The Three Pillars of Sustainability
Updated: Jun 29
One of my favourite ways of understanding sustainability in business is also one of the simplest; the Three Pillars of Sustainability.
This is where I always start the conversation with someone who is a bit overwhelmed or dismissive, because it's such a simple and powerful way of understanding how sustainability fits into the bigger picture.
I find it's especially useful in a business context as well, because it starts from a common place of understanding – that we all want the success of a company / organisation. Instead of trying to replace that with something different (which rarely works anyway), this model expands on the definition of what that success looks like; including a greater sustainability rather than substituting.
Note: As described in a previous post, when we're talking about Sustainability here, we mean the ability to sustain, or continue, indefinitely - another way of saying that is the fundamental survival or success of the business.
The roof of Sustainability is held up by three pillars: Economic sustainability, Social sustainability and Environmental sustainability.
When we look at this diagram, the relationship between the three pillars becomes immediately obvious: they are of equal size and are equally important in the task of keeping the roof up. We can clearly see that any one pillar would be useless at keeping up the roof without the other two. I'm going to say that again for the people at the back: Environmental sustainability alone is not enough. Economic sustainability alone is not enough. For true sustainability for humans on this planet, we need to pursue - and accomplish - sustainability in all three areas simultaneously.
And so we can start to see where many of today's organisations are falling short of that goal and where the focus needs to be, to get them supporting that roof adequately and surviving in the long term.
In the West, the Private sector has spent the last century or two focused on strengthening and growing the Economic pillar, usually at the expense of the other two. The Third sector has traditionally focused on the Social pillar, often also at the expense of the other two. And the Public sector has fluctuated between Social (on the left) and Economic (on the right), while nearly everyone has ignored the Environmental pillar altogether.
But what happens to our roof if one of those pillars becomes much taller and stronger than the other two? It might stay up for a while, sure, but if it does, it's likely to be rather precariously balanced, unstable, and highly susceptible to the risk of collapse; not qualities any of us would appreciate or desire in a business.
The answer is that every business and every organisation and every society needs to be balancing all three pillars.
More recently we've seen some progress on corporate strengthening of the Social pillar, with more effort made towards diversity, inclusion, employee welfare, job satisfaction, community outreach, brand positioning, flexible working etc. Some parts of the Private sector have made great strides in this direction, and many companies have seen tangible benefits to their bottom line as a direct result of these efforts, too. We are slowly realising that such organisations are more stable, more resilient, and much more likely to survive in the longer term.
This slow shift towards balancing Economic and Social pillars has had a profound effect on the lives of those workers who are fortunate enough to work in those companies, but we're not there yet. Because we are now starting to feel the effects of ignoring that third pillar for so long, and if that collapses then the whole structure is going to come down.
And what use will our big Economic pillars be then?
The Three Spheres of Sustainability
There are many other ways of expressing the relationship between the three factors, and you may see this holy trinity appearing again and again represented in different ways.
Sometimes they are called the Three Spheres of Sustainability (or Three Circles), using a Venn diagram to show the three factors intersecting (as shown right).
You may also see references to the Triple Bottom Line; or People, Planet, Profit; or even notice that the UN uses the Economic, Social and Environmental trinity as the basis for their Sustainable Development Goals (which we'll take a closer look at in the next post).
Avoiding the Mickey Mouse Model
In many instances where organisations are starting to think about incorporating social and environmental factors into their business practices, a misguided understanding of the relationship between the three often results a "Mickey Mouse Model" (shown below).* This model is named after the shape it makes (like the ears of Mickey Mouse) but also to indicate the unrealistic nature of pretending this is any kind of solution to the problem.
While it might be appealing to just tack on a token effort towards Social and Environmental concerns - allowing us to remain largely focused on the Economic sphere, as we are used to - this model is not at all sustainable and should be avoided.
Efforts that look like this are nothing more than tokenism and will do next-to-nothing for the long term survival of the business, or society, or the planet. Worse, they make businesses and their stakeholders feel like they are addressing the problem adequately without ever coming close to understanding what they should be doing.
*In Social Third sector organisations, the Social and Economic spheres are often reversed, as social concerns outweigh economic ones, but the overall shape of the model remains the same. Likewise, for many environmental groups, the Economic and Environmental spheres are reversed, to illustrate their focus on the environment being the most important thing and Social / Economic concerns lagging far behind. None of these models are sustainable or advised.
Further Sustainability Models
Many environmentalists argue that the models above are too simplistic because they leave out the very real dependencies between the three - there is, in fact, a hierarchy when it comes to supporting the survival of humanity as a species on this planet, which the Three Pillars does not show. Other models describe a more hierarchical relationship - like the Layer Cake model, which we will go into in more depth in the next post - which is definitely important to understand and incredibly useful in a range of contexts.
However, I still believe the Three Pillars of Sustainability is a particularly useful tool to start conversations about sustainability, especially in a business context. It's high level and broad and easy to understand quickly, which is vital in quick interactions or to overcome skepticism.
I am a big fan of starting on common ground, establishing common interest, and then expanding from there, one step at a time. The reality is that Western business practice has prioritised the Economic pillar above all else for so long that it is going to take some time to collectively shift our priorities and get to where we need to be. And unfortunately, I believe the environmental community have so far managed to alienate the business community by taking a stance that is too far away from our accepted understanding of how the world works, and failing to build bridges to a shared understanding. They're not wrong, but their approach needs work.
So this is the first, most accessible step to a shared understanding.
Because the way forward is not a case of giving up our economies to save the environment, and everyone going back to live in caves; economies are important to us and profits are an important part of economies - they're just not more important than everything else on the planet. Understanding true sustainability in business is about looking at the wider context of the world we live in before pursuing profit-at-all-costs. Because profits-at-all-costs (or culture-at-all-costs, or environment-at-all-costs) ends up costing ALL of us significantly.
One of the strongest things we can do in every sector is to commit to building all three pillars together, to strengthening our Social and Environmental pillars to match our Economic pillars, and building that awareness and that commitment into the DNA of our organisations. Doing so will make the planet more resilient, it will make our societies stronger, our lives better, and yes, it will make our businesses and economies stronger too.
The triangle - or tripod - is the most stable structure we have, after all.