The meaning of sustainable development

Most straightforward definition:

Sustainable development signifies a path for human progress (development) that can continue into the indefinite future.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘Development’

The word sustainable is widely used to describe anything that can be kept going, ideally in the long term, and is thus relatively unambiguous.  Development, on the other hand, has various meanings in different contexts.  In a piece of music a development is an ‘elaboration of a theme’; to a builder it refers to a new construction project; in international aid circles it means the process of transforming a poor economy into a rich one.  Generic definitions can range from ‘bringing out what is latent or potential’ to ‘exploiting the natural resources (of a region)’ [i] 

Journeys to a working definition of sustainable development

So it is no wonder the term sustainable development has proved so difficult to define with any precision, and, until recently, even harder to explain operationally – that is, in terms of the practical actions needed to implement it.   Consequently, there can be nearly as many definitions as there are definers, which has contributed to a fatigue amongst commentators, fed up with trying to make sense of something that even its protagonists struggle to explain consistently.  It has also given scope to the detractors who know perfectly well what it means, but who have everything to lose if sustainable development – as described below - were to become the organising principle for human progress.

The first appearance of the term in its modern sense was in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy[ii] which clearly linked habitat destruction with population pressures, social inequality and perverse economic policy as not only interconnected but together causing chronic unsustainable development.  One of the people involved at that time was Richard Sandbrook, and he took the concept forward to the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission).  The Commission’s report) coined the now universally recognised definition:

Most quoted definition of sustainable development:

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

from Our Common Future, 1987, Oxford University Press

The Brundtland definition goes further, looking at particular needs, especially of the poor, and at practical limitations around achieving sustainable development. (The second half of the definition is very often missed off in quotation.) So the full definition reads as follows:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

Abuses and excesses of sustainable development

As the 21st century approached, the fog around what sustainable development meant operationally began to disperse, wafted away by multiple crises manifestly caused by un-sustainable development practices – in rich as well as poor countries.  One particularly thick mist had been generated by the persistent idea that sustainable development (or sustainability) was only concerned with the environment.  And something that was not intended by The Brundtland Report, but which suited those wishing to protect ‘business as usual’, is the assumption that economic success is predicated on increasing numbers of people consuming ever growing volumes of goods and services.  

Understanding environment, social development and economy together

Increasing inequality combined with economic expectations that, for many, were clearly unlikely to be met, has resulted in social unrest and an uneasiness that governments are out of ideas and possibly out of control.  What UK Government Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington called the ‘perfect’ storm of growing demand for food, energy and water outstripping supply and compounded by dangerous climate change, was joined by the financial collapse to demonstrate in a very practical way that to separate the economy from what happened to people and the environment was a dangerous game.  In 2008, for example, the year after the financial crash, the economic downturn caused emissions of greenhouse gases to dip by 8%. 

Environment, development, economy: you can’t have all three, right?

Subsequent political prevarication over key reforms to the financial system, or to shift from fossil to renewable energy sources, for example, has exposed how dependent are current models for human progress on being free to exploit both the environment and people. 

   ‘the crisis is in implementation’                  ‘the key is implementation’

   Kofi Annan, 2002                                                  Ban Ki Moon, 2012


Nevertheless as the 21st century moves into its second decade and despite wider understanding about the systemic nature of the causes of unsustainable development individuals and institutions struggle to design a coherent and practical way to transition to a more sustainable way of achieving our environmental, social and economic goals at the same time. Mental models like the triple bottom line, persist, blocking joined-up thinking, but more integrated approaches, such as the five capital model, are starting to resonate. [iii]

Operational definition:

Sustainable development is a coherent and practical process which enables us to achieve environmental, social and economic goals at the same time (rather than in trade off, as at present). It is the at-the-same-timeness that is the essence of sustainable development.

In 2012 the UN’s Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, provided the ultimate proof that such gatherings are without agency and cannot assure implementation of national commitments. As a former Ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock points out, whether it is stopping the harbouring of terrorists or the emission of greenhouse gas, disillusionment with the nation state’s ability to deal with the major issues of our times is now so great that the only arena for growing sort of resilience (systemic strength) that is evidence of sustainability is the sub-national localities. [iv]  Global resilience, global sustainability will be an aggregate of such localities.



For an introduction to the instant proliferation of definitions, see Pearce D, A Markandya, Barbier E, 1989, Blueprint for a Green Economy (Blueprint 1), London: Earthscan Blueprint for a Green Economy

For different explanations about sustainability, and approaches to implementation explore the internet.  Some examples:


International Institute for Sustainable Development:

World Bank:

United Nations:

2012 UN conference:

World Resources Institute:

Centre for Science and Environment, India:




[i]  Unless otherwise stated definitions are taken from Chambers 21st Century Dictionary.

[ii] A pdf copy may be obtained from

[iii] Five capitals model: for an example of it in use see

[iv] Greenstock J (2008) ‘Nations have to act locally in a globalised world’ Financial Times, 16 May

January 2013

SD definitions 6105853481_ba2f61920e_b.jpg

NASA Watching Atlantic Tropics: Katia, Tropical Storm Lee and System 94L. Sustainable development is concerned with the complex interplay of different global systems.

About the author

Sara Parkin's picture

London, UK

Sara Parkin founded Forum for the Future, along with Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ekins (who is currently Professor of Energy and Environment... (Read more)