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Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins

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The three-pillar conception of (social, economic and environmental) sustainability, commonly represented by three intersecting circles with overall sustainability at the centre, has become ubiquitous. With a view of identifying the genesis and theoretical foundations of this conception, this paper reviews and discusses relevant historical sustainability literature. From this we find that there is no single point of origin of this three-pillar conception, but rather a gradual emergence from various critiques in the early academic literature of the economic status quo from both social and ecological perspectives on the one hand, and the quest to reconcile economic growth as a solution to social and ecological problems on the part of the United Nations on the other. The popular three circles diagram appears to have been first presented by Barbier (Environ Conserv 14:101, doi: 10.1017/s0376892900011449, 1987), albeit purposed towards developing nations with foci which differ from modern interpretations. The conceptualisation of three pillars seems to predate this, however. Nowhere have we found a theoretically rigorous description of the three pillars. This is thought to be in part due to the nature of the sustainability discourse arising from broadly different schools of thought historically. The absence of such a theoretically solid conception frustrates approaches towards a theoretically rigorous operationalisation of ‘sustainability’.
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ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins
Ben Purvis
1
Yong Mao
1,2
Darren Robinson
1,3
Received: 1 December 2017 / Accepted: 23 August 2018 / Published online: 3 September 2018
The Author(s) 2018
Abstract
The three-pillar conception of (social, economic and environmental) sustainability, commonly represented by three
intersecting circles with overall sustainability at the centre, has become ubiquitous. With a view of identifying the genesis
and theoretical foundations of this conception, this paper reviews and discusses relevant historical sustainability literature.
From this we find that there is no single point of origin of this three-pillar conception, but rather a gradual emergence from
various critiques in the early academic literature of the economic status quo from both social and ecological perspectives
on the one hand, and the quest to reconcile economic growth as a solution to social and ecological problems on the part of
the United Nations on the other. The popular three circles diagram appears to have been first presented by Barbier (Environ
Conserv 14:101, doi: 10.1017/s0376892900011449, 1987), albeit purposed towards developing nations with foci which
differ from modern interpretations. The conceptualisation of three pillars seems to predate this, however. Nowhere have we
found a theoretically rigorous description of the three pillars. This is thought to be in part due to the nature of the
sustainability discourse arising from broadly different schools of thought historically. The absence of such a theoretically
solid conception frustrates approaches towards a theoretically rigorous operationalisation of ‘sustainability’.
Keywords Sustainable development Conceptual review Historical origins Triple bottom line History of sustainability
Introduction
The last 20 years have witnessed a surge in publications on
‘sustainability’, to the extent where ‘sustainability science’
is often seen as a distinct field (Kates et al. 2001;
Komiyama and Takeuchi 2006; Schoolman et al. 2012;
Kajikawa et al. 2014). Yet despite this, ‘sustainability’
remains an open concept with myriad interpretations and
context-specific understanding.
One particularly prevalent description of ‘sustainability’
employs three interconnected ‘pillars’ (Basiago 1999; Pope
et al. 2004; Gibson 2006; Waas et al. 2011; Moldan et al.
2012; Schoolman et al. 2012; Boyer et al. 2016), ‘dimen-
sions’ (Stirling 1999; Lehtonen 2004; Carter and Moir
2012; Mori and Christodoulou 2012), ‘components’ (Du
Pisani 2006; Zijp et al. 2015), ‘stool legs’ (Dawe and Ryan
2003; Vos 2007), ‘aspects’ (Goodland 1995; Lozano 2008;
Tanguay et al. 2010), ‘perspectives’ (Brown et al. 1987;
Arushanyan et al. 2017), etc. encompassing economic,
social, and environmental (or ecological) factors or ‘goals’.
It should be noted here that these competing terms are
primarily used interchangeably, and our preference for
‘pillars’ is largely arbitrary. This tripartite description is
often, but not always, presented in the form of three
intersecting circles of society, environment, and economy,
with sustainability being placed at the intersection, as
shown in Fig. 1. This graphic is found in various forms as a
descriptor of ‘sustainability’ within academic literature,
policy documentation, business literature, and online, and
whilst often described as a ‘Venn diagram’, it commonly
lacks the strict logical properties associated with such a
construction. Alternative manifestations include the three
depicted visually as nested concentric circles or literal
‘pillars’, or independent of visual aids as distinct categories
for sustainability goals or indicators. Whilst attractive for
their simplicity, the meaning conveyed by these diagrams
Handled by Michael O’Rourke, Michigan State University,
USA.
&Ben Purvis
benjamin.purvis@nottingham.ac.uk
1
Laboratory for Urban Complexity and Sustainability,
University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK
2
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham,
Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK
3
School of Architecture, University of Sheffield,
Sheffield S10 2TN, UK
123
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https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5(0123456789().,-volV)(0123456789().,-volV)
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and the wider ‘pillar’ conception itself is often unclear,
hampering its ability to be coherently operationalised. If
we are prepared to overlook the lack of semantic clarity
and confusion of competing terms, it can be argued that the
‘three-pillar’ conception of ‘sustainability’ (or ‘sustainable
development’
1
) is a dominant interpretation within the lit-
erature. Yet the conceptual origins of this description, and
the point at which it emerged into the mainstream, are far
from clear, and its exact meaning is a matter of contention.
As Thompson puts it, ‘‘much of thediscourse around
sustainabilityis organized aroundthe three-circle rub-
ric without much disciplined thought about how it does and
does not translate into a more comprehensive understand-
ing of sustainability’’ (Thompson 2017).
Whilst much contemporary sustainability literature may
centre around the UN’s more diverse set of sustainable
development goals (SDGs), the three pillars themselves
were explicitly embedded in their formulation (UN 2012a).
This paper aims to shed light on the origins of the ‘three
pillars’, taking the structure of an initial review of the
historical emergence of the concept of ‘sustainability’ from
its disparate early roots to the genesis of ‘sustainable
development’ in the 1970s and 1980s. This is followed by a
literature survey tracking the early development of these
concepts with an aim to probe the origins of the three
pillars, prior to 2001, when the three circles diagram is first
described as a ‘common view’ (Giddings et al. 2002). In
the final discussion, we argue that the emergence of the
three-pillar paradigm, with little theoretical foundation, is
primarily the product of the specific origins of ‘sustain-
ability’ as a concept, aided in part by the agenda of the
various actors that helped to shape its early history.
Historical origins of ‘sustainability’
To understand the emergence of ‘sustainability’ into the
mainstream in the 1980s, it is important to examine the
broad roots from which the concept emerged. This is
confounded by the fact that much of the work whose
concepts feed into the narrative predate the language of
‘sustainability’.
Authors such as Grober, Caradonna, and Du Pisani have
contributed much to shedding light on a wide range of early
roots (Du Pisani 2006; Grober 2012; Caradonna 2014). Of
particular note are the forestry experts of the 17th and 18th
centuries such as Evelyn, and Carlowitz, who introduced
the concept of sustainable yield in response to dwindling
forest resources across Europe (Warde 2011; Grober 2012).
