At AllThingsNature, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is Sustainable Development?

Lori Barrett
Lori Barrett

The concept of sustainable development is related to environmentalism but has evolved since its introduction in the 1980s. The most widely held definition was published by the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) in 1987. The General Assembly found sustainable development to be that type of development that meets the "needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The Commission further defined two key concepts of sustainable development: (1) needs, specifically the essential needs of those living in poverty; and (2) limitations, specifically those imposed by technology and social structures on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs. The approach is thus one that aims to meet human needs, including those of future generations, while also protecting the environment.

The United Nation's Brundtland Commission defined the modern concept of sustainable development.
The United Nation's Brundtland Commission defined the modern concept of sustainable development.

In meeting that basic needs of all people, sustainable development's ultimate goal includes the elimination or mitigation of poverty, unemployment, and other social inequities. As a result, sustainable development often focuses on people who live in developing nations. Three aspects of development are integrated in an attempt to accomplish this: environmental sustainability, socio political sustainability, and economic sustainability.

The goal of sustainable development is to mitigate poverty.
The goal of sustainable development is to mitigate poverty.

Environmental sustainability aims to preserve the earth and its resources for future generations. In attempting to do this, people should only use as much of a resource as can be replenished naturally. Using resources at a higher rate may deplete or exhaust them in the future, leading to an unsustainable situation in which the planet may no longer be able to support human life.

In socio political sustainability, democracy is promoted in an effort to meet basic human needs by providing basic human rights. These needs include food, shelter, education, health care, and a fair distribution of income. Through empowerment, social development strives to empower people to meet their own needs and improve their own lives.

In economic sustainability, the availability of work is increased, thereby empowering people to support themselves. Industries such as sustainable agriculture are often promoted in this approach. Socio political and economic sustainability are interrelated and complementary; only with the success of both can sustainable development be fully realized.

Green development is often confused with sustainable development. The two concepts are related but distinct. Green development focuses more on environmental sustainability without promoting economic or socio political development at the same time. For this reason, proponents of sustainable development sometimes argue that green development cannot be attained in developing nations, as the countries will lack the economic and socio political conditions necessary to support its implementation and costs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development is a holistic approach to progress that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It encompasses economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection, aiming for a balanced relationship between human activities and the Earth's natural systems.

Why is sustainable development important?

Sustainable development is crucial for maintaining the health of our planet and ensuring a high quality of life for all people. It addresses critical issues like climate change, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss. By fostering sustainable practices, we can create a more equitable world where economic development does not come at the expense of our environment.

How does sustainable development differ from traditional development?

Traditional development often focuses on economic growth without considering environmental degradation or social equity. Sustainable development, on the other hand, integrates these aspects, ensuring that progress is made in harmony with nature and benefits all sections of society. It promotes long-term prosperity rather than short-term gains.

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 interconnected objectives designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" by 2030. They address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

How can individuals contribute to sustainable development?

Individuals can contribute to sustainable development by adopting eco-friendly habits, such as reducing waste, conserving water, and using energy-efficient appliances. Supporting fair trade products, using public transportation, and advocating for policies that protect the environment also make a significant impact. Every small action can lead to substantial collective progress.

What role do businesses play in sustainable development?

Businesses play a pivotal role in sustainable development by adopting sustainable practices in their operations, supply chains, and products. This includes reducing carbon footprints, ensuring fair labor practices, and investing in sustainable technologies. Companies that prioritize sustainability can drive industry-wide changes and contribute to a more sustainable economy.

Discussion Comments


This is all nice and well, but do you guys think that sustainable development projects really work? I mean, does any project that is imposed on a country or group of people work really?

I think that we have to be careful about how far we are willing to go for development in terms of government programs in developing countries and such. Look at sustainable development programs in Africa, there was stuff written in the news just recently about food aid being stolen by militias and sold back to the public for profit.

I agree that sustainable development relies on things more than finances. These government need honest, hardworking politicians, they also need to put an end to civil unrest and terrorist and militia groups that trigger this unrest. There is just so much to work on, but how much of this can be enforced? At some point, we have to let these people take charge of their future and start working to improve their country.

I think if we push developing nations into the kind of development we envision them to reach too quickly, it is going to backfire and it does. I don't believe that any sustainable change will take place in such places unless the people are ready for it and work for it themselves.


I think that the meaning of development has changed in the past ten or twenty years, now development actually means sustainable development.

Years ago, whenever I heard politicians talking about development and ending poverty, the first thing that came to my mind was investment. Building new infrastructure in poor areas, trying to get businesses to invest and provide job opportunities to the poor population, that's what development meant back then.

Now development means something much more broad. We don't simply care about what the annual earnings of a family is, we also care about the kind of government they have and how much trade the country is engaged in.

Development seems to have become sustainable development which relies on more than money, it also relies on a stable and well functioning government and liberal trade policies and so forth.

I think this makes sense. You can't expect a country to develop if there is rampant corruption and government employees and businessmen keep stealing the money that is meant to be spent on social services, right? It doesn't make sense to put in so much effort and money to help people only to let it all go to waste. Sustainable development means making the necessary economic, political and social changes to make sure that development will continue in my view.


We use the term sustainable development in my international aid and development classes. This is about developed nations' programs in developing countries and whether the development they initiate is one that will last after they leave.

The most recent example is probably the aid that the U.S. is providing to Afghanistan. U.S. has many different development projects across Afghanistan and the U.S. presence there provides income to many Afghans. But the U.S. will eventually withdraw this financial aid and many people think that the development programs will not continue to benefit Afghans after the money is no longer there. So, much of the development that is seen in Afghanistan now is probably not sustainable.

However, there are many agencies and organizations that are trying to develop programs that will benefit the country in the long term. So there is definitely improvement.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • The United Nation's Brundtland Commission defined the modern concept of sustainable development.
      By: Touch
      The United Nation's Brundtland Commission defined the modern concept of sustainable development.
    • The goal of sustainable development is to mitigate poverty.
      By: Andrea Izzotti
      The goal of sustainable development is to mitigate poverty.