Over time, the concept of sustainability has become one of the pathways leading to sustainable development. That is, the condition of a development model capable of ensuring that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (UN Conference on Environment and Development 1992).
The concept of sustainability has evolved over time, being associated with a vision centred on ecological aspects. Today, it has taken on a broader meaning, factoring in the environmental, economic and social dimensions.
So, what are the fundamental pillars for sustainability?
There are 3 fundamental pillars for sustainability:
- Economic sustainability, understood as the ability of an economic system to generate lasting growth in economic indicators, through the creation of income and employment to sustain populations;
- Environmental sustainability, understood as the ability to maintain natural capital and thus, quality, availability and reproducibility of natural resources and functioning of ecosystems;
- Social sustainability, understood as the ability to meet and guarantee the conditions of human well-being and social and cultural needs (such as security, education, health, democracy and participation) through equal distribution by class and gender.
The 3 basic pillars of sustainability can be defined as “interdependent and mutually reinforcing” (United Nations, World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002).
If the function of the pillar is to support, the failure of one of the 3 pillars described above would call into question the very meaning of sustainability and sustainable development.
Economic sustainability is:
– The basis for sustainable development;
– The capacity of an economic system to generate lasting growth in economic indicators, through the creation of income and employment to sustain the population;
– The pursuit of economic efficiency through careful management of non-renewable resources;
– The development of a perspective that regulates investment and work with a view to intra- and inter-generational equity, sustainable in the long run (Brown et al., 1987).
When talking about sustainability, it is crucial to consider the strong link between economic growth and natural resources.
The increasing exploitation and consumption of natural resources has accentuated the interdependence between the economic and environmental systems.
Within this framework, the concept of circular economy – as a sustainable development model that combines economic needs with social and environmental ones – is gaining ground.
The circular economy envisages overcoming the limitations of the linear “take – make – use – dispose” economy, through a regenerative approach in which products are designed to have a long life span and to be reused, renewed, re-manufactured and finally, recycled (CE, L’economia circolare. Collegare, generare e conservare il valore, 2014).
Indeed, the circular economy can be considered as a new paradigm of sustainability.
Pursuing the principles of the circular economy represents an opportunity to create new business models.
Fundamental is the role of companies that set off on sustainability pathways involving all company phases, encompassing Research and Development, production and consumption.
Circular economy business models refer, for instance, to product supplies:
– From environmentally-sustainable raw materials;
– That are traceable and from recycled materials;
– That are technologically designed to last a long time.
This is all whilst being certified and labelled using international tools of reference to quantify energy consumption and environmental impact.
Environmental sustainability is the ability to maintain natural capital and thus, quality, availability and reproducibility of natural resources and functioning of ecosystems.
In this dimension, the concept of sustainability advocates for a development that preserves natural resources and protects non-renewable resources through concrete actions such as:
– A reduction in energy consumption;
– The progressive elimination of pollutants;
– A progressive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The concept of environmental sustainability underpins the achievement of economic sustainability. It is assumed that the way in which the economic system is managed impacts on the environment and, conversely, environmental quality impacts on economic performance.
The adoption of a logic of sustainable environmental development that takes into account the compatibility of business activities and the maintenance of ecosystems thus becomes fundamental, as does the impact of activities and products in terms of resource consumption, waste production and pollutant emissions.
The primary objective is ultimately the development of production processes that satisfy environmental effectiveness, economic efficiency and social sustainability at the same time.
Social sustainability is the ability to meet and guarantee the conditions of human well-being and social and cultural needs (such as security, education, health, democracy and participation) through equal distribution by class and gender.
In order to be able to adopt a form of sustainable development that also contains social sustainability therein, effective actions by public authorities, institutions and companies are required.
Companies, for example, integrate Corporate Social Responsibility into their business strategies, entailing the adoption of corporate policies capable of reconciling economic objectives with the social and environmental objectives of the territory of reference.
The European Commission’s Green Paper of July 2001 defines Corporate Social Responsibility as the way in which “companies integrate social and environmental concerns into both their business operations and their interactions with stakeholders on a voluntary basis”.
A socially-responsible company is expected to register above-average benefits since its ability to successfully resolve ecological and social problems can be a credible measure of management quality (Industry Week, 15th January 2001).
The company’s responsibility to generate profits is accompanied by the voluntary choice to contribute to the achievement of social and environmental objectives. Within the corporate strategy and management framework, the objective is rather to consider social responsibility as an investment and not as a cost.
The company is thus committed to the community, from which it draws resources, skills, goods and services, and towards which it assumes an ethical obligation to become a driver of economic and social development, respecting the environment and its resources whilst defending the interests of present and future generations.