Of relevance too are the early political economists such as
Smith, Mill, Ricardo, and Malthus who, in the shadow of
the industrial revolution, questioned the limits of both
economic and demographic growth, and recognised the
inherent trade-offs between wealth generation and social
justice (Lumley and Armstrong 2004; Caradonna 2014).
The natural scientists and ecologists of the 19th century
and early 20th century too help precipitate the schism
between the anthropocentric conservationists on one hand,
prescribing conservation of natural resources for sustain-
able consumption, and the biocentric preservationists, who
call for preservation of nature due to its inherent worth
(Callicott and Mumford 1997).
The modern concept, along with the language of sus-
tainability in a global sense did not emerge, however, until
the late 20th century. The Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to
Growth’ argues for a ‘‘world system that is sustainable’
(Meadows et al. 1972); this, claims Grober (2012, p155),
marks the first modern appearance of the term in its broad
global context. The same year, in ‘A Blueprint for Sur-
vival’, which draws on the unpublished manuscript for
‘Limits to Growth’, the editors of The Ecologist present
their proposals for the creation of a ‘sustainable society’
(The Ecologist 1972). Whatever the exact origins of the
language, it is from the early 1970s that the concept
snowballs; the World Council of Churches’ commission on
‘The Future of Man and Society’ in 1974 deem the notion
of a ‘sustainable society’ more palatable than the language
of limits (Grober 2012, p167). The Ecology Party (later to
become the British Green Party) adopted their ‘Manifesto
for a Sustainable Society’ in 1975 (The Ecology Party
1975), and a series of books were published prominently
featuring the language of sustainability (Stivers 1976;
Meadows 1977; Pirages 1977; Cleveland 1979; Coomer
1979).
In the interests of brevity, we leave much of the earlier
discussion to authors already mentioned. Instead we pick
Fig. 1 Left, typical representation of sustainability as three intersect-
ing circles. Right, alternative depictions: literal ‘pillars’ and a
concentric circles approach
1
Whilst there exists an obvious semantic difference, and implicit
focus in meaning, this distinction is not always present in the
literature, especially in reference to the pillars formulation (Pope et al.
2004; Johnston et al. 2007; Waas et al. 2011; Carter and Moir 2012).
We revisit this distinction in Sect. 4.
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up the narrative at the cusp of the 1960s environmental
movements, choosing to focus on the strand of ‘develop-
ment’ and how its critique contributed to the rise of ‘sus-
tainable development’ in the 1980s.
A twin critique of ‘economic development’
Soon after the Second World War, there emerged a con-
sensus in the Western world that there was an urgent need
for international efforts to aid the ‘development’ of ‘less
advanced countries’ (Arndt 1987, p49). It was during this
time that the notion of ‘economic development’, outside of
Marxist discourse, evolved from specifically denoting the
exploitation of natural resources in a colonial context, to
refer to a rise in material well-being indicated by an
increase in the flow of goods and services, and growth in
per capita income (Arndt 1981). Thus from the 1950s,
‘economic development’ became almost synonymous with
‘economic growth’, which in turn had become a major goal
of Western economic policy, although the application of
the former term was primarily reserved for poorer countries
(Arndt 1987, p51). Truman’s 1949 ‘Point Four’ marked the
first large-scale technical assistance development pro-
gramme, notions of building up capital followed, and by
1961 the United Nations declared ‘‘International Trade as
the primary instrument for economic development’’ (ibid.
p72).
The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the rise of the
modern environmental movement in the West (Rome 2003;
Du Pisani 2006; Tulloch 2013). Popular publications such
as Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (1962), Ehrlich’s ‘The Popu-
lation Bomb’ (1968), and The Ecologist’s ‘A Blueprint for
Survival’ (1972), coupled with widespread media coverage
of environmental disasters, such as the Santa Barbra oil
spill (1969), acted to increase awareness of the magnitude
of the widespread environmental destruction caused by
humans. It has also been argued that the environment and
quality of life issues came to the fore in the West at this
point because ‘basic economic needs’ had been met fol-
lowing the economic growth of the post-war period
(Dunlap and Mertig 1991; Martı
´nez-Alier 1995).
The questioning of economic growth began to re-
emerge, with the prominent works of ‘Limits to Growth
(1972) and Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ (1973) both
arguing that the modern growth-based economy was
unsustainable on a finite planet. The 1973 Oil Crisis,
however, and the worldwide recession that followed,
helped to crystallise the idea of the limitations of growth
into both the mainstream and the academic discourse (Du
Pisani 2006). This early discourse was radical and argued
that the capitalist economic growth of the Western world
was fundamentally incompatible with ecological and social
sustainability and called for structural reform (Van Der
Heijden 1999; Tulloch 2013; Tulloch and Neilson 2014).
Coupled with an environmental critique of the economic
growth paradigm in the West was a broad criticism of
economic development programmes being implemented in
the developing world for their lack of environmental con-
siderations. Caldwell details several of numerous cases of
failed development projects presented at the 1968 Airlie
House Conference on Ecological Aspects of International
Development (Caldwell 1984). The recurring theme of
these projects was a tendency to prioritise short-term gains
over serious considerations of ecological impacts, either to
biodiversity or ecosystem services. This forms part of a
broader critique of the seeming hubristic belief inherent in
the mainstream development discourse of man’s ability to
dominate and control natural ecological processes
(Woodhouse 1972).
At the same time it was becoming apparent to many that
the ‘progress’ that had been promised by the early eco-
nomic growth-based development programmes was in
many ways failing to materialise. Whilst the post-war
economic boom had seen a broad rise in living standards in
the West, the focus began to shift to the gross inequalities
and poverties that still existed in many of these societies
(Hicks and Streeten 1979). This led to a second prominent
counter-discourse in the development literature, critiquing
the focus on economic growth, with calls for a shift from a
focus of means to ends, to better consider social problems,
and a ‘basic needs’ approach. Arndt suggests that the first
prominent example of this was Seers’ ‘The Meaning of
Development’ (1969), which argued that economic growth
not only failed as a solution to social difficulties, but often
was the cause of them. Seers argued that indicators of
poverty, unemployment, and inequality provided a truer
depiction of the state of ‘development’ or ‘progress’ (Seers
1969; Arndt 1987, p91). Notable too is Hirsch’s ‘Social
Limits to Growth’ (1976), which probes the pursuit of
growth and its fetishisation at the societal level, arguing
that it acts to perpetuate inequalities, and that in fact the
social limits to e.g. productivity gains are more prescient
than distant physical limits (Hirsch 1995). This broad
social critique of growth-focused development received
attention from both the International Labour Office (ILO)
and the World Bank (see e.g. Hicks and Streeten 1979; ILO
1976; Streeten and Burki 1978), to the extent that it was
considered by some to be the ‘‘current consensus’’ (Arndt
1987, p92).
