What Is Sustainability? (And Why Is It Important)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the concept of sustainability and why it’s important for maintaining a balance between our environment and economic growth.

[Featured Image]:  Public Health manager discussing sustainability concepts with the team.

Sustainability is a long-term goal for our society to meet the needs of economic growth at its current speed with the least amount of impact on the environment. But it’s more than preserving the natural world and its fragile ecologies. It's about enabling growth and development of businesses and government entities so that all parts of society work in harmony to ensure that future generations have the natural resources needed to survive.

This article will dive into what exactly sustainability is and why it’s important.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is our society’s ability to exist and develop without depleting all of the natural resources needed to live in the future. Sustainable development supports this long-term goal with the implementation of systems, frameworks, and support from global, national, and local entities.

The concept of sustainability is built on the notion that natural resources on Earth are finite, so supporting sustainable practices helps maintain a balance between environment, economy, and equity [1]. It’s the movement and energy behind ensuring that Earth can continue to be liveable, all the while controlling and reducing resource depletion. 

Why is sustainability important?

Sustainability is important for preserving our planet and natural resources like water and air. Building a sustainable future and cultivating sustainable ways of living will reduce pollution and protect habitats of plants and animals.

A key part of sustainability involves sustainable business practices and economic development, including green technology, eco-friendly supply chains, and more. When businesses and government follow sustainable sustainable practices, it creates a ripple effect on individuals and communities to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels. All of this contributes to a better quality of life.

Brief history of sustainability

The concept of sustainability sprouted from the movement that grew out of the notions of social justice, ecological conservation, and globalism toward the end of the 20th century.

In 1983, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked to run the World Commission on Environment and Development for the United Nations. Many countries were still in poverty after decades of industrialization which had come at a cost to social equity and the environment. The Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future defines the need for sustainable development, a holistic approach that considers the environment, economy, and equity [2]. 


Three pillars of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability (environmental, economic, and social) can help us to pave a path toward a sustainable future.

Environmental sustainability: The principle of maintaining ecological integrity and ensuring that Earth’s environmental systems remain balanced as natural resources such as air, water, soil, forests, and animals are being consumed by humans.

Economic sustainability: The goal for humans on Earth to maintain independence and be able to get a job or acquire other resources to meet their needs. Economic systems must be in place and accessible to all.

Social sustainability: The principle of ensuring that basic human needs are attainable by all and that there are enough resources available to all within a community. Strong social systems can ensure healthy, happy communities whose human rights such as labor, health care, and equality are respected.

Free classes on sustainability and business

Coursera offers Circular Economy - Sustainable Materials Management from Lund University and Delft University. You’ll learn where important materials come from and how closed-loop supply chains can ensure these materials are used again. There's also Strategy and Sustainability which focuses on the way business strategy and sustainability inform each other.


Building a sustainable future

Beyond preserving our natural world and resources, the ethos of sustainability and creating lasting change can be infused into sustainable practices and everyday actions. While the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals serve as an excellent framework, more can be done.

To truly work towards sustainable development requires continuous and consistent collaboration from global businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements. On an individual level, learning about sustainability can make a world of difference.

Read more: Sustainable Development: Goals, Importance, and Career Guide

Start learning about sustainability

Sustainability is important to our world at large and at a human level. Consider enrolling in the course Introduction to Sustainability from the University of Illinois for a quick overview of key concepts of sustainability. You’ll gain interdisciplinary knowledge, pulling from both natural and social science to measure the challenges of sustainability, and more.

Article sources


UCLA. “What is Sustainability?, https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/what-is-sustainability/.” Accessed November 15, 2022.

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