Everything you need to know about the three pillars of sustainable development

Focus on the three pillars of sustainability in business: definitions, benefits and practical examples of application.

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What are the three historical pillars of sustainable development?

The sustainable development concept owes its name to the Brundtland Report drafted in 1987. It is based on three fundamental pillars: social, economic and environmental .

The definition of sustainable development according to the Brundtland Report

The Brundtland Report was drawn up as part of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

This over 300-page document aimed to shape national policies and sets out the key measures to be integrated in order to protect the planet. . Officially entitled “Our Common Future”, it is commonly referred to as the “Brundtland Report” after Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway at the time and Chair of the commission. The concept of sustainable development was referred to for the first time in this report.

✅ The term “sustainable development” was incorrectly translated in French as “développement durable”. It was corrected in later editions of the document to “développement soutenable”. However, the initial translation has been adopted and currently remains the most widely used term.

The definition is as follows: Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”.

It can be applied to corporate policy in the business world and encompasses three key areas: economic, environmental and social. Therefore, to meet the definition of sustainable development, a company must be economically efficient, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable. Social sustainability must be an objective, the economic sustainability is the means and environmental sustainability a condition

🤝 Social pillar

The social pillar of a company's sustainable development is about upholding values that promote fairness and respect for individual rights. The social consequences of the company's activity are then assessed in terms of these issues. The principles upon which this pillar is founded are as follows:

  • Combat social exclusion and discrimination: helping with reintegration, supporting gender equality, reducing the gender pay gap, promoting training, encouraging dialogue, applying global social rights, etc.
  • Promote solidarity: helping to reduce social inequalities by collaborating with local and international associations and projects, prioritising fair trade products which guarantee an appropriate income for farmers.
  • Contribute to the well-being of stakeholders: developing social dialogue, encouraging the exchange of information and transparency, adapting working hours according to employee profile, making premises accessible to people with reduced mobility.

💵 Economic pillar

This pillar is based on companies’ ability to develop a responsible economic system. In other words, they must encourage and promote the protection of the environment by limiting the risks posed by their production. The recycling of products and the use of renewable raw materials are therefore fundamental aspects of the economic pillar.

Furthermore, the ISO 50001 standard which is focused on energy management, aims to improve energy performance, with a view to reducing consumption and therefore costs.. Effective application of this standard leads to certification, serving as a guarantee of optimal energy use.

🌱 Environmental pillar

The environmental pillar is founded on a commitment to protect the environment by reducing risks and measuring the environmental impacts of companies' activities. The challenges for companies in this area are as follows:

  • Save and preserve natural resources;
  • assess their carbon footprint and reduce their GHG emissions to improve it;
  • reduce and better manage their waste.

Companies must then set targets to improve their performance on environmental issues. These goals are an integral part of corporate social and environmental responsibility (CSR).

Diagram of the three pillars of sustainable development

The three pillars that define sustainable development are generally represented using a diagram to provide a clearer understanding of the issues involved and the links between them.

Why do we sometimes talk about a 4th pillar?

A fourth pillar is often acknowledged, that of culture. In reality, culture is central to the notion of sustainable development since it incorporates the three fundamental aspects of sustainable development described above.

Culture: a basic but central element of sustainable development

The Brundtland Report made economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance central to its model for use in local, national and global development strategies. However, these aspects alone cannot account for the full complexity of our current societies.

Organisations and events such as UNESCO or the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) have therefore advocated for culture to be included in this model. Culture is a complementary factor in the sense that it shapes our meaning of “development” and determines the actions of communities around the world.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) define therelationship between culture and sustainable development in two specific ways:

  • the development of the cultural sector itself and its economic dimension (cultural heritage, creativity, cultural industries, crafts, cultural tourism, etc.);
  • ensuring that culture has a legitimate place in all public policies, including policies related to education, economy, science, communication, environment, social cohesion and international cooperation.

The world is not only facing economic, social and environmental challenges. Creativity, knowledge and diversity are all key elements for establishing dialogue to promote peacebuilding and progress. These values are intrinsically linked to the notions of human development and freedom.

