Sustainability at Hamline University

What is Sustainability

A Sustainability Primer

There is no single definition of sustainability or definitive list of sustainability topics. Example definitions:

“Sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” (Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living)

“A sustainable global society [is] founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” (The Earth Charter)

Sustainability has three components, often called the pillars of sustainability: Social sustainability, Environmental sustainability, and Economic sustainability. A system is not truly sustainable unless all three components are sustainable. The interactions among the three components of sustainability are therefore of crucial importance.

Sustainable systems will maintain or improve the desirable qualities of the three components over time. The desirable qualities of a system can be described in many ways. Sustainability initiatives aspire to create systems that are, for example:

        • Environmentally Sound

        • Socially Just

        • Economically Prosperous

In addition, the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability is shifting toward an understanding that expands the "environment" circle to encompass everything within it, and to also focus on wellness as part of the circles of sustainability.

This is one of many interpretations of sustainability. If you wish to comment, please email

The sustainability of a system can be measured by benchmarks:

Benchmarks of Socially Just systems include:

  • Human well-being

  • Universal human rights and equity

  • Democratic government

  • Democratic civil society

Benchmarks of Environmentally Sound systems include:

  • Wise use of renewable biological and physical resources

  • Minimal use of non-renewable resources

  • Effective waste management

Benchmarks of Economically Prosperous systems include:

    • Efficient use of natural, human, physical, and intangible capital

    • Equitable distribution of wealth and resources

    • Generalized capacity to create well-being

    • Efficient markets

How long should these qualities be sustained? The time span is not fixed, but should span multiple human generations.

Sustainability may be studied at different scales: Institutional, Local, Regional, National, or Global.

The crucial question in the study of sustainability:

How does the issue being studied affect the long term sustainability of the environmental, economic, or social system(s) in question, as measured by benchmarks?


  • How does integrating external costs into pricing structures affect the long term viability of the economic system in question?

  • How does species diversity affect the long term stability of the environmental system in question?

  • How does cultural preservation affect the long term social well-being in the society in question?

  • How does water pollution affect the long term environmental stability and economic viability of the system in question?

More information? Download Studying Sustainability (PDF)

Sustainable Development: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

View our 'What is Sustainability' resources offline