Sustainable development

"We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse..." (Dennis L. Meadows; The Limits to Growth, 1972).


At a United Nations conference held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the principle of sustainability was transferred to the international community: Economic, environmental and development policies should have the common goal of satisfying the needs of present generations while at the same time ensuring quality of life for all people over the long term.


Sustainable development (also called lasting or future-fit development) is closely associated with the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development. In its 1987 report, the Commission criticised:

“We may show profits on the balance sheets of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses.  We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying”.

To counter this, the Brundtland Report introduced the concept of sustainable development.


Sustainability means using a regenerable system in a way that its essential properties are maintained and the system is naturally recoverable.


Sustainable development meets the needs of the present generation, without hindering future generations from being able to meet their needs and choose their life-style. The demand that this development be “durable” applies to all countries and their people.

However, sustainable development is more than just a modern slogan: It is a novel, long-term concept of environmental, economic, employment and social policy that goes far beyond periods of government and national borders. An intact environment, economic prosperity and social solidarity are to be common goals of global, national and local politics to ensure quality of life for all humans for the long term. Sustainable development is therefore also the response to the challenge of controlling social, economic and environmental processes responsibly. Target conflicts need to be analysed and options for overcoming them have to be developed.

Three pillars of Sustainability

In general understanding the concept of sustainability consists of three components, which are also called the “three-pillars model of sustainability”.

  • Environmental sustainability describes the target of preserving nature and environment for future generations. This comprises the preservation of biodiversity, climate protection, the tending of cultivated areas and of landscapes in their original form as well as, in general, a careful way of dealing with the natural environment.
  • Economic sustainability postulates that economic activities are designed in such a way that they provide a durable, robust basis for income and prosperity. The protection of economic resources against exploitation is of particular importance in this area.
  • Social sustainability understands the development of society as a way which allows participation for all members of a community. A balance of social forces is required to attain the goal of sustainable, viable societies over the long term.

Sustainable development means pursuing a common, future-oriented environmental, social and economic path - in everyday life, in civil society, in the field of education, in administration, in all sectors of the economy, and in politics.


Networks of sustainability actors from and in all these areas provide an important basis for this common path. The global importance of networking is growing also a consequence of the Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was adopted in 2015 at a high-level summit meeting of the United Nations under the title “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. By adopting the Agenda the 193 UN Member States committed themselves to working towards their common objective of attaining the SDGs on regional, national and international level by 2030.