Defining Sustainability

It’s not uncommon to associate the term sustainability solely with environmental issues. If someone had asked me to define sustainability a few years ago [maybe even just a few months ago], I would have said something like, “the practice of minimizing our impact on the environment”. And it’s likely that the average individual would have settled for that response with no question or challenge. Fast forward to today and my answer is different.

Pursuing sustainability involves addressing complex problems involving many interconnected elements — advocating for social justice, transforming our economy AND minimizing our impact on the environment. This view of sustainability is often referred to as the Triple Bottom Line or the 3 P’s (people, planet, profit) and was defined by thought leader John Elkington. At the time, Elkington recognized that environmental progress was dependent upon addressing both societal and economical challenges.

In order to understand these interdependencies, we must exercise whole systems thinking. In his book, Sustainability is for Everyone, Alan AtKisson writes, “having a systems perspective brings nothing less than joy because it creates endless sources of intellectual pleasure. Asking “And what causes that?” or “What impacts does that have?” can lead one down endless trails of discovery and understanding…” I don’t know that there is another quote that could more accurately portray how I feel as I aspire to live more sustainably. Every day, I find myself asking these very same questions. And every day, I am energized yet overwhelmed by everything there is to learn and understand within the context of sustainability.

For me, the best resource has been the Sustainability Development Goals Fund (SDG Fund) — an organization that brings together UN agencies, governments, businesses and civil society to advance the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDG Fund has identified 17 Sustainability Development Goals that demonstrate the interconnectedness of society, economy and environment. Below, I am sharing a few that I am personally passionate about, committed to helping improve or interested in learning more.


  • Gender Equality. During both undergrad and graduate school, I studied gender disparities in the workplace. The very reason I pursued my degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and career in Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness was my desire to positively impact the experience young women have in the workplace. For instance, only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And while significant progress has been made, only 24% of US Congress Members are women. Some researchers don’t anticipate closing the gender gap in leadership until 2085. So think of it like this, those with the greatest ability to make decisions that impact our society, economy and environment are doing so with a limited perspective.

  • No Poverty. According to SDG Fund, more than 800 million people are still living on less than $1.25 a day — where women are more frequently affected due to unequal access to paid work, education and property (hence goal above).


  • Affordable & Clean Energy. Ah, energy. I sort of fell into this one while working at a Fortune 500 Electric Utility Company. Fossil Fuel generated power traps heat within our atmosphere leading to global warming. Thus, the need for investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Also, we can’t forget that this goal is also about access and affordability. Today, 1 in 5 individuals across the World do not have access to electricity and those in the bottom 20 percent of earners in the United States pay up to 10% of their income on electricity — that’s more than 5x the amount of income that those in the top 20 percent pay.

  • Responsible Consumption, Production. This goal is the most closely related to what most think of when hearing things like zero waste, conscious consumerism, sustainability lifestyle, etc. A few facts that have stuck with me over time — it is estimated that approximately one third of food [over 1 billion tonnes] produced for human consumption is wasted annually, it takes 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and 100,000 marine animals are killed each year due to plastic bags.


  • Decent Work & Economic Growth. Entrepreneurship has always been an area of interest for me and something I would like to explore more. It looks like I might have a chance too, St. Louis was recently named number one in the nation for female entrepreneurship.


There are so many different facets of sustainability that it can be hard to identify where and how you can make an impact. If you’re feeling a little lost on where to start, here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Identify your cause. What issues will you stand for?

  • Reflect on your behavior. If someone observed you for one week, would they be able to tell others what you believe in? More importantly, would they want to?

  • Educate others. Once you have a clear understanding of what you represent, take every opportunity to share with others.

  • Support like minded businesses. With every purchase, be intentional. Look into those you support on a frequent basis. Does their mission align with yours?

  • Donate. Find an organization [or multiple] that you identify with. You can donate your time [or money] to aid a common cause.

  • Get involved in legislative decisions. Legislative decisions lead to laws that impact you [and your cause]. Write your legislative representative, visit your legislator, or attend a committee hearing to ensure your voice is heard.

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