Origin of the word 'Sustainability' and what it means in the 21st Century

We have been hearing the words Sustainability and Sustainable Development in mainstream media ever since the early 2000’s. But is that when the word was first used? Who coined the term? Where was it first used and for what purpose? Is it being used for the same purpose today as it was earlier?

Let’s explore these questions a bit.

Etymologically the word Sustainability is derived from the word sustinere, which in Latin means to hold (tenere- hold, keep, support). Derivations of this word were seen in other languages such as Italian sostenere, Spanish sostener, Portuguese suster, French soutenir, and the English sustain, but it was abandoned during the periods of Renaissance and Enlightenment. It later resurfaced in the 1972 environmental report, ‘The Limits to Growth,’ to convey ‘the means of being resourceful in such a way that things may be sustained/continued in the future by generations to come.” Furthermore, a German handbook of forestry, published in 1713, uses the term ‘Nachhaltigkeit,’ which means ‘sustained yield.’ It was used to imply never harvesting more than what the forest can reproduce. Over the years since then, the concept of sustainability was expanded to include all biological systems and not just forests. 

The definition that we are familiar with today, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” was used to describe the word Sustainable Development and was first seen in the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report. Hence, from the above two definitions, we can understand that, for something to be sustainable, it has to balance the present day needs without depleting the environment and the natural resources for our descendants.

Now, our present day needs consist of many social and economic factors coupled with many environmental factors. Hence, it is safe to say that the social, economic and environmental factors have to be in harmony in order to achieve sustainability. In other words, the society, the economy and the environment are the three pillars of sustainability. What happens when these three pillars stand their ground? People will be able to achieve a high quality of life with a great sense of social satisfaction and economic well-being in a healthy and thriving environment. However, if we achieve only two out the three pillars of sustainability, then we attain the following: 


Social + Economic Sustainability = Equitable

Social + Environmental Sustainability = Bearable

Economic + Environmental Sustainability = Viable


Therefore, it is important that we integrate all the three pillars in order to be truly sustainable. How can we achieve this? In the end, it all depends on the steps, does not matter whether small or big, we take from today to make our home planet the best place to live in, both for us as well as those who come after us.



  •  What is Sustainability? (n.d.). MCIS. 
  •  Rack, J. (2014, August 20). A Brief History of Sustainability. The World Energy Foundation. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  •   Emas, R. (2015). The Concept of Sustainable Development: Definition and Defining Principles. Sustainable Development Goals UN. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  •  Sustainability and Sustainable Development- What is Sustainability and what is Sustainable Development? (n.d.). Circular Ecology. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  •  Califano, J. (2020, December 17). The Three Pillars of Sustainability. Temboo. Retrieved April 23,2021