The 1972 UN Conference on the Human–Environment
in Stockholm marked the first global summit to consider
human impacts on the environment, and the first major
attempt to reconcile economic development with environ-
mental integrity which were commonly regarded as
incompatible (Caldwell 1984). Emergent from the
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conference was the concept of ‘environmentally sound
development’, which by 1973 had been coined as ‘eco-
development’ (Clinton 1977; Mebratu 1998). ‘Eco-devel-
opment’ was defined by Ignacy Sachs in 1978 as ‘‘an
approach to development aimed at harmonising social and
economic objectives with ecologically sound management,
in a spirit of solidarity with future generations’’, further
calling for ‘‘another kind of qualitative growth’’ (Glaeser
1984, p25). Credited as one of the earliest ecological
economists, Sachs, as an adviser to the United Nations
Environmental Program (UNEP), was influential in pro-
moting this growth-sceptic concept in policy circles during
the 1970s (Go
´mez-Baggethun and Naredo 2015; Martinez-
Alier 2015).
The core elements of ‘eco-development’ are described
as the meeting of ‘essential human needs’, participation,
environmental considerations, and the unifying principle of
‘self-reliance’, understood as not just freedom from the
structural dependence on other nations, but freedom for the
individual from the pressures of political powers or
transnational corporations (Glaeser 1984, pp25–28).
Important was the discussion of both local and interna-
tional power structures and how eco-development faced an
uphill battle in challenging them. In this body of literature,
economic growth plays something of a neutral role. Sachs
downplays the notion of ‘trade-offs’ between environ-
mental management and economic growth, instead arguing
for ‘‘a different, environmentally prudent, sustainable, and
socially responsible growth’’, bearing remarkable similar-
ities with later United Nations rhetoric (Glaeser 1984,
p216; Berr 2015). This approach seems to differ from that
of other early ecological economists such as Daly and
Mishan who suggested no-growth, and slow-growth
economies (Daly 1973; Mishan 1977).
Whilst the environment was being reconciled with
economic development, the ‘basic needs’ approach was
being rejected by governments in the developing world;
following the global economic slump of the late 1970s,
there arose a tendency to see the aspirations of ‘moderni-
sation’, and the creation of a ‘new international economic
order’, as more important than, and incompatible with, a
basic needs approach (Arndt 1987, pp104–111). Coupled
with this, Sachs claims the basic needs-focused ‘eco-de-
velopment’ was vetoed as a term in international policy
forms by the US administration (Go
´mez-Baggethun and
Naredo 2015). With social critique somewhat pushed aside,
McNamara, President of the World Bank, called for the
need to ‘‘recapture the momentum of economic growth’
(Arndt 1987).
By the 1980s, the early environmental movements had
lost momentum, as the wave of the radical social move-
ments broke and rolled back (Van Der Heijden 1999).
Having been somewhat subdued, throughout the 1980s, the
twin ecological and social critiques of economic develop-
ment began to interweave with economic development
under what was to be termed ‘sustainable development’
(O’Riordan 1985; Barbier 1987; Brown et al. 1987). Thus,
in 1987 when the UN World Commission on Environment
and Development published its report ‘Our Common
Future’ (the Brundtland Report), calling for ‘‘a new era of
economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same
time socially and environmentally sustainable’’, the debate
had come full circle: economic growth was no longer the
problem, but it was the solution (UN 1987). Co-opting the
eco-development argument of a ‘different quality’ of eco-
nomic growth, a new ‘win–win’ scenario emerged by
recasting the same old economic growth in ‘‘socially and
environmentally sustainable’’ colours.
Assimilation into the mainstream:
the institutionalising of ‘sustainable
development’
Although the term had been in use for some time (e.g.
IUCN, UNEP, WWF 1980), the Brundtland commission is
widely credited with popularising the concept of ‘sustain-
able development’ by introducing it into international
policy discourse (Basiago 1999; Castro 2004; Johnston
et al. 2007; Pope et al. 2004; Redclift 2005; etc.). It defined
‘sustainable development’ as ‘‘development that meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs’’. In the years
following the publication of the Brundtland Report, ‘sus-
tainable development’ became the dominant paradigm of
the environmental movement, and the literature consider-
ing it grew exponentially.
The institutionalising of ‘sustainable development’
would continue with the ‘Rio Process’, initiated at the 1992
Earth Summit in Rio, where the world’s political leaders
pledged their support to the principle of sustainable
development (Jordan and Voisey 1998). Central to this was
the publication of the ‘Rio Declaration’ consisting of 27
principles intending to guide future ‘sustainable develop-
ment’, and ‘Agenda 21’ which articulates a plan for putting
these principles into practice. Agenda 21 built upon the
Brundtland Report, emphasising the problems of the
North–South development divide, championing economic
growth and free trade, and emphasised the need to link
social and economic development with environmental
protection (UN 1992). Subsequent summits occurred in
1997, 2002, and 2012.
Despite the importance of global efforts such as the Rio
Declaration and Brundtland Report in bringing ‘sustain-
ability’ into the mainstream policy discourse, the consensus
building through compromise approach taken has been
criticised. Tulloch argues these documents were
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responsible for transforming what was a ‘‘marginal coun-
ter-hegemonic radical movement’’ into a platform for
legitimising and obscuring globalised neoliberal policy
(Tulloch 2013). Indeed, the approach taken by the UN
follows the assumptions that poverty causes environmental
degradation; this environmental degradation can be
reduced by reducing poverty; to reduce poverty, develop-
ing countries need economic growth, which requires freer
markets (Castro 2004). This logic is at best simplistic (Le
´le
´
1991), and at worst smuggling an inherently ideological
agenda under the guise of benign necessity (Tulloch 2013),
clearly running in direct opposition to the earlier growth-
critical works. Indeed Dryzek, in his categorisation of
environmental discourses, describes sustainability as ‘re-
formist’, in opposition to the ‘radical’ discourses advo-
cating systemic change, such as the limits discourse
(Dryzek 2005, pp13–16).
Criticism of the almost ‘business-as-usual’ approach of
‘sustainable development’, which has been promoted to the
mainstream by bodies such as the UN, has led to a
heterogeneous counter-discourse. A common critique is of
the ‘sufficiently vague’ (Daly 1996) definition promoted by
the international mainstream, ambiguous enough to allow
for consensus building, but devoid of much substance. By
the mid-1990s, the concept of ‘sustainable development’
and the notion of ‘sustainability’ were in vogue (Gatto
1995), finding their way into academic literature and policy
agendas around the globe.
Environment, economics, and the society:
three pillars of sustainability emerge?
Despite the relative dearth of literature probing ‘sustain-
ability’ and ‘sustainable development’ conceptually, one
conceptualisation, that of ‘three pillars’, environmental,
economic, and social, has gained widespread traction. This
is typically realised as the balancing of trade-offs between
seemingly equally desirable goals within these three cate-
gorisations, although uses vary. One problematic facet of
this conceptualisation, however, is its lack of theoretical
development; there appears to be no original urtext from
which it derives, seemingly just appearing in the literature
and commonly taken at face value. As early as 2001, this
approach has been presented as a ‘common view’ of sus-
tainable development (Giddings et al. 2002), so common-
place it seems not to require a reference.
Although the ‘three pillars’ have become commonplace
throughout the literature, they are not universal. Some
works consider additional pillars such as institutional
(Spangenberg et al. 2002; Turcu 2012), cultural (Soini and
Birkeland 2014), and technical (Hill and Bowen 1997).
