Sustainable Development Meaning, History, Pillars and Trends Explained

pillars of sustainability

Sustainable Development is socioeconomic development which is accompanied by conservation of resources, such that future generations are not endangered.

In this article, we define Sustainable Development from various perspectives, including the following;

1). Definition of Sustainable Development

2). Difference Between Sustainable Development and Sustainability

3). Origin and History of the Concept

4). Pillars of Sustainable Development

5). The Sustainable Development Agenda 2030  

6). Sustainable Development Trends

7). Conclusion


Definition of Sustainable Development

The basic ideology behind Sustainable Development, is to ensure that the environment remains preserved from degradation, while economic growth is ongoing. Therefore, Sustainable Development is development and advancement that is accompanied by conservation of resources.

It has been a very popular concept over the past two decades, and it is driven actively by different organizations including the United Nations [8]. Over the years, it has proven fairly difficult to achieve Sustainable Development, especially in terms of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

By another definition, Sustainable Development is a principle which is solely designed to meet the needs and goals of the human population, while ensuring that the ecosystem and the natural environment remain capable of meeting these needs for the long-term.

This tells us that, Sustainable Development encourages humans to use the available natural resources to meet their own needs, however, this must be done in a sustainable manner, without depleting the resources or degrading the environment.


Difference Between Sustainable Development and Sustainability

Sustainable Development varies from Sustainability.

Basically, Sustainability is a condition, state, or outcome, whereby the use of resources on Earth is carried out in a manner which is environment and economically-friendly.

On the other hand, Sustainable Development is the process or effort, involved in achieving a state whereby resources are consumed in such a manner that preserves the environment and the ecosystem.

Based on these definitions, it will be correct to view Sustainable Development as the effort and process involved in achieving Sustainability.

The table below provides a simple comparison;


Sustainable Development Sustainability
The process of achieving Sustainability The goal or outcome of Sustainable Development
Involves active efforts to use natural resources conservatively Is a condition whereby natural resources are being used conservatively
Is a complex concept, comprising of sustainable agriculture, climate change control, environmental remediation, sustainable exploration, ecosystem and wildlife preservation, technology, among others Is a simple concept, defined by a state of equilibrium between the consumption and conservation of resources on Earth


Origin and History of the Concept

The concept of Sustainable Development was developed and defined in the Brundtland report in 1987, also referred to as Our Common Future.

This report provided a concise, clear, and widely accepted definition of Sustainable Development, which states that it is “the human ability to ensure that the current development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In the following years, major problems on Earth were identified and included in the list of requirements for achieving Sustainable Development. These problems include Climate Change, Environmental Pollution, and Food Shortages, among others.

As part of measures to achieve Sustainable Development, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988, by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It has been widely acknowledged that sustainable development cannot be achieved without addressing the Climate Change problem.

Efforts have been made so far, to ensure that the measures to achieve Sustainable Development are observed by corporate organizations in public and private sectors around the world.


Pillars of Sustainable Development

There are three (3) major arms of Sustainable Development, otherwise referred to as ‘Pillars’ of Sustainable Development.

We may list them as;

1). Economic

2). Environmental

3). Social

Pillars of Sustainable Development.

The Economic aspect involves efforts to ensure economic growth and reduce poverty.

Environmental aspect of Sustainable Development has to do with efforts to preserve and protect the natural environment, and reduce the negative impact of human activities on the ecosystem.

The Social Pillar of Sustainable Development deals with ensuring infrastructural growth and development, and making social amenities to be accessible to all.

pillars of sustainability, sustainable development
Pillars of Sustainability (Credit: Dreo 2007 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


The Sustainable Development Agenda 2030  

A set of goals for Sustainable Development were established by the United Nations in 2015. These are set to be accomplished by the year 2030, and are all geared toward attaining economic, social and environmental sustainability on Earth.

The Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations are seventeen (17) in number, and are as follows;

1). End poverty

2). Zero Hunger

3). Good Health and Well-being

4). Quality Education

5). Gender Equality

6). Clean Water and Sanitation

7). Affordable and Clean Energy

8). Decent Work and Economic Growth

9). Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

10). Reduced Inequalities

11). Sustainable Cities and Communities

12). Responsible Consumption and Production

13). Climate Action

14). Life Below Water

15). Life on Land

16). Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

17). Partnerships for the Goals

Sustainable Development Trends

Some of the major efforts being made in order to achieve Sustainable Development around the world include;

1). Climate Commitments by Corporate Organizations

In line with the agenda to mitigate Climate Change, several companies around the world have made pledges to support the Environmental Protection efforts. These companies are increasingly becoming involved in the net-zero emission initiative to be achieved by the year 2050.

Government policies have played a huge role in influencing corporate organizations to join the fight against Climate Change, which is necessary in order to achieve Sustainable Development.

2). Energy Efficiency and Management Initiative

Sustainable Development has led to a trend toward reducing energy consumption in all sectors of the society.

This includes residential buildings, businesses, and industrial facilities. Also, legislations have made it necessary for buildings to reduce their energy consumption, by demanding for LEED certifications, among other requirements. Manufacturing companies have also adjusted their production to suit lower energy utilization conditions. An example of this can be observed in the transition from incandescent to LED light bulbs.

3). Fast Fashion Decline and the Promotion of Waste Recycling

Fast fashion has become a major cause of environmental pollution around the world. This is mainly because fast fashion products are produced cheaply, in large volume, and with relatively low quality.

Many of such products are discarded on a regular basis, and are not easily biodegradable. Sustainable Development has helped to reduce the rate at which fast fashion products are produced. In place of such products, more sustainable and environment-friendly brands are being introduced.

