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What is sustainability?

01 August 2023

What is sustainability? The word has become increasingly prominent is seen by some as just another hollow buzzword. Most people agree it has to do with meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Learn more about sustainability.


The word 'sustainability' has become increasingly prominent in recent years. It is seen by some as just another hollow buword, and is often used interchangeably with concepts such as environmentalism or being 'green'.

Defining 'sustainability'

One of the most commonly used and widely adopted definitions of sustainable development is "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Essentially, sustainability is about the relationship between people and planet; remembering that we are inextricably part of this planet, and that our societies (including economies) depend upon healthy biological and physical systems.

At its most literal level, 'sustainability' refers to the quality of a state or process that allows it to be maintained indefinitely. At present, the way we are living is not sustainable. If we carry on as we are, the Earth's natural resources and physical systems will be irreversibly damaged and depleted.

This will have serious consequences for the ability of humans to produce enough food to meet our needs, changes in climate will displace millions of people and destroy the livelihoods of others, increasing scarcity of resources may lead to conflict and war, and loss of natural ecosystems resulting in massive species loss.

The Global Footprint Network

The Global Footprint Network measures how much land and water area the human population requires to produce the resource it consumes and to absorb its wastes, and whether we are consuming nature's resources faster than the planet can renew them. Currently, humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. We are depleting the resources on which we depend for survival. A sustainable society is one in which people can lead healthy, satisfying lifestyles which are within the capacity of the planet to support. New Zealand's footprint has been steadily declining over the last 50 years, and if this trend continues, our ecological footprint will soon overreach our biocapacity.

New ways of thinking

The problems we face in achieving sustainability are large, but they can be overcome. They can't be solved just by changing your light bulbs (though that is certainly a good start). We will require new ways of thinking about how we live our lives – how we work, how we do business, how we eat, shop, travel and participate in our communities. We need to view resource use not as a linear process – turning raw materials into useful items, then disposing of them when they are no longer useful – but a cyclical process, where resources are instead reused indefinitely.

Our commitment to sustainability

That's why University of Canterbury has made a commitment to sustainability, not just in terms of reducing our current impact but also in our role as educators preparing students for the future. Senior Management Team have adopted a Sustainability Framework that defines sustainability as “the quality of being sustainable at a certain rate or level.” The Framework also refers to the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of Sustainable development - as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Framework concluded, therefore, that “sustainability means development which is sustainable. Sustainable development consists of:

  • environmental sustainability
  • social sustainability, and
  • economic sustainability"
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