Other frameworks bypass the compartmentalisation of
sustainability completely. Milbrath for example presents a
vision of a ‘sustainable society’ based on a set of defined
values (Milbrath 1989), the ‘Natural Step’ framework is
based upon four guiding criteria (Upham 2000), and Gid-
dings et al.’s conceptualisation involves principles of
equity (Giddings et al. 2002). More recently too, the SDGs
developed by the UN have evolved an ‘integrated’
approach adopting 17 broad goals over a smaller number of
categorisations.
The origins of the ‘three-pillar’ paradigm have been
variously attributed to the Brundtland Report, Agenda 21,
and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development
(Moldan et al. 2012), yet in none of these documents is a
clear framework or theoretical background made explicit.
In what follows, in an attempt to uncover the origins of the
‘three pillars’, we analyse the documents of the Interna-
tional Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which
present the first widely cited conceptualisation of ‘sus-
tainable development’ (Pezzey 1992; Sneddon 2000), and
those of the United Nations, whose 1987 report is widely
credited with bringing sustainable development to the
mainstream. We then turn to the academic literature of the
1980s and 1990s which considers sustainability conceptu-
ally, prior to its 2001 description as a ‘common view’.
The IUCN
The first prominent occurrence of the phrase ‘sustainable
development’ in published literature appeared in 1980
when the IUCN, in collaboration with the UNEP and the
World Wildlife Fund (WWF), published their ‘World
Conservation Strategy’, subtitled ‘Living Resource Con-
servation for Sustainable Development’ (IUCN, UNEP,
WWF 1980). This early conception of sustainable devel-
opment is motivated by the need for economic develop-
ment, with its social and economic objectives, to take
conservation into account by considering resource limita-
tions and ecosystem carrying capacity. Whilst there is no
explicit mention of the three pillars, their roots can clearly
be seen, and sustainable development is briefly defined as
that which ‘‘must take account of social and ecological
factors, as well as economic ones’’ (ibid. pI). It should be
emphasised that these three aspects are not held up as a
framework and no judgement is made upon them. The
implication appears to be that the current development
policy primarily focuses on economic objectives, when it is
imperative to integrate conservation objectives into policy.
There is no discussion of ‘trade-offs’, or the relative
importance of the three objectives.
The IUCN Conference on Conservation and Develop-
ment in Ottawa 1986 was convened to evaluate progress in
implementing the World Conservation Strategy. It con-
cluded with a definition: ‘‘The emerging paradigm of
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sustainable developmentseeks to respond to five
broad requirements: integration of conservation and
development; satisfaction of basic human needs; achieve-
ment of equity & social justice; provision for social self-
determination and cultural diversity; and maintenance of
ecological integrity’’ (Jacobs et al. 1987). These require-
ments cohere well with social and environmental aspects,
but there is nothing to suggest a predecessor of anything
approaching an economic pillar.
This appears to be a consistent narrative throughout the
work of the IUCN. The successor to the World Conser-
vation Strategy, ‘Caring for the Earth’, calls for develop-
ment that is ‘‘both people-centered and conservation-
based’’ (IUCN, UNEP, WWF 1991). The strategy is based
upon nine ‘‘interrelated and mutually supporting’’ princi-
ples of a ‘‘sustainable society’’, including changing atti-
tudes, conservation of Earth’s vitality and diversity, and a
global alliance for attaining sustainability (ibid. pp8–12),
and indicators for sustainability are presented under just
two themes, ‘‘quality of life’’, and ‘‘ecological sustain-
ability’’ (ibid. p198). In 1996, an ‘‘increased emphasis
given to people’’ was seen as an emerging issue, as well as
the need to expand use of ‘‘legal and economic tools for
conservation’’ (IUCN 1997, pp43–45). At the same time,
the models of sustainability being considered by the IUCN
included the ‘Egg of Sustainability’ and the ‘Barometer of
Sustainability’ both of which considered the dual goals of
improving ecosystem wellbeing and human wellbeing as
the essence of sustainability (IUCN 1996).
Apart from a short-lived consideration in the early
2000s, when intersecting circles are presented as the
‘conventional model of sustainable development’’ (IUCN
2004, pp9–11), the IUCN thus largely avoids the use of the
three pillars, preferring instead a model of sustainability
that focuses on the goals of improving the ecosystem and
human well-being. Discussion of the economy is generally
focused on mitigating the negative impacts on the planet’s
ecosystems of current practices and the need for a ‘greener’
economy.
The United Nations
The articulation of distinct social, economic, and envi-
ronmental aspects of ‘sustainable development’ can be
seen in Agenda 21 (1992) and are arguably implicit in the
Brundtland Report (1987), although cultural and political/
institutional aspects are also present. Indeed, Agenda 21
mentions ‘‘economic, social and environmental dimen-
sions’’ of sustainable development (8.4.1), but there is no
conceptual justification or framework presented (UN
1992).
Following the 1992 Rio Summit, the UN established the
Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) for the
provision of guidance and monitoring of progress in the
implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration. In
1995, a workshop involving policy makers, members of
international organisations, and scientists was held with the
intention of reviewing indicators of the ‘‘three principal
aspects of sustainability’’ (environmental, social and eco-
nomic) (UN 1995, p3). The conclusions were that the CSD
should work towards a core set of indicators which equally
emphasise the ‘‘economic, social, environmental and
institutional aspects of sustainable development’’, with the
extra inclusion of the institutional aspect being left
unelaborated (ibid. p5). It has been argued that this inclu-
sion was due to the institutional aspect being integral to
addressing the problems of unsustainable development
practice (Spangenberg et al. 2002).
The following year, the CSD published a testbed
selection of 130 indicators, with the aim of having a ‘‘good
set of indicators’’ by 2000. These indicators were cate-
gorised under the four aspects presented in the 1995
workshop (UN 1996). Despite this, the CSD does not use
these four dimensions universally. A 1997 report on pro-
gress achieved since Rio is structured on the basis of three
‘mutually reinforcing components’’ of sustainable devel-
opment, ‘‘economic growth, social development and envi-
ronmental sustainability’’ with the aim of achieving
‘balanced achievement of sustained economic develop-
ment, improved social equity and environmental sustain-
ability’’ (UN 1997, pp4–5), but with no discussion of the
tensions between these objectives. The existence of ‘‘three
components—economic and social development and
environmental protection’’ is again emphasised in the sixth
session report of the CSD (UN 1998, p3).
In 2001 the CSD published the second edition of their
indicator framework which maintains the categorisation of
economic, social, institutional and environmental ‘dimen-
sions’ of sustainable development (UN 2001a). The goals
of ‘‘advancement of social and institutional development,
to maintain ecological integrity, and to ensure economic
prosperity’’ are also mentioned (ibid. p21). By the third
edition, however, the four dimensions were no longer
elaborated explicitly to emphasise the ‘‘multi-dimensional
nature’’ of sustainable development (UN 2007).
