is to ensure that our species can survive and prosper long into the future. And since we don’t have another planet to move to, sustainability means preserving the resources on this planet that we need to live and to thrive.

Are there barriers to environmental sustainability?

To become sustainable, modern society must overcome some major social challenges. The first is population growth. As Our World in Data shows, there were only 2.5 billion people on the planet in 1950. By 2019, there were 7.7 billion. That’s more than three times as many people sharing the resources of one planet.

Fortunately, population growth is already slowing. However, the world population is still expected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100. We’ll need to produce more of everything—food, clean water, energy—to support that many people. And we’ll need to do it without damaging the environment.

At this point, the population is continuing to grow mostly in the developing world. In developed nations, the biggest threats to sustainability come from our production and consumption patterns. Simply put, we consume too much stuff, and we use too many resources to produce the stuff we consume.

Breaking these patterns of behavior won’t be easy. It will require major changes in the way we grow food, produce energy, manufacture goods, and construct buildings. And since big changes cost money, it’s hard to convince people it’s in their interest to make them. Like the sheep farmers, we want to keep doing what we’re doing now because it’s in our short-term interest.

To achieve sustainability, all of us need to think long-term. For individuals, that means looking beyond what’s cheapest and easiest right now and considering what will help us years in the future. For companies, it means focusing less on this year’s profits and more on long-term growth. And for governments, it means thinking less about the next election and more about ensuring the country’s long-term survival.

A person drinking water from a sustainable boxed carton, standing on a cliffside overlooking a beach.

What are the benefits of sustainable growth?

It won’t be easy to shift long-ingrained habits of thought. But the benefits are worth it. In the long run, sustainable growth benefits everyone.

Benefits for people and the planet

A sustainable world is a healthier and happier one. In a sustainable future:

  • We will continue to enjoy nature because we’ve protected ecosystems and endangered species
  • We will have clean air to breathe because we’re polluting less
  • We will have enough food and water for everyone
  • We will still have beaches and coastal cities because we limited sea level rise from global warming
  • We will be able to withstand storms, wildfires, and other natural disasters because we kept global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C over their pre-industrial levels

Benefits for businesses and corporations

The steps required to get to a sustainable world can also have short-term benefits for businesses. Growing sustainably allows them to:

  • Save money by reducing energy use and waste disposal costs
  • Take advantage of financial incentives for reducing emissions
  • Improve their brand image and attract more customers, especially eco-conscious ones
  • Attract and retain employees, investors, and shareholders

How can environmental sustainability be achieved?

This overarching goal of environmental sustainability includes several smaller ones. To create a sustainable world, we must:

  • Control climate change. It’s too late to prevent global warming from harming people and ecosystems. That harm is already happening. But the faster we reduce our global carbon footprint, the less permanent damage it will cause.
  • Achieve energy independence. To meet our energy needs for the future, we must end our dependence on nonrenewable, polluting fossil fuels. We can do this by conserving energy and switching to renewable fuel sources.
  • Close the loop. We can produce and dispose of goods sustainably through cradle-to-cradle design. End-of-life reuse reduces waste and minimizes the need for new materials—a win-win.
  • Feed the world. A sustainable world will have enough food for everyone. We can achieve this goal by moving toward plant-based foods. As Our World in Data shows, they generally have a lower carbon footprint and require less water to produce.
  • Preserve water supplies. There’s a limited amount of freshwater on the planet, and it must meet the needs of a growing population. To make that happen, we need to use this resource wisely and prevent water waste.
  • Protect natural resources. Natural resources include forests, fields, waterways, and wildlife. To preserve these resources, we must protect them from pollution and habitat loss.
  • Improve global health. We need to protect human health as well as the health of ecosystems. That means creating healthier living conditions and providing better health care for people around the world.
  • Raise global living standards. Finally, a sustainable world should allow everyone to live comfortably. That means raising living standards for the world’s poorest people and reducing the global gap between rich and poor.
Multiple wind turbines on rolling green farmland.

How renewable energy supports environmental sustainability

Moving toward renewable energy can support many of these sustainability goals at once. Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner power sources reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps control global warming. That, in turn, helps protect our food supply and our water supply, which are both threatened by climate change.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewables also reduces pollution that damages ecosystems and human health. And because renewable energy systems have no ongoing fuel costs, they can help the whole world meet its energy needs. That will improve living standards all around the globe.


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