Sustainable development is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a wide range of principles, practices, and goals aimed at promoting a more equitable and sustainable future. It is a complex and evolving field, with roots in environmental science, economics, social justice, and many other disciplines. This glossary entry will provide a comprehensive overview of the key concepts, principles, and practices associated with sustainable development.

The term "sustainable development" was first popularized in the 1987 report "Our Common Future" by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. The report defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition underscores the importance of intergenerational equity, one of the core principles of sustainable development.

Principles of Sustainable Development

The principles of sustainable development serve as a guide for decision-making and action. They reflect the understanding that our social, economic, and environmental systems are interconnected and that sustainable development requires a holistic approach. These principles include intergenerational equity, intra-generational equity, the precautionary principle, and the polluter pays principle.

Intergenerational equity refers to the fairness in the distribution of resources and opportunities between present and future generations. It emphasizes our responsibility to ensure that future generations have the same or better opportunities to thrive as we do. Intra-generational equity, on the other hand, focuses on fairness within the current generation. It calls for a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, particularly in relation to marginalized and disadvantaged groups.

The Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle is a key principle in sustainable development. It holds that if an action or policy has the potential to cause harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on those advocating for the action or policy. It is a principle of caution, aimed at preventing harm before it occurs.

This principle is particularly relevant in the context of environmental and public health issues, where the effects of certain actions or policies may not be fully understood until after they have been implemented. By applying the precautionary principle, decision-makers can avoid or minimize potential harm and promote more sustainable outcomes.

The Polluter Pays Principle

The polluter pays principle is another important principle in sustainable development. It states that those who cause pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment. This principle is often applied in environmental law and policy to ensure that the costs of pollution are not borne by society at large.

By making polluters responsible for the costs of their actions, the polluter pays principle provides a financial incentive for more sustainable practices. It also promotes fairness, as it ensures that those who benefit from activities that cause pollution also bear the costs of managing that pollution.

Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is often described as having three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. These dimensions reflect the interconnected nature of our world and the need for a holistic approach to sustainable development. They also highlight the importance of balancing different needs and priorities in the pursuit of sustainability.

The economic dimension of sustainable development focuses on promoting economic growth and prosperity in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. This includes promoting sustainable practices in business and industry, investing in green technologies, and implementing policies that encourage sustainable economic growth.

Social Dimension

The social dimension of sustainable development focuses on promoting social equity and justice. This includes addressing issues such as poverty, inequality, and social exclusion, and promoting education, health, and social protection. It also involves promoting cultural diversity and inclusivity, and ensuring that all individuals and communities have the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

By promoting social equity and justice, the social dimension of sustainable development contributes to the creation of more inclusive and resilient societies. It also helps to ensure that the benefits of sustainable development are shared more equitably, and that no one is left behind in the transition to a more sustainable future.

Environmental Dimension

The environmental dimension of sustainable development focuses on protecting and preserving our natural environment. This includes conserving biodiversity, managing natural resources sustainably, and addressing environmental challenges such as climate change, pollution, and deforestation.

By protecting our natural environment, the environmental dimension of sustainable development helps to ensure that our planet remains a healthy and habitable place for future generations. It also recognizes the intrinsic value of nature and the importance of maintaining the health and integrity of our ecosystems for their own sake, as well as for the benefits they provide to humans.

Strategies for Sustainable Development

There are many strategies for promoting sustainable development, ranging from international agreements and national policies to local initiatives and individual actions. These strategies often involve a combination of technological innovation, policy reform, and behavioral change.

Technological innovation plays a key role in sustainable development. This includes the development and deployment of green technologies, such as renewable energy systems, energy-efficient appliances, and sustainable transportation options. These technologies can help to reduce our environmental impact, promote economic growth, and improve quality of life.

Policy Reform

Policy reform is another important strategy for sustainable development. This involves implementing policies that promote sustainable practices, discourage unsustainable ones, and ensure that the costs and benefits of development are shared more equitably. Policy reform can take many forms, including environmental regulations, economic incentives, and social policies.

For example, governments can implement policies to promote renewable energy, such as feed-in tariffs or renewable portfolio standards. They can also implement policies to discourage pollution, such as carbon pricing or pollution taxes. And they can implement social policies to promote equity and inclusivity, such as anti-discrimination laws or social protection programs.

Behavioral Change

Behavioral change is a crucial component of sustainable development. This involves changing our behaviors and lifestyles to reduce our environmental impact and promote sustainability. Behavioral change can be promoted through education, awareness-raising, and social marketing campaigns.

For example, individuals can reduce their environmental impact by adopting more sustainable lifestyles, such as reducing their consumption, recycling, and choosing more sustainable products and services. Communities can promote sustainability by implementing local sustainability initiatives, such as community gardens, recycling programs, and sustainable transportation options. And businesses can promote sustainability by adopting more sustainable practices, such as reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, and sourcing materials sustainably.

Challenges of Sustainable Development

Despite the many benefits of sustainable development, there are also many challenges. These include technical challenges, economic challenges, social challenges, and political challenges. Overcoming these challenges requires a combination of innovation, collaboration, and political will.

Technical challenges include the need for new technologies and infrastructure to support sustainable development. For example, transitioning to a low-carbon economy requires the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies, energy-efficient appliances, and sustainable transportation options. It also requires the development of new infrastructure, such as smart grids and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Economic Challenges

Economic challenges include the costs of transitioning to a more sustainable economy and the need for economic incentives to promote sustainable practices. For example, while renewable energy technologies are becoming increasingly cost-competitive, they still require significant upfront investment. Similarly, while there are many economic benefits to sustainable practices, such as reduced waste and improved efficiency, these benefits are often not realized immediately and may require initial investment.

Overcoming these economic challenges requires a combination of public and private investment, as well as economic policies that provide incentives for sustainable practices. This could include policies such as carbon pricing, subsidies for renewable energy, and tax incentives for sustainable practices.

Social Challenges

Social challenges include the need for social change and the need to address social inequalities. For example, transitioning to a more sustainable society requires changes in behaviors and lifestyles, which can be challenging to achieve. It also requires addressing social inequalities, as marginalized and disadvantaged groups are often disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and may lack the resources and opportunities to participate in sustainable development.

Overcoming these social challenges requires a combination of education, awareness-raising, and social policies that promote equity and inclusivity. This could include policies such as anti-discrimination laws, social protection