In parallel to the work of the CSD, the UN launched 8
millennium development goals (MDGs), to be achieved by
the global community by 2015 (UN 2001b). Interestingly,
Goal 7 was to ‘‘ensure environmental sustainability’’,
although the concepts of social or economic sustainability
are not explicitly explored. The report of the 2002 Earth
Summit prescribes the need to ‘‘promote the integration of
the three components of sustainable development—eco-
nomic development, social development and environmen-
tal protection—as interdependent and mutually reinforcing
pillars’’ (UN 2002, p8). The need for ‘‘integration’’ of these
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pillars, and a ‘‘balanced and holistic approach’’ is empha-
sised (ibid. p128).
The narrative of ‘‘integrating economic, social and
environmental aspects’’ of sustainable development con-
tinues throughout the report of the next World Summit
10 years later (UN 2012b). Following the 2012 summit, an
‘Open Working Group’ was established to develop the
SDGs for the UN’s ‘post-2015 process’, with part of the
brief being to ‘‘incorporate in a balanced way all three
dimensions of sustainable development and their linkages’’
(ibid. p47). Indeed, when the General Assembly adopted
the finalised SDGs in 2015, it is stated how the goals are
‘integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimen-
sions of sustainable development: the economic, social and
environmental’’ (UN 2015, p1). However, these three
dimensions do not explicitly form any part of the frame-
work of the 17 goals.
The academic literature
Whilst the IUCN introduced the term ‘sustainable devel-
opment’ into the mainstream in 1980, it received little
conceptualisation in the academic literature prior to the
1987 publication of the Brundtland Report. Within this
period, there existed notably Caldwell’s consideration of
the history of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ as the
‘uneasy union’’ of ecological and economic values; in the
absence of three explicit pillars, the need for holistic
thinking was emphasised, as well as ‘‘social, legal, reli-
gious, and demographic’’ factors (Caldwell 1984).
O’Riordan too proposes ‘‘two main kinds of sustainable
utilization: ecological and sociocultural [later ‘socioeco-
nomic’]’’ (O’Riordan 1985, p1443).
In 1987, Brown et al. identified three ‘‘perspectives, or
contexts, in which the term [sustainability] is used’’
emerging from their review of the literature (Brown et al.
1987). The ‘social’ perspective concerns itself with the
‘continued satisfaction of basic human needs’’ of indi-
viduals, the ‘ecological’ focuses on the ‘‘continued pro-
ductivity and functioning of ecosystems’’ as well as the
‘protection of genetic resources and the conservation of
biological diversity’’, and the ‘‘elusive’’ ‘economic’ defi-
nition entails resolving ‘‘the limitations that a sustainable
society must place on economic growth’’ (pp716–717). To
Brown et al., these are different perspectives on the same
concept which have emerged from the literature, closer to
observation than anything approaching a conceptual
framework.
The same year, Barbier articulates the development
process as ‘‘an interaction among three systems: the bio-
logical (and other resource) system, the economic system,
and the social system’’, presenting an early antecedent of
the intersecting circles diagram (Barbier 1987). Each
system is ascribed goals: ‘‘genetic diversity, resilience,
biological productivity’’; ‘‘satisfying basic needs (reducing
poverty), equity-enhancing, increasing useful goods and
services’’; and ‘‘cultural diversity, institutional sustain-
ability, social justice, participation’’, respectively. The
objective of sustainable development then is to ‘‘maximise
the goals across all these systems through an adaptive
process of trade-offs’’ (p104). This work marks what seems
to be the first explicit conceptualisation of the pillars,
complete with diagram, and discussion of inherent ‘trade-
offs’. Indeed, it is claimed that Barbier first presented this
as a result of a 1986 meeting within the IIED, where he was
working as an economist, proposing a more analytical
approach to understanding sustainable development
(Holmberg 1992, p23). Barbier too identifies himself as the
progenitor of the ‘Venn diagram’ in a later work (Barbier
and Burgess 2017), at one point referring to it as ‘‘infa-
mous’’ (Barbier 2011).
Cocklin draws on Barbier, conceptualising ‘sustain-
ability’ in terms of a set of goals relating to social, eco-
nomic, and environmental subsystems. The relation of
sustainability to other management goals such as resilience
and economic efficiency is considered to be ultimately
ideological in nature, and thus trade-offs occur both
internally and externally (Cocklin 1989).
Dixon and Fallon differentiate between purely ‘biolog-
ical/physical’, and ‘socioeconomic’ definitions of sustain-
ability which revolve around ‘‘social and economic
wellbeing’’, hinting at necessary structural changes to
current economic activity (Dixon and Fallon 1989). Le
´le
´
distinguishes between two competing understandings of
sustainable development: sustained growth, which he
deems a contradiction; and ecologically sound develop-
ment with implicit social objectives (Le
´le
´1991). Le
´le
´
holds that the concept of sustainable development requires
strong clarification, arguing for the need to reject attempts
to focus on economic growth and to recognise the inade-
quacies of neoclassical economics.
Hancock (1993) approaches a three-pillar model in
efforts to consider issues of ‘health’ alongside sustainable
communities (Hancock 1993). Hancock argues for a shift
in focus from economic development to a ‘‘system of
economic activity that enhances human development while
being environmentally and socially sustainable’’ (p43). A
‘Venn diagram’ model is presented of health, or ‘human
development’, being the confluence of three systems which
meet several requirements: a ‘community’ which is ‘con-
vivial’, an ‘environment’ which is ‘viable’, and ‘livable’
with respect to the community, and an economy which is
‘adequately prosperous’, ‘equitable’ with respect to the
community, and ‘sustainable’ with respect to the environ-
ment. Superficially, this model is remarkably similar to
contemporary models of the three pillars, but it presents the
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economy as ‘subservient’ to the community and environ-
ment, rather than as an entity with which trade-offs must be
made.
Munasinghe claims ‘sustainable development’ encom-
passes ‘‘three major points of view: economic, social, and
ecological’’, whereby progress is best made via integration
of their competing ‘‘non-comparable’’ objectives. Further,
three differing approaches to ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustain-
able development’ are articulated: the economic which
maximises income whilst maintaining capital stock, the
ecological which seeks to preserve biological and physical
systems, and the sociocultural which encompasses equity
and participation (Munasinghe 1993).
Yunlong and Smit develop Brown et al’s three general
definitions in reference to ‘sustainable agriculture’. They
stress the need for integration, but do not elaborate on how
this might be achieved (Yunlong and Smit 1994). Altieri
presents a version of the ‘Venn diagram’ in his discussion
of sustainable agriculture; here, specific economic, social,
and environmental goals are detailed, with the confluence
representing ‘agroecology’ (Altieri 1995, p376). It has been
suggested by Thompson (2017) that Altieri draws on
Douglass (1984) in his articulation of these three domains;
however, it should be noted that this diagram is absent in
the first edition of Altieri’s book (Altieri 1987). Derived
from a 1982 conference on ‘Agricultural Sustainability in
a Changing World Order’, Douglass divides his contrib-
utors’ perspectives along ‘‘economic, biological, and cul-
tural’’ lines of thinking, later reiterated with the subtitles
‘Food Sufficiency: Resources, Technology, and Eco-
nomics’’, ‘‘Stewardship: Biology, Ecology, and Popula-
tion’’, and ‘‘Community: Justice, Participation, and
Development’’. Despite the focus on agriculture, these
categorisations bear many similarities with perspectives
drawn in the wider sustainability literature; however like
Brown et al., these are separate perspectives as observed in
the literature rather than having theoretical basis. Altieri’s
work is placed here within the ‘stewardship’ camp, yet his
concluding chapter emphasises the inherent linkages
between the biological and socioeconomic problems of
agricultural systems. He concludes, ‘‘The requirements to
develop sustainable agriculture clearly are not just bio-
logical or technical, but also social, economic, and politi-
cal, and illustrate the requirements needed to create a
sustainable society’’ (Altieri 1987, p199; 1995, p379).
