Using Cake To Understand Sustainability
Updated: Jun 29
Everyone likes cake, right?!
In my last post, I introduced some of the models for understanding sustainability and describing the relationship between the holy trinity of Sustainability - Economic sustainability, Social sustainability and Environmental sustainability.
We briefly touched on how wonderfully simple models like the Three Pillars of Sustainability can be a useful place to begin our understanding, but leave out a big part of the story - dependencies. We're now going to look at that a bit closer, and to do that, we're going to talk about CAKE. Or at least, the shape of cake, anyway.
The Layer Cake Model
Unlike the Three Pillars of Sustainability, the Layer Cake Model is based on the idea that the three factors of sustainability are not, in fact, of equal importance when it comes to ensuring our survival. It therefore introduces a hierarchy to show which ones depend on the others to exist at all, and depicts this hierarchy in the shape of a traditional, three-layered tiered cake.
Here we start with an overhead view, as if we were looking down on our Sustainability Cake from above:
The idea here is that the Environmental layer is the biggest layer at the bottom because it is the most fundamental for our survival - we can't have a Culture or an Economy if we can't breathe, or eat, or survive the weather. Everything else that we are as humans is based on the idea of our environment being capable of keeping us alive, and the more this layer thrives, the more capable it is of sustaining our social and economic endeavors. Therefore it follows that sustaining our biosphere indefinitely must be our first priority.
Next, we have the Social layer, (the People part of People, Planet, Profit) which includes factors like ending poverty and famine, increasing literacy, health & wellbeing, peace & justice, equality, diversity - essentially anything that enables each of us to thrive and contribute to the wellbeing and progress of humanity. Like before, the stronger and more stable this layer is, the more capable we are as a species to innovate and discover and grow in capabilities and understanding (which is another way of describing our final layer: Economy, or Industry, or Profit).
If we look at the order of the layers, each one depends on the ones below it to make it possible. The simple truth is that we can't have a thriving economy and advance ourselves as a species if we are struggling to survive, succumbing to preventable illnesses or suffering from any form of cultural oppression; if even some of us are compromised at the lower levels, then as a whole humanity is capable of less than we could be at the higher levels.
On the other hand, imagine what innovation and industry we would be capable of together if every person on the planet had the maximum opportunity to thrive and was not restricted by any cultural or biological or economic factor. This should be our aim.
The SDG Wedding Cake Model
For further exploration of this idea, we turn to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We have spoken about the Goals in a previous post, but I want to mention them again here because they also use the Three Factors of Sustainability as their basis, and can be further broken down by layers to look like - you guessed it - Cake!
To quickly recap, the Goals focus on the root causes of the complex challenges of today's world and are aimed at achieving three big things by 2030:
1) End extreme poverty, (Social)
2) Fight inequality & injustice, and (Social)
3) Fix climate change. (Environmental)
As we discussed last time, the focus on Society and Environment here is because the Economic pillar has been consicously strengthened for centuries and is already in pretty good shape, so we now need to even things out for greater stability and overall sustainability.
Here is what modelling the SDGs like this looks like:
Affectionately known as the SDG Wedding Cake, here we see the same trinity, arranged in the same layers to show the relationships and dependencies between the three factors. You might notice that it's virtually identical to the Layer Cake Model.
These models are really useful to start to expand our understanding of the three factors and how they relate to each other. The SDGs in particular provide a detailed framework for working on the common goal of sustainability from wherever your starting point and provide many resources to assist with this (you can find them here).
Cake in Business
For the private sector, this is a useful tool for getting across the importance of spending time, energy and resources on strengthening the lower layers: our financial success is dependent on strong environmental and social foundations and without them will be unable to sustain itself.
Again, we have been able to work with a deficit in these areas for a little while, but that time is very quickly coming to an end and we are already seeing the severe repercussions of neglecting the foundations our economies are built on. The cost of failing to strengthen the systems that support us is increasing already and the sustainability of all three systems is the only option.