The History of Sustainability and its True Definition

Photo of author
Written By Gabriela
Gabriela is a science journalist and writer. She has a PhD in biochemistry and a master's degree in science communication. Gabriela has published articles in magazines and newspapers in Mexico and USA, and has also given talks on science subjects.






The term ‘sustainability’ has become increasingly popular in recent decades, but when did it first start to be used and who defined it? In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of the term and its true definition. We’ll also consider the impact it’s had on our society, and explore what sustainability really means. So read on to find out more about sustainability and its impact.

When did the term sustainability start to be used?

The word sustainability was first used in 1972, when it appeared in the book Blueprint for Survival published by the Ecologist. It was discussed in the context of discussing man’s future on this planet and exploring how we can create a better and more sustainable environment.

The Evolution of Sustainability

This term quickly gained traction as key individuals and organisations began to recognise the need for a more holistic approach to our relationship with nature and the planet. This led to major changes in how people viewed development, conservation and environmental protection.

Through research, public discourse and continued efforts, sustainability soon became an internationally accepted concept as individuals around the globe began finding ways to develop their societies in harmony with nature.

In 1987, the United Nations released its report Our Common Future which brought together numerous stakeholders from all sectors of society to discuss sustainable development – or “meeting the needs of present generations without compromising those of future generations” – in greater detail.

  • This report has since become one of the most quoted documents in contemporary environmentalism.
  • It introduced five principles for sustainable development: Integration, Global Responsibility, Equity, Participation, and Precaution.

Since then, much progress has been made toward achieving sustainable development across multiple areas including agriculture, environment, industry and urban development.

In 2015, 193 countries committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly. The goals were set up with a view to ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all by 2030.

What’s in a Name? Who Defined the Term Sustainability?

Since the 1980s, sustainability has been associated with human development and its impact on planet Earth. The United Nations Brundtland Commission articulated the concept of sustainable development in 1987, defining it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainable development focuses on finding balance between social, economic, and environmental goals. This balance is essential for long-term success and for achieving sustainable outcomes that leave the world better off.

The Commission’s definition provided an international vision for how human activity can be managed sustainably using natural resources while maintaining a quality of life suited to all people. It has since become widely recognised as the starting point for understanding sustainability.

The key elements of sustainable development include:

  • Environmental Sustainability: Managing natural resources responsibly and reducing environmental degradation, pollution, and waste.
  • Social Sustainability: Ensuring equitable access to resources and services that meet basic human needs.
  • Economic Sustainability: Driving economic growth in a manner that does not compromise long-term health or wellbeing.

The Brundtland Commission, created by the United Nations, served as a starting point for developing robust sustainability strategies. Its definition provides an important framework for building resilience, mitigating risk, allowing communities to thrive, and promoting global wellbeing.

1987’s Game-Changer: Unpacking the Report that Defined Sustainability

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development released a global, landmark report that revolutionized our understanding of sustainable development. This document is famously known as the Brundtland Report, named after its chairwoman Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The Brundtland Report presented a framework for sustainability, emphasizing an integrated approach in which economic, social and environmental considerations are balanced to ensure ecological stability. This established four main elements:

  • Environmental protection, to ensure natural resources aren’t depleted or polluted.
  • Economic growth, so societies can continue to progress with newly developed technologies.
  • Social equity, so resources are shared responsibly between all sectors in society.
  • Political stability, to bring about stable government systems.

Since its release, the Brundtland Report has become one of the most widely cited documents relating to sustainable development. Its principles now form the governing mandates for many national governments, NGO’s and international organizations when it comes to environmental policy.

The Brundtland Report has also been credited with influencing key climate change instruments such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG) and Kyoto Agreement. By institutionalizing concepts like sustainable energy use and emissions reductions targets, the report set in motion a chain of events which has shaped global climate change initiatives ever since.

Through its lasting contributions to both public policy and innovation-based approaches making it possible for entire countries to adopt sustainable development strategies, nearly thirty years later we can see that the Brundtland Report – as its name will go down in history – was testament to real progress in our path toward sustainability.

when did the term sustainability start to be used

Sustainability: Has the Word Lost its Meaning?