Basiago describes sustainability as a ‘‘methodology
designed to maximize the vitality of social and environ-
mental systems’’ (Basiago 1995, p119). Economic methods
of defining sustainability are described (along with bio-
logical, sociological, planning, and ethical methods),
although Basiago argues that ‘‘a major restructuring of the
economy is implied by economic methods’’.
The work of Goodland and Daly (Goodland 1995;
Goodland and Daly 1996) seeks to distinguish the concept
of ‘environmental sustainability’ from social and economic
sustainability. They take a largely systems-based approach
to the environmental pillar, defining it in terms of input–
output laws. They are critical of what they perceive as the
term ‘sustainability’ becoming a ‘‘landfill dump for
everyone’s environmental and social wishlists’’ (Goodland
and Daly 1996, p1002). Contrasting to a holistic integrated
approach, they argue that the three ‘types’ of sustainability
are ‘‘clearest when kept separate’’, and that ‘‘the disciplines
best able to analyse each type of sustainability are differ-
ent’’ (ibid.).
In contrast, Milne suggests that it is ‘‘generally accepted
that ‘sustainability’ is about integrating social, economic,
and ecological values’’ (p137), but cautions a lack of
agreement in interpretation, distinguishing between authors
who call for ‘balancing’, and those who prioritise the
biological aspect (Milne 1996). Milne leans towards the
latter, concluding that ‘‘sustainability requires the subor-
dination of traditional economic criteria to criteria based on
social and ecological values’’. The World Resources
Institute, attempting to produce environmental indicators
for ‘sustainable development’ argue that ‘‘sustainability
involves—at a minimum—interacting economic, social,
and environmental factors’’ arguing that inadequate atten-
tion has been given to the latter (pp2–3). They too argue
that sustainable development is that which attempts to
‘reconcile or establish a balance’’ (p31) between these
factors (Hammond et al. 1995).
Macnaghten and Jacobs (1997) argue that the ‘general
model’ of sustainable development, which emerges from
the literature, emphasises trade-offs between economic
growth, deteriorating environmental conditions, and a
decline in the quality of life (Macnaghten and Jacobs
1997). The authors argue for a model whereby ‘economic
welfare’ is a component of the quality of life, which in turn
is ultimately constrained by ‘environmental limits’. Such a
nested model, as presented to the right of Fig. 1, has been
viewed as preferable to a ‘Venn diagram’ of trade-offs by
numerous authors for its emphasis that the three systems
represented by the pillars cannot be separated and are in
fact subsystems of each other (Mebratu 1998; Giddings
et al. 2002). Striking similarities can be seen between this
nested model and a much earlier one by Rene
`Passet, a
contemporary of Ignacy Sachs (Passet 1979). Passet’s
systems approach emphasises that the sphere of economy is
situated within the sphere of human activities, where social
welfare is not reduced to the mere accumulation of goods
and services, which in turn is situated within the biosphere
(pp9–12). The diffusion of this model into the sustain-
ability literature is uncertain; Passet’s work was likely
familiar to Sachs, yet the model appeared to receive little
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attention as a primary source in the English language until
much later.
Custance and Hillier (1998) detail their work in devel-
oping a set of sustainable development indicators for the
UK government (Custance and Hillier 1998). Here, sus-
tainable development is again understood as the ‘‘balance
between three broad objectives—maintenance of economic
growth, protection of the environment and social pro-
gress’’. They build upon a set of indicators developed in
1996 which focused primarily on the economic–environ-
mental interaction, acknowledge the importance of
including a social dimension, but question whose role it is
to define sustainable development. This work reflects a
broader body of literature considering ‘indicators’ of sus-
tainable development utilising the three pillars which
appears to arise around this time (Bradley Guy and Kibert
1998; Fricker 1998; Stirling 1999; Azapagic and Perdan
2000; Valentin and Spangenberg 2000).
Parallels to the three pillars can be seen in Campbell’s
‘planning triangle’. Campbell produced a model of what he
perceived as three major goals or priorities of urban plan-
ning: social justice, economic growth, and environmental
protection (Campbell 1996). Campbell argues that these
goals introduce three fundamental conflicts, yet at the
elusive centre of the three lies ‘sustainable development’,
the balance of these goals. Campbell acknowledges the
difficulty of finding this balance, emphasises the need to
think holistically and move towards shared language, and
urges collaboration between development planners and
environmental planners. Campbell’s discussion explicitly
highlights the notion of conflict or competition between
these goals and of the need for interdisciplinary approaches
in elaborating upon them towards a more comprehensive
and rigorous conceptual framework.
Of final note is the treatment of sustainability within the
business literature. From the late 1990s, Elkington’s ‘triple
bottom line’ (TBL) accounting method gained traction with
the publication of his popular book ‘Cannibals With Forks’
(Elkington 1997). Drawing strong parallels with three pil-
lars, the traditional financial ‘bottom line’ of a corporation
is complimented by bottom lines for social and environ-
mental performance, termed ‘people, planet, profit’,
encouraging firms to consider longer-term perspectives in
their decision making. Corporate usage of the TBL has
been met with scepticism in academic circles, however,
with little evidence of effective use among the bodies that
claim to advocate it. It has been argued that the TBL jargon
is inherently empty, vague, and misleading (Norman and
Macdonald 2004), paradoxically perpetuating business-as-
usual approaches (Milne and Gray 2013). Whilst ‘corporate
sustainability’ may trace its roots to ‘corporate social
responsibility’ which arose in the 1950s, it was not until the
1990s that larger companies started publishing reports
emphasising environmental issues, and later certain health
issues, although the language of sustainability was rarely
used (Milne and Gray 2013). Numerous ‘sustainability
accounting’ methods predate the TBL, yet Elkington’s
work appears to mark the first use of a three-pillar con-
ceptualisation here (Lamberton 2005). Whilst this body of
literature does not appear to be the origin of the three-pillar
framework, it seems that the TBL, which is presented in
many cases as synonymous with sustainability, may have
been influential in cementing its position in the mainstream
into the 21st century.
Discussion
Having reviewed much of the early literature, with the
motivation of probing the genesis of the ‘three-pillar’
paradigm, it is of some concern to find no clear answers.
Whilst the work of Barbier (1987) appears to provide the
origin of the widespread circles diagram and provides a
framework to encourage maximisation of the goals of three
systems, subject to implied trade-offs, it differs from later
uses, most notably in its treatment of the economic system.