The world’s cultural challenges are too important to be considered in the same way as the other three original aspects of development. This fourth pillar is strongly linked with the other three dimensions of development, and is complementary to each of them.

✅ Culture is thus a driver of social values (cohesion, solidarity, fundamental freedom, etc.), it contributes to global economic sustainability and is as important as the environment to humankind because of the heritage it represents.

Why integrate culture into the pillars of sustainable development?

As previously discussed, culture should be integrated into the pillars of sustainable development predominantly because it encompasses social and economic dimensions. But that is not the only reason, culture can also be employed as an effective strategy to support the three fundamental pillars. It plays a socially-binding and facilitating role in the face of economic, societal and environmental challenges.

Furthermore, the culture of sustainable development (its foundations, its history, its evolution) is often overlooked within companies. And yet, raising awareness of this culture would provide a better understanding of the issues at stake when implementing management policy (particularly in terms of corporate social responsibility) and encourage greater involvement with it.

Finally, culture can have a positive impact within a company insofar as it unifies and consolidates human activities, i.e. “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group [...]”: an essential element of the company's overall dynamic.

It could therefore be said that sustainable development is not defined by three fundamental pillars, but through four major dimensions: social, economic, environmental and cultural.

Why apply these pillars within your company?

The approach of implementing these four pillars within your company can only be beneficial for the smooth running of your business and for adopting a responsible management policy (CSR).

Social pillar: ensure the well-being of your employees

Governance that epitomises social values is conducive to the well-being of your employees and associates. A company is more likely to prosper if its employees feel happy in their work. They will certainly stay with the team longer and the work dynamic will be better. For a company, taking ethical action means implementing a reference model of good practices for a more virtuous society.

Economic pillar: optimise your budget

Adopting a more responsible approach to production by encouraging recycling, limiting waste and using renewable raw materials can considerably reduce your current expenditure. Better resource management and the integration of waste into a second line of production or sales channel are good practices for optimising your budget.

Environmental pillar: improve your CSR strategy

Integrating environmental targets into the management of your company is essential from a corporate social responsibility (CSR) perspective. Already a legal obligation for companies with over 500 employees, a CSR strategy is also recommended for other businesses that want to invest in an eco-friendly way while improving their brand image.

Cultural pillar: boost cohesion and support among stakeholders

Cultural integration is an essential facet of any company. A unifying force, culture helps to build real social ties, which results in more dynamic exchanges, better group work and, therefore, an increase in the productivity of your employees. Moreover, culture boosts motivation and intellectual stimulation. It thus improves the individual performance of your company's stakeholders.

Some practical examples of applying these three pillars in companies

To help you implement sustainable development practices within your company, Greenly has provided below some examples of practical actions that can be taken for each fundamental pillar.

Social pillar

  • Encourage remote working: remote working is becoming increasingly popular with employees who want to better organise their personal and professional life. This method of working helps to reduce stress and increases employee productivity.
  • Integrate the SDGs into your CSR strategy: the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN to address global challenges include actions such as helping to educate children or fighting poverty.
  • Promote training and access to employment: allow in-house training and access to employment for socially disadvantaged people.

Economic pillar

  • Evaluate energy consumption: having a carbon audit carried out as part of CSR will give you precise metrics on your company's energy consumption. It is a good way to target the items where efficiency needs to be improved.
  • Renovate and insulate buildings: most buildings are poorly constructed and/or insulated. This is a major source of energy loss.

The environmental pillar

  • Ensure better waste management: sort waste and promote "zero packaging" as much as possible.
  • Opt for green energy: choose a supplier of renewable energy (voltaic, wind, hydraulic...).
  • Implement a greener travel plan: running a company shuttle to avoid your employees using their own cars is a good way to fight climate change.

Cultural pillar

  • Organise evening events: this is ideal for strengthening social bonds within your teams.
  • Issue vouchers for cultural activities: such action to promote cultural events is always popular with employees.
  • Founding a company sports association: creating a sports collective with your company's stakeholders is an American trend that is increasingly adopted in France and promotes team spirit and solidarity.

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