Part 2: Defining Sustainability

According to the International Society for Sustainable Professionals (ISSP), “social issues are at the crux of sustainability issues”. Interesting, right? How many of you hear sustainability and immediately think about environmentalism? I know I used to! For those of you who have not read Part 1: Defining Sustainability, brief recap: our environment, society and economy are deeply interconnected and to achieve sustainability we must not treat any of these elements as separate.

Almost every definition of sustainability or sustainable development will define sustainability something like, “sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (UN World Commission on Environment and Development). The phrase to focus on here is, “meeting the needs.” The term “needs” is to be interpreted as basic needs. The psychologist in me can’t help but bring our attention to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (pictured below). The very bottom of the pyramid, physiological, is in reference to our most basic and essential needs - food, water, shelter, etc. Safety, the second level, describes the extent to which we feel safe and secure in our life and surroundings. In modern society, this can mean physical safety such as protection from the elements, violent conditions, or health threats and sickness. This can also mean economic safety (e.g., job stability, stable income, financial savings) to live and thrive in today’s society (Corporate Financial Institute). Love and belonging refers to our need for intimacy, interpersonal relationships, acceptance, trust, love, affiliation, etc. The fourth level is esteem. There are two categories of esteem: 1) from within oneself (e.g., independence, mastery, confidence, competence, etc.) and 2) respect from others (e.g., prestige, status, recognition). These first four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy are referred to as deficiency needs. For example, if you are hungry and you do not eat, your need for food becomes greater over time. The fifth level, self actualization is when we realize our fullest potential and strive to become the best version of ourselves. Here you might see people pursuing a new career, learning new skills, seeking personal growth experiences, etc. 

Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs from Corporate Finance Institute

Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs from Corporate Finance Institute

As I think about each level, I could think of several relevant examples of where we are currently not meeting the needs of all people.

Physiological Needs

Staring at the bottom, physiological needs. I will touch on two things here - water scarcity and food insecurity. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) water covers 70% of our planet. So, the perception is that there is PLENTY of water, yes? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The water that is used for drinking, showering, irrigation, etc. is actually very rare. In fact, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water. This limited water supply means that 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water AND a total of 2.7 billion experience water scarcity for at least one month out of the year. Approximately 2.5 billion people lack access to safe water leading to disease such cholera and each year 3.4 million people die due to these water-related diseases. Forty percent of the world's 6 billion people have no acceptable means of sanitation, and more than 1 billion people draw their water from unsafe sources (WHO & UNICEF). 

I am a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t put a lot of thought into the water crisis prior to a recent trip to India. In an assessment by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI), “600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress in the country. About three-fourths of the households in the country do not have drinking water at their premise. With nearly 70% of water being contaminated, India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.” While I could write an entire post on our trip to India, I would say that this was the first country I had visited where some of these social and environmental issues that can feel a bit distant at times became real. And, I don’t mean that you have to travel across the world to open your eyes to some of these issues, but for me there was something about this trip that really created a permanent mark on my heart and further increased my desire to learn and do more.

Taking this issue a little closer to home...according to Operation Food Search, “food insecurity exists when people lack sustainable physical or economic access to enough safe, nutritious, and socially acceptable food for a healthy and productive life.” According to St. Louis Food Policy Coalition (STLFPC), over 700,000 people, across the Metro St. Louis region are low income, have minimal access to food, and live more than ½ mile from the nearest grocery store. Further, those impacted by food insecurity are disproportionately black citizens. Just as Urban Harvest states, “all members of our community should have equitable access to fresh, healthy food regardless of socioeconomic status, race or location.”

Safety Needs

This one is pretty relevant to current health and unemployment needs. At this point, the United States has confirmed 3 million positive cases COVID-19 and experienced almost 150,000 deaths. The CDC states that, “history shows that severe illness and death rates tend to be higher for racial and ethnic minority populations during public health emergencies than for other populations.” Why? Minority populations tend to experience higher illness and death rates due to inequitable living (e.g., greater usage of public transportation), working (e.g., lower educational attainment results in employment that may not include benefits such as sick leave), and health (e.g., underlying conditions to pollution and other environmental hazards) conditions (CDC).

As a result of the global pandemic, we have also seen the unemployment rate rise exponentially. Although recently dropped from 14% to 11%, the unemployment rate is still up 8% since February. This results in approximately 18 million people currently unemployed in the United States. So, about that job stability, stable income, and financial savings… 

Love & Belonging and Esteem Needs

Both of these levels made me think about recent conversations and actions around racial injustice. Recently, we have seen an evolution in how organizations think and talk about diversity. With this transition from equality, to diversity to inclusion to equity then belonging, it finally feels like we are starting to make some progress here. What I mean by this is that initially, organizations focused on equal opportunity (i.e., you have probably all read an EEO statement disclosing non-discriminatory practices regarding things like hiring). Then, there was “diversity”. Here we began to see organizations recognizing the value of having different perspectives in the workplace and as a result, many organizations began to try and increase representation of minority populations (e.g., women and people of color). The add-on of “inclusion” was next - which describes the behavioral expectations of those within an organization’s culture. And then more recently, we are seeing the word “belonging”  and “equity” added to the way in which people talk about diversity. Belonging is an emotional response. To feel a sense of belonging is to achieve one of our most basic needs. And then equity in the context of the workplace refers to the fairness within organizational policies and practices. 

In thinking about esteem, I recalled a video I saw during a diversity summit at the organization I work for. In this video, Lieutenant General Jay B. Silveria is responding to racial slurs written on the message boards of five African American students. The video is 5 minutes long and I encourage anyone reading this to watch it because it is incredibly moving and reinforces that every single human deserves dignity and respect.


At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, we reach self-actualization. This level is dependent on the first four levels discussed. Walking through each of these levels and applying them to recent and current events it becomes increasingly clear that a large portion of our society faces a number of obstacles that prevent them from ever reaching their fullest potential. For me, it really reinforces the critical role that achieving social justice plays in sustainability - we can’t talk about and advocate for the environment without doing the same for people.

Going back to the definition of reference, “sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is this second part of the definition, “without compromising the ability…” that ties social justice, human rights and equity to key environmental and economical issues such as the depletion of Earth’s natural resources and climate change. 

Environmental & Economic Collapse

In 1972, there was a study published called The Limits to Growth. Widely known and controversial, the report stated that our Earth and economy will collapse by 2100 should things remain “business as usual.” These results were based on the examination of “five basic factors that determine and, in their interactions, ultimately limit growth on this planet: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.” By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion people making water, food and energy the most in-demand resources. And remember, water is already scarce...and in order to grow food and produce electricity a tremendous amount of water is used. At the same time that we are depleting these resources, we are seeing increasing industrial production (e.g., material goods such as textiles, cars, electronics) which promotes unsustainable consumption patterns and pollution generation contributing to climate change. 


Because our economy is all about achieving continuous and exponential GROWTH. In this linear economy, we take from the Earth, we manufacture the goods (in order to make $$), and then once we are done with them we dispose of them. Through this process we are generating astronomical amounts of pollution and waste. Here is where we need to reimagine what our economy could be - circular. A circular economy is “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems (Ellen MacArthur).” Transitioning to a circular economy could save the United States $700 Million in annual material costs and reduce carbon emissions by 48% by 2030

Circular Economy.png

While transformation to a circular economy relies on participation from organizations, businesses and government systems at local and national levels… there is a role for us citizens to play. Our everyday actions - the way we live, eat, travel, shop - have an impact. I was recently reading about Finland’s transition to a circular economy when I came across a resource by Sitra: 100 Ways to Be Smart & Sustainable

If you are interested in learning more about circular economy, I encourage you to explore Sitra’s website. Sitra is a Finnish Innovation Fund that is supporting Finland’s transformation to a more just society and circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is another great resource with case studies, a learning hub, courses, etc.

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