The ‘three-pillar’ formulation itself, however, predates
Barbier, at least implicitly, appearing in the IUCN’s 1980
‘World Conservation Strategy’, O’Riordan (1985), the
contemporaneous Brown et al. (1987), as well as in works
preceding the language of sustainability, such as the dis-
cussions of ‘eco-development’ by Sachs and Passet’s 1979
work.
Of the various works discussed here, it is possible to
broadly distinguish between two ways in which the pillars
have been conceptualised. The first approach follows that
of Barbier in presenting the individual dimensions as dis-
tinct, yet interacting systems, as taken by e.g. Cocklin
(1989), Hancock (1993), and Basiago (1995). Secondly,
there are those who follow from Brown et al. in seeing
three distinct, yet interrelated perspectives or schools of
thought such as Le
´le
´(1991), Munasinghe (1993), and
Goodland and Daly (1996).
Competing realities
The systems approach had been used earlier by Passet, who
may have indirectly contributed to its use. This approach
typically presents three distinct systems with their own
‘goals’, and the interactions of these systems must be
managed to meet these goals and the emergent goal of
sustainability or sustainable development. The clearest
example of this is given by Barbier (1987) and Cocklin
(1989) who both emphasise integration of the systems and
management of trade-offs between them. Hancock (1993)
and Basiago (1995) also take a systems approach, but the
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implication is that the individual systems strengthen and
enhance each other. Campbell (1996) also emphasises
reconciliation. Here, we would place the approaches taken
by the UN and IUCN who, whilst generally avoiding the
language of systems, talk about these individual dimen-
sions having specific goals. In a similar vein then too,
Munasinghe (1993), Altieri (1995), Milne (1996), and
Custance and Hillier (1998) all discuss the integration and
balancing of goals, whereas Macnaghten and Jacobs (1997)
use the language of trade-offs. The language involved here
frequently invokes the need to ‘‘integrate’’, ‘‘balance’’, and
‘reconcile’’ the pillars without necessarily articulating
what this means in practice; whether this requires uncom-
fortable ‘trade-offs’ or not appears to depend on the level
of optimism the work in question is pitching for. This
missing link between theory and application is problema-
tised by Barbier and others in a later work (Barbier and
Markandya 2013, p38; Barbier and Burgess 2017); it is
difficult to make decisions about trade-offs without
knowing the implications of such choices and, whilst they
offer a utility maximisation approach, it remains value
laden. There thus appears an uncomfortable gap between
undertheorisation, on the one hand and making necessary
political value judgements to allow for application, on the
other.
Alternative to a systems interpretation are the authors
who talk about the three pillars as distinct perspectives of
sustainability. These discussions range from calls for
clarity of competing definitions: Brown et al. (1987),
Dixon and Fallon (1989), Le
´le
´(1991); further undertheo-
rised calls for integration of these perspectives: Douglass
(1984), Yunlong and Smit (1994); and Goodland and Daly
(1996)’s argument to retain disciplinary distinctions: ‘‘so-
cial scientists are best able to define social sustainability’
(p1002). Blurring the lines of systems/perspectives dis-
tinctions come later descriptions such as the ‘3Ps’ of Elk-
ington, or the ‘3Es’ (environment, economy, equity)
(Caradonna 2014), which embody broad values further
removed from explicit conceptualisation.
Further to these distinctions, the meaning of the eco-
nomic pillar remains a central point from which much of
the early literature diverges. A prominent strand is heavily
critical of the dominant global economic paradigm and sees
the economic pillar as a means of producing systemic
change, both by erring away from the growth narrative and
thinking of the ‘economy’ as subordinate to social well-
being and environmental health. This can be seen in Brown
et al.’s (1987) considerations of placing limitations on
growth, Basiago’s call for economic ‘restructuring’, and
Milne’s call for ‘‘subordination of traditional economic
criteria’’. Barbier and Altieri both reject economic growth
as their economic goals, and the IUCN too remains wary of
the economic system throughout their literature, instead
focusing on the balancing of environmental and social
goals.
This contrasts heavily with the understanding pushed by
the UN, where growth is imperative. Rather than being met
with scepticism, a growth-focused economic pillar is cen-
tral to their sustainable development narrative; here,
growth is key to meeting the social and environmental
goals through trickle-down effects. The presentation of an
economic pillar centred on growth, equal in importance to
social and environmental pillars of sustainability, as an
unquestioned, unprobed necessity cements this framing of
the pillars as common sense. A lack of a clear conceptual
basis acts further to hide this framing from critique,
allowing for broad consensus from institutional actors that
would otherwise have conflicting priorities. This highlights
the problems of undertheorised calls for ‘integration’ and
‘balancing’ of the pillars without the acknowledgement
that any attempt to do so in practice is value driven.
Historical emergence?
It can be argued that many of the conflicting conceptuali-
sations of the three pillars, and sustainability itself, can be
attributed to the historical origins of this body of literature.
As has been suggested above, the historical roots and
emergence of ‘sustainability’ is far from a straightforward
narrative; indeed, Kidd identifies six distinct but related
strains of thought feeding in (Kidd 1992), and there are
arguably more. It is here that we can begin to see the
origins of why the sustainability literature is so broad and
confusing; as Kidd argues, it is deeply embedded in fun-
damentally different concepts. From the development
specialists to the ecological economists, and systems
ecologists, various broadly distinct schools co-opt the
language of ‘sustainability’ around the same time, leading
to what has become such a heterogeneous discourse. As
Dryzek has argued, we then see a wide range of actors who
see the emergence of ‘sustainability’ as a dominant dis-
course and recognise it as ripe for shaping in terms that are
favourable to them (Dryzek 2005, p146). What arguably
unites these disparate roots is criticism of the economic
status quo, be that realised by blind pursuit of economic
growth, short-sighted profit-driven agriculture, or indus-
trialism with little regard to the fragility of complex
ecosystems.
Thus, focusing on the economic development strand as
explored previously, we argue that ‘sustainable develop-
ment’ arose here from a twin critique of the previously
popular notion of ‘economic development’, from both a
‘quality of life’ or social perspective, and an ecological
perspective. Caldwell goes into some depth discussing the
ecological critique, arguing that the 1972 Stockholm
Conference succeeded in placing the need to reconcile
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economic development and environmental protection on
the global agenda, and precipitated the notion of ‘eco-de-
velopment’ (Caldwell 1984). The early social critique is
explored by Arndt (1987) and is picked up by the
Brundtland Report which holds that poverty and environ-
mental problems are inherently linked, and that ‘‘meeting
essential needs’’ is a key requirement of development (UN
1987, p16).
Thus, we see the three pillars are fundamentally rooted
here in ‘sustainable development’ from its conception.
Further, we argue that this narrative of environmental and
social critiques of the economic status quo is replayed over
various other strands that adopt the language of sustain-
ability. This can be seen in the work of the IUCN, which
approaches ‘sustainable development’ from the concept of
conservation, in the limits discourse, considerations of
sustainable agriculture as articulated by Douglass, as well
as in Elkington’s TBL. We now begin to see why the
economic pillar is so fundamental—what unites these dis-
parate discourses is the perceived inadequacy of the ‘eco-
nomic’, be it from environmental or social perspectives.