Sustainability has become a buzzword that is used frequently in conversations between businesses, especially those in the industry. It has become commonplace to hear people talking about how sustainable their business practices or products are, and the term seems to lack any real meaning.

See also  Ways to Get Warm Fast

Some would argue that using the word ‘sustainable’ in conversation is a sign of marketing, instead of actually being able to put into practice what the company says it is doing.

In response to this, some companies have made a conscious effort to shift their focus away from sustainability and have instead begun conversations about corporate social responsibility (CSR). Companies engaging in CSR initiatives are focusing not only on the environment, but also on how the company’s activities will benefit society. This shift in focus has allowed companies to be more authentic and transparent when discussing their efforts.

However, even with this shift, sustainability is still a necessary conversation for companies as it is important for them to continue reducing their negative environmental impact. Without addressing sustainability issues, companies can find themselves lagging behind their competitors and failing to meet customer demands for more sustainable practices.

Regardless of whether it is overused or not, sustainability should remain an important part of conversations within and beyond the industry. To address this issue, companies should strive for authenticity when discussing sustainability and should be transparent about the initiatives they are taking. Additionally, companies must be willing to invest both time and resources into reducing their environmental footprint in order to be successful.

Suggestions for Companies:

  • Strive for authenticity when discussing sustainability
  • Reduce negative environmental impact
  • Be transparent about initiatives taken
  • Invest time and resources into reducing environmental footprint

Sustainability 101: Exploring the Classic Definition

Sustainability is defined as meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This goes beyond just natural resources, to also include social and economic resources. Sustainability isn’t just about environmentalism.

To understand the concept of sustainability more completely, it’s important to understand its three primary components: environment, society, and economy.


  • Reduce pollution
  • Regulate the use of resources


  • Improve living standards
  • Promote equitable opportunities


  • Encourage green investments
  • Ensure responsible consumption

By understanding how these elements are intertwined, and finding ways to balance them to meet people’s needs over time, we can create a more sustainable world. Sustainable development must be comprehensive in its approach and should include economic growth as well as social progress that guarantees an improved quality of life for all. It must also ensure a healthy relationship between humans and our natural environment.

Ultimately, sustainability depends on our ability to recognize that various components – personal and global – have both short-term and long-term effects on our planet, its environment, and our lives. By balancing these components appropriately in all areas of life, from personal choices to global policies, we can create a sustainable future for ourselves and generations to come.

Bringing it All Together: The People Behind Sustainability Theory

The historian of economic thought and philosopher, Adam Smith, made major contributions to the early notion of sustainable development. Smith’s writings in The Wealth of Nations, provide valuable insight into some of the first ideas of sustainability.

Smith acknowledged that renewable natural resources had the potential to be destroyed if used without moderation and that the population would need to be regulated in order to maintain a sustainable balance. He argued that human beings should take into account the cost of both present and future use of environment resources and plan accordingly. Through his writings Smith has heavily impacted how today’s society recognises the importance of sustainability by introducing these concepts over two centuries ago.

At the time Smith was writing, there were obviously no current threats such as global warming or other environmental concerns as they had not yet been discovered. The population was still relatively low compared with what it is today, meaning there was no comparison with current resource limitations.

We now live in an environment where our decisions on sustainability can have far-reaching effects. This isn’t exclusive to our own actions now; often we make decisions that will affect future generations immensely. Therefore, establishing a way to sustainably develop must now be taken into consideration when developing our policies.

Adam Smith’s work provides a strong basis from which we can continue to develop better strategies for sustainable development in society today. Modern strategies are ever-evolving, but some key points remain the same; reducing wastage, reusing resources wherever possible, substituting resources with renewable or recyclable options and respecting nature’s inherent limits so as not to deplete natural assets. These points were essentially established by Smith two centuries prior and are still relevant today.

  • Reduce wastage
  • Reuse resources
  • Substitute resources with renewable or recyclable materials where possible
  • Respect nature’s inherent limits

We owe a great deal to Adam Smith for his pioneering practices into sustainability and must continue to strive in employing his ideas within our daily lives to uphold a healthy world for generations yet to come.