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Definitions of Sustainability

Resource Management
May 6, 2010

Phil Wakelyn


Why is the concept of sustainability of resources, like cotton, important? Consider the following quote: "By 2050, UN experts agree there will be three billion more people on the planet, each with an average of 2.9 times more income, consuming twice as much. These trends illustrate a future without enough food and raw materials to meet growing demand."  


‘Sustainability' should be considered as the achievement of a successful balance between three concerns: environmental protection/health, economic profitability, and social needs. Sustainability can not be determined exactly nor defined objectively. When using the term ‘sustainable' as a marketing claim, it should be referenced to a set of criteria/metrics that can be verified by an independent third party. Sustainability should involve continuous improvement. Sustainability is a world view. 


Advertising Age named sustainability one of the "jargoniest jargon" words of 2010. Sustainability is "a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse -- a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It's not synonymous with ‘green.' Is organic agriculture sustainable, for example, if more of the world would starve through its universal application?" It's no wonder that such a word has been used indiscriminately by politicians, businesses, and media alike because not only is sustainability a hot topic of which everyone wants to promote themselves as being at the cutting edge, but misuse is made easy due to the lack of a universally agreed upon definition.  The difficulty in coming up with a shared definition is complicated by the fact that sustainability applies to a multitude of dynamically interrelated issues - environmental, economic, and social - to name a few from which Triple Pundit's name stems.The most popular definition of sustainability came out of the Brundtland Commission (formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development) of the United Nations General Assembly on March 20, 1987. The Brundtland definition is criticized as being too vague and not providing a guide for how sustainability can become "operational."  Currently, any business can claim the title of sustainable, without any formal punishment other than perhaps being called out by a watch dog group, due to the lack of a common definition that lays out specific metrics by which to gauge whether a company has actually arrived at a particular set of end sustainability goals. It's hard to imagine a worldwide standardized, all-encompassing set of criterion for sustainability, but there are benchmarks that indicate that at the very least evidence that people are engaging in a critical dialogue of what it means to care for future generations.   


The UN and the US EPA definitions although too vague, can be used as guides for ‘sustainable' but every industry and society have to weigh the priorities between different values, which can conflict with one another.


- The United Nations' widely-used and accepted international definition of "sustainability" / "sustainable development" is: resources used for the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development', General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987. (

- Definition according to the US Environmental Protection Agency: Sustainability has many definitions but the basic principles and concepts remain constant: balancing a growing economy, protection for the environment, and social responsibility, so they together lead to an improved quality of life for ourselves and future generations.

‘Sustainability' (

- Sustainability according to USDA: The USDA has defined sustainable agriculture but underlying the definition are diverse and sometimes controversial views of sustainability.


Some terms defy definition. "Sustainable agriculture" has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain? How can we implement such a nebulous goal? Is it too late? With the contradictions and questions have come a hard look at our present food production system and thoughtful evaluations of its future. If nothing else, the term "sustainable agriculture" has provided "talking points," a sense of direction, and an urgency, that has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.

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For USDA Sustainability in Agriculture also see:

 Also see USDA Sustainable Research and Education (SARE):


- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC):

As more parties sign on to the sustainable agriculture effort, perceptions about what defines sustainability in agriculture have multiplied. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center's (AFSIC) publication, Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms, strives to illustrate the commonality and some of the controversy that defining such a goal entails, and it includes brief descriptions of the methodologies and practices currently associated with sustainable agriculture. 

For AFSIC's Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms, see:


- 'Sustainable agriculture' in the 1990 Farm Bill: 

 An integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
• satisfy human food and fiber needs
• enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
• make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
• sustain the economic viability of farm operations
• enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

[Farm Bill, 1990, Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603, Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (‘OFPA') as amended (7 US Code 6501 et seq.]


- National Research Council:

Improving sustainability is a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory toward meeting various socially determined sustainability goals as opposed to achieving any particular end state. Agricultural sustainability is defined by four generally agreed upon goals:

• Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.

• Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.

• Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.

• Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

 The sustainability of a farming practice or system could be evaluated on the basis of how well it meets various societal goals or objectives. To be sustainable, a farming system needs to be sufficiently productive, robust (that is, be able to continue to meet the goals in the face of stresses and fluctuating conditions), use resources efficiently, and balance the four goals.

The decisions of farmers to use particular farming practices and their ability to move toward increasingly sustainable farming systems are influenced by many external forces, including science, knowledge, skills, markets, public policies, and their own values, resources, and land tenure arrangements. Although market, policy, and institutional contexts are important drivers of the trajectory of U.S. agriculture, the response of individual farmers to the incentives and disincentives created by market conditions and policy contexts can be diverse. Efforts to promote widespread adoption of different farming practices and systems for improving sustainability will require an understanding of how variability among individual, household, farm, and regional-level characteristics affect farmers’ response to incentives and disincentives.

Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, published Nov 2010 (Free Summary):


- EPA: Pollution Prevention > Sustainable Development:

Sustainable development is development that meets our present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. It represents a multifaceted approach to managing our environmental, economic, and social resources for the long term. In this approach, federal, state, tribal, and local governments work together to achieve environmental protection goals and set standards for cooperation between communities, businesses, and governments. The ultimate aim of this collaborative decision making process is to promote more sensible use of human, natural, and financial resources by creating a widely held ethic of environmental stewardship among individuals, institutions, and corporations.


- Actio Corporation:

 Sustainable development can best be thought of as a balanced approach to achieving a better quality of life for more people - while minimizing the impact that the associated development has on the natural world. It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to sustainable development:
- Economic
- Social
- Environmental

If any one of the three key components of sustainable development is not properly addressed by society, the other two will suffer as a result -- all three parts are equally important. Steps are being taken, in Europe towards sustainable materials management and the United Nation's Division for Sustainable Development (UN DSD).



- The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Field-to-Market:

Meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs:

- Increasing productivity to meet future food and fiber demands
- Decreasing impacts on the environment
- Improving human health
- Improving the social and economic well-being of agricultural communities