Sustainable life

What is Sustainability today?

Sustainability, such an amazingly dense word! Environmental sustainability, fashion sustainability, economic sustainability, cultural sustainability, social sustainability, oh, have I mentioned energy sustainability? It does get me a headache. Everything – and I’m purposefully using this pronoun to make a generalization – is potentially related to sustainability today. Even the bottles made of recycled plastics we usually find along riverbanks. 🙂
What an amazingly variegated word! If you read my presentation post, you’ve probably understood why I love sustainability, and more importantly, why I love talking about sustainability. What I’d like to highlight here is however what sustainability practically entails in these early 2020s.
Yeah, an amazingly misunderstood word! Is it environmental protection? Is it climate change? Human rights? Social innovation? Fashion? Greenwashing? Is it all or nothing at all? Let’s try and clear this wordy mess up.

So… What is sustainability?

As you may have understood from the introduction, today’s sustainability is multifaceted, which is why I defined it as dense, variegated and misunderstood. It nevertheless provides a comprehensive framework that helps us tackle delicate issues to improve our life and the planet on several levels.

First things first: the word sustainability includes the word sustain in it, which is derived from the Latin sustinere. This translates into the verb “to hold”, whose synonyms are to support, to maintain, to endure. The meaning we attribute to sustainability is thus unsurprisingly “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time”.

General definition notwithstanding, today its meaning has acquired economic, environmental, social and cultural dimensions. Indeed, the 2005 World Summit on Social Development identified the so-called Three Pillars of Sustainability, namely economic development, social development and environmental protection.

Economic development is the most problematic, as it is essentially about the capacity of an economy to uphold a certain level of economic output infinitely. As such, if we don’t invest in sustainable development (however debatable this juxtaposition of words might sound), it becomes an environmental problem, because the economic system that most threatens the environment is intrinsically consumerist and polluting.

Social development includes many facets, but all of them boil down to one main idea, which is the ability to maintain and promote the social wellbeing of a country, community, or organisation in the long term. Some of the dimensions this pillar includes are the protection of people’s health and wellness, sustainable housing and education, and the fight against poverty.

Environmental Protection is probably the primary concern of the future of humanity. It defines how we should study and protect the ecosystems and manage our resources without stressing our environment. Easier said than done, especially if we consider the extent to which this pillar is inextricably intertwined with the previous two.

Just like a ripple effect, these three focuses of sustainability have obviously influenced the way in which all aspects of our society and economy develop over time. This is why every day a new “sustainable something” pops up (see sustainable tourism, sustainable finance, sustainable fashion, and so on). And while this could make us think sustainability has become inflated, in my opinion, it isn’t always a bad thing provided that they implement some positive changes or raise people’s awareness of important issues.

Also, these intertwined dimensions of sustainability are reflected in the extremely famous – I’m overestimating people’s interest towards the topic, but hey, let me be a dreamer – 17 goals, aka the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Included in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (“[…] a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity”), they aim at addressing issues such as the end of poverty and hunger, an inclusive and equitable quality education, access to affordable and sustainable energy, safe and inclusive cities, sustainable environmental practices, and peaceful societies.

And while it looks like the nth we-all-wish-for-peace-on-earth declaration, this list of goals manages to bring up in the current debates the intersectional nature such goals have. The wide spectrum of dimensions they intersect. It provides an integrated approach for interconnected global challenges.

Therefore, by analysing the SDG, one thing we cannot but stress is that sustainability is no longer seen as a purely environmental or socio-economic issue, but rather as a comprehensive issue. This is why it might also be useful to look at it through the lenses of intersectionality.

Intersectional sustainability and environmentalism

Intersectionality can be defined as the way in which “the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”. It was coined by US scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 (watch her amazing TED Talk here), who first used it to highlight that while gender and race are looked at as separate issues, they are actually connected. As a result, studying them in isolation from each other might be misleading, as an individual can become the victim of an interplay between different types of discrimination.

Building on this assumption, over the last years, the meaning of intersectionality has been expanded to include people’s overlapping identities and the multiple sources of discrimination they face based, for example, on race, gender, class and socioeconomic status, age, physical or mental ability, and even religion.

This has obviously impacted social justice movements, especially in the US, as intersectionality stresses the fact that that different struggles for justice are interconnected and require solidarity between movements. As a result of this perspective, more recently, environmental activism has also been framed in terms of intersectionality (see the amazing advocacy work by the Intersectional Environmentalist). Why? Because advocating for the protection of the environment and the planet also means advocating for the protection of people and their human rights. Does it ring a bell? Yes, think of the abovementioned SDGs.

For example, environmental justice can be regarded as the intersection of both environmentalism and social justice. When framed in intersectional terms, it also considers the inequity in environmental degradation and how it affects different communities in different ways. This thus means that when thriving to become better environmentalists or sustainability advocates, we need to include all aspects of an individual’s identity as well (culture, gender, religion, sexuality, wealth, and so on). We need to be truly inclusive in order not to exclude anyone, anything, from potential improvement.

My personal take on sustainability

The first time I read about intersectionality and its link with environmentalism and sustainability, I was immediately captivated by it. I had for so long searched for a comprehensive vision that would provide me with a framework to make people understand that it makes no sense, for example, advocating for environmental justice if we then accept the fact that some children can’t afford access to basic education because of their family’s economic background as if it were normal.

At the same time, I understand the perspective of those who criticise this approach. Is there a risk that it might be “all over the place”? Divisive? Controversial? Certainly, there is. Yet, on the other hand, we need to look at the bigger picture – global, local and individual challenges are interconnected. And we need more solidarity.

Once we’ve therefore assumed what sustainability currently implies, a new approach to sustainable living is called for. A comprehensive vision of sustainability, something capable of producing benefits in the long term in every dimension of our own and our planet’s life.

So, well, sustainability in 2021 is environmental protection, human rights, access to healthcare, mental health, lifestyle, and even finance or tourism. It intersects multiple dimensions, which is why it might be fair to state that it means practising what we preach in its entirety. Policies and politics are fundamental, philosophy and art are great food for thought, avoid buying useless things or choosing zero-waste is certainly a healthy habit, advocating for human rights is of utmost importance and a human right itself. Yet, they can’t be separated entities, they need to come together, be inclusive and fight for implementing justice on different levels.

Careful though, this doesn’t mean that it’s all or nothing. It means active comprehensively, taking small steps wherever we can. Sustainability is perfectible in a multifaceted way, just like us human beings.

And now, beyond the policy-related stuff, what’s your take on sustainability?


Sources and food for thought

Arica L. Coleman (2019), “What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History”. In Time, March 28, 2019. Available at

Intersectional Environmentalist, available at

“Intersectionality” (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from

“Sustainability” (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from

United Nations, The 17 Goals. Available at

United Nations (2015), Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Available at

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