The confusion of competing conceptualisations and dif-
ferent interpretations of the economic pillar within this
early literature can then be understood if we view sus-
tainability not as a coherent singular concept, but as a
common language of broad schools of thought with the
commonality of this ‘economic’ critique.
The depiction of the economic pillar in terms of an
economic growth goal, placed on equal footing with social
and environmental factors, despite the wealth of critical
literature, can be seen as an embodiment of the ideological
win–win scenario of ‘sustainable growth’ pushed in the
1987 Brundtland Report. This was further reinforced by the
1992 Rio summit and publication Agenda 21 which
brought this particular interpretation of ‘sustainable
development’ to global attention. It has been argued by
some that this neutralisation of the radical economic cri-
tique via institutionalisation was an inevitable consequence
of the UN’s consensus building approach to addressing
‘sustainability’ (Huckle 1991; Carruthers 2001).
This ‘emergence’ of the three-pillar model thus leads to
it being in many cases presented, with little to no theo-
retical foundation or justification, as the norm, or a ‘com-
mon sense’ understanding of sustainability. This is
mirrored in the documents of the UN and may be seen too
within organisations such as the OECD, which, in a 2000
report on indicators, heavily emphasise the need to better
understand the ‘‘complex synergies and trade-offs’
between the ‘‘three dimensions’’ of sustainable develop-
ment (OECD 2000, p19).
‘Sustainability’ vs. ‘sustainable development’
So far, we have sidestepped focusing on the competing
language of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’,
as the two are often so intertwined in the literature that they
remain difficult to tease apart. It is through this conflation
though that economic growth-centred ‘development’
becomes an implicit part of ‘sustainability’, skipping over
the questions: Development of what? Development for
whom? Such strategic ambiguity allows this fuzzy concept
to be utilised by any actor for their own means. In the
earlier literature such as Caldwell, and Barbier, ‘sustain-
able development’ is understood as a necessity for devel-
oping nations and is often decoupled from growth. But this
distinction is lost when the UN equates development with
growth, and the OECD calls for sustainable development
for their member countries, i.e. developed nations (OECD
2004, p3).
This issue has been addressed by numerous authors who
hold the term ‘sustainable development’, like that of
‘sustainable growth’, to be an oxymoron (Redclift 2005;
Johnston et al. 2007; Brand 2012). Notably Redclift argues
the notion of ‘development’, rooted in Western colonial
capitalist narratives, presents numerous barriers to sus-
tainability, and without interrogation and political change,
sustainability itself is jeopardised (Redclift 1987). Sneddon
proclaims that ‘sustainable development’ has ‘‘reached a
conceptual dead-end’’, and that for clarity it is necessary to
decouple the notion of ‘sustainability’ from its counterpart
(Sneddon 2000). He problematises the recasting of ‘de-
velopment’ as sustainable, citing the numerous socio-eco-
logical abuses enacted throughout its history and its
blindness to deep-set structural issues. ‘Sustainability’ on
the other hand, despite having perhaps a reputation as a
buzzword, carries far less historical baggage and its
necessity for a specific context prompts conceptual ques-
tions, such as for whom and of what. Looking at the more
contemporary literature, however, it seems little has
changed and the recent articulation of the SDGs has further
entrenched the notion of ‘sustainable development’.
Conclusions
In seeking to clarify the origins of the notion of the ‘three
pillars of sustainability’, we have shown that the concep-
tual foundations of this model are far from clear and there
appears to be no singular source from which it derives.
Whilst a diagram with explicit economic, social, and bio-
logical system goals is presented as a model of sustainable
development by Barbier in 1987, the goals elaborated differ
from those of the UN and the meaning is limited to
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developing nations. Further, an implicit notion of these
three pillars predates this, appearing in work by the IUCN
and in consideration of ‘eco-development’.
We have argued that the early literature considering the
pillars may be split broadly between those who view the
three as distinct perspectives, and those who take a systems
approach. Within these formulations, there lacks a com-
monality in how interactions are treated, whether trade-offs
occur or mutual reinforcements are made. The implications
of ‘integration’ here are often undertheorised leading to the
value judgements necessary for application often slipping
by unnoticed and depoliticised. This is seen most clearly as
the major source of disagreement stemming from the
treatment of the economic pillar.
By drawing on Kidd’s argument that the discourse is
fundamentally rooted in different schools of thought who
have all adopted the common language of ‘sustainability’,
we suggest that this presents itself as the source of much
confusion and competing conceptualisation. Central to
these distinct schools, however, can be seen a broad cri-
tique of the economic status quo, both from ecological and
social perspectives. Focusing on the development literature
has allowed us to present an example of twin ecological
and ‘basic needs’ critiques of ‘economic development’
from the 1960s, crystallising into three pillars of ‘sustain-
able development’ in the 1980s. We have then argued that
this narrative is replayed across various other schools of
thought under the language of ‘sustainability’, such as
those considering agriculture or conservation.
As these conflicts play out, ‘sustainable development’ is
institutionalised by the UN in the 1987 Brundtland Report,
and during the subsequent Rio process, which pushes an
understanding placing economic growth as the solution to
ecological and social problems. This ‘win–win’ approach
reflects the biases inspired by their intergovernmental
consensus building remit, and effectively neutralises much
radical critique by depoliticising sustainability and pre-
senting three sets of equally important economic, social,
and environmental goals as benign necessity. This notion is
further entrenched by the blurring of the language of
‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ such that
economic development remained an implicit, but inade-
quately formulated, part of sustainability.
A consequence of the lack of rigour in the theoretical
underpinnings of sustainability and the three-pillar para-
digm is the difficulty in producing operational frameworks
for the characterisation of sustainability which remain
rooted in theory. Such applications would necessarily be
context specific, requiring careful consideration of both
spatial and functional boundaries. Although the targets and
indicators associated with the UN SDGs are encouraging, a
lack of detail is given to a transparent rigorous theoretical
foundation in which to ground them and the value judge-
ments that have been made along the way.
Despite this paper being mostly retrospective, focusing
upon historical literature, it brings to light important issues
that are still relevant today. There remains an urgent need
to critically examine the models we employ for under-
standing. The inherently political nature of sustainability
can often be forgotten, and we should be careful to avoid
reproducing models without carefully considering their
theoretical basis and the embedded ideology within them.
Finally, it should be remembered that sustainability,
through its complex and disparate historical origins,
remains both context specific and ontologically open, and
thus any rigorous operationalisation requires explicit
description of how it is understood.
Acknowledgements This work was supported by the Engineering and
Physical Sciences Research Council [grant number 1643433]; and the
Leverhulme Trust research programme grant ‘Sustaining urban
habitats: an interdisciplinary approach’.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creative
commons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, dis-
tribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
made.
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... The demands of consumers are increasing for ecologically and socially acceptable products. Sustainable textile has identified the triple bottom line which consists of three basic pillars of Profit (economic), People (social), and Planet (environment) (Purvis, Mao, and Robinson 2019). ...
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