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What are the three pillars of sustainability?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

The concept of sustainability (or sustainable development) is omnipresent in today's social and economic thinking, and when applied to companies, it becomes social and environmental responsibility: the foundation of CSR, it defines its pillars and objectives. Discover the origins of the concept, its pillars, its importance and its objectives in business, as well as the concrete means to be implemented to reach them.

What is sustainable development?

Used for the first time in 1987, in the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the expression "sustainable development" is defined as development that meets present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. It is a question of considering economic growth while taking into account its long-term social and environmental impacts. Because it concerns all actors in society, sustainable development is a crucial issue for companies: all actions implemented to achieve the objectives of sustainable development (SDGs) are part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), an approach that is partly voluntary and partly regulated by legislation.

What are the three pillars of sustainability?

The concept of sustainability is based on three historical pillars: the economic pillar, the social pillar and the environmental pillar. To achieve the objectives of sustainable development, a company must be economically efficient while being socially equitable and ecologically tolerable. Let's dive into the three pillars of sustainability.

Economic pillar

Sustainable development in business implies a notion of viability of the economic system put in place. The societal and environmental responsibility of economic actors must be able to be part of a growth approach. The economic dimension of sustainable development also covers a responsible commitment to the territories and an ethical behavior towards partners and customers. Sustainable economic development is one that ensures quality of service, supports local producers and suppliers, and demonstrates financial transparency and good payment practices (respect for commitments and deadlines).

Social pillar

The social dimension of sustainable development is based on values of equity and respect for workers' rights. It implies, for companies, to advocate equal opportunities and to promote diversity, to guarantee employees health and safety in their working conditions, and to demonstrate ethics in their collaboration with global producers. These requirements must be in force within the company, but also with its partners, especially its subcontractors.

Environmental pillar

The environmental dimension of sustainable development consists, for companies, in measuring and reducing the environmental impacts of their activities. The main issues of the environmental responsibility of companies are

  • The preservation of natural resources (especially water)

  • The evaluation of the carbon footprint of their activities

  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

  • The reduction and optimization of waste management

Culture as the fourth pillar

If the Brundtland report has introduced the concept of sustainable development around the three issues of economic growth, environmental balance and social inclusion, major bodies such as those of UNESCO today also make the link between sustainable development and culture: it is a 4th pillar without which sustainable development cannot be a complete model, which takes into account all the dimensions of our societies.

Why companies should apply the three pillars of sustainability?

Adopting a responsible management policy through the implementation of the 3 (or 4) pillars of sustainability has a beneficial impact on the functioning of a company's activities. For each of the dimensions of the approach, we will note

  • Increased prosperity thanks to a governance with strong social values, which works for the well-being of its employees and collaborators.

  • An optimization of the budget through more responsible production methods, and an improved brand image through a more ethical business model.

  • An effective Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, lower costs and an improved reputation through eco-responsibility (waste and resource management, lower carbon footprint).

  • Finally, an increase in the dynamism and motivation of teams, drivers of productivity, through the deployment of the culture.

Concrete examples to apply in your company.

The implementation of sustainable development in companies requires a number of concrete actions. Many of these actions are cross-dimensional and cover social and environmental, environmental and economic, or social and cultural issues. The three pillars of sustainability are indeed closely intertwined!

The implementation of sustainable development in companies requires a number of concrete actions. Many of these actions are cross-dimensional and cover social and environmental, environmental and economic, or social and cultural issues. The pillars of sustai are indeed closely intertwined!

Promoting telework

An action that falls under each of the three social, environmental and economic pillars: this is also one of the recommendations for measures to be integrated into an employer's mobility plan, whose objectives are also ecological and societal. Telecommuting reduces the use of vehicles, improves working conditions for employees and makes them more productive.

Evaluating the company's energy consumption

Carrying out a carbon footprint as part of CSR allows companies to identify the most energy-intensive areas and to implement a strategy to make them more efficient. It is an environmental and economic measure.

Optimize waste management

Through employee awareness, the implementation of an efficient sorting system and the reduction of waste, costs are reduced for the company (savings on consumables) and its image is reinforced with the public and employees. The issue of waste management is both environmental and economic.

Implementing cultural actions

As a unifying factor, culture promotes team cohesion and individual stimulation. Employee motivation is reinforced and teamwork made more efficient when the company sets up cultural actions: event outings, culture vouchers, or the creation of a company sports association.

In conclusion

Often associated in people's minds with environmental issues alone, sustainable development is in fact a complex concept, based on fundamental, complementary and inseparable pillars. Each action in favor of sustainable development in business responds to economic, environmental and social issues. Culture appears as the link between these dimensions, without which sustainable development would not fully cover all societal issues.


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