4). Circular Economy Transition

The concept of a circular economy is a very important one.

By way of definition, a Circular Economy is simply one which is designed to conserve resources while remaining profitable.

Ellen MacArthur is known to have laid the foundation of the idea of a circular economy, as we know it today [5]. In order to achieve a circular economy, it is necessary to develop systems that enable waste to be recycled and regenerated

The main function of a circular economy is waste reduction. This is achieved by recycling and reusing waste materials. So far, companies in the manufacturing sector have adopted this approach, and encourage their customers to recycle used products.

5). Renewable Energy Development

The aim of renewable energy development is basically to reduce our level of dependence on fossil fuels.

Sustainable Development is the guiding theme behind the development of renewable energy. Some of the obvious achievements include modified solar systems and wind turbines.

In the United States, renewable energy technologies now account for up to twelve percent of total energy supply [3].

Wind and solar technologies are being developed at large scale. The development of renewable energy is also geared toward making it more affordable and flexible for use.

6). Carbon Negative Schemes

The efforts to achieve net-zero emissions have become a major part of Sustainable Development.

Several schemes and initiatives have been drafted in line with these efforts, and the end goal is to limit average temperature rise below 1.5°C-2.0°C.

7). Increase In Water Conservation Effort

Water-related challenges are on the rise, and have severe consequences for humans.

It is predicted that potable water supply might decrease by up to 40 percent, by the year 2030 [7]. Based on these conditions, industries and businesses around the world, have begun to pay attention to the effects of their activities on water resources.

8). Supply Chain Transformation

The supply chain has been affected in various ways.

One of such ways, is through the conversion from large distribution centers to multiple, smaller outlets. The sustainability and resilience of supply chains are being improved, by reducing the scale of operations to distinct regions, rather than a more globalized approach.

Additionally, customer preferences are also transforming the supply chain. More customers than ever, are now inclined to purchase products that are environment-friendly, and sustainable.

9). The Social Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, was introduced by the United States Government in January, 2021 [1]. It has been incorporated into the scheme of decision-making in the U.S, with regards to the fight against Climate Change, and in line with the Sustainable Development initiative.

The social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, is very important, as it will enable government and corporate entities to make proper decisions concerning the environmental impact of various human activities.

Basically, it involves estimating the cost of potential damage caused by releasing a ton of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. By implementing taxes based on such emissions, the rate of greenhouse emissions will be checked.

10). Sustainable Technology

By Sustainable Technology, we refer to new technological innovations that are inclined toward the conservation of natural resources. Examples of such resources include solar energy technology, artificial intelligence, big data, electric vehicles, smart building and sustainable agriculture.

11). Carbon Transition

The term ‘Carbon Transition’ has become fairly common due to Sustainable Development efforts.

Carbon Transition requires replacing the sources of greenhouse emissions (which are mainly fossil fuels) with more sustainable alternatives.

Various treaties such as the Paris Agreement, have been established in accordance with the aim of carbon transition. There are also measures being taken to protect the rights of industries and workers who depend on carbon-intensive markets [4].

12). Preservation of Biodiversity

Human activities are said to have caused a serious fall in wildlife population, within the past few decades.

Sustainable Development has brought more focus to the need for us to conserve our wildlife populations across the world.

Due to the negative effects of human activities on biodiversity, several measures are being taken to conserve wildlife, such as the development of reservation areas.

13). Advocacy for Plant-based Food Products

Studies have revealed that livestock farming releases a large proportion of greenhouse gases [6].

Based on this discovery, there has been a rise in the advocacy for plant-based food. There have been calls to reduce the consumption of beef, and many new, plant-based alternatives are being introduced.

14). The Blue Economy and Marine Development

Considering that the oceans cover a significant portion of the Earth, it is easy to understand how they are included in the Sustainable Development plan.

Numerous resources are currently being derived from the ocean, such as sea food, mineral resources, and renewable (wave) energy. Preserving and replenishing the oceans will ensure that they become more beneficial to the human population and the entire ecosystem.

15). Sustainable Finance

In addition to opposing capitalism, sustainable development encourages corporations, agencies and private investors, to invest financially with consideration of the long-term effects of their investments in the environment and society at large.

This includes the potential outcomes of projects and the consequences of processes involved in carrying out such projects.

Examples of laws which have been established with regards to sustainable financing include the EU Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) [2].

16). Micro-grid Technological Developments

Sustainable Development has led to a rise in the number of micro-grid projects being carried out globally.

Micro-grids have the advantage of providing a resilient framework for electricity generation, even in remote areas. Technological innovation is continuously improving the efficiency of these systems, while making them more accessible and affordable.



This article has shown the various definitions which we can use to aid our understanding of the meaning of Sustainable Development.

It has also shown the basic concepts that make up Sustainable Development. These include the pillars of sustainable development, the origin and history, sustainable development goals, and trends.



1). Chemnick, J. (2021). “Cost of Carbon Pollution Pegged at $51 a Ton.” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

2). Doyle, D. H. (2021). “What is the Impact of the EU Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR)?” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

3). EIA (2021). “How much of U.S. energy consumption and electricity generation comes from renewable energy sources?” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

4). Gross, S. (2020). “The United States can take climate change seriously while leading the world in oil and gas production. Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

5). Parker, T. (2019). “From sailing to the circular economy: What is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation?” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

6). Quinton, A. (2019). “Cows and climate change: Making cattle more sustainable.” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

7). UNEP (2021). “Half the World to Face Severe Water Stress by 2030 unless Water Use is ‘Decoupled’ from.” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).

8). United Nations (2021). “Support Sustainable Development and Climate Action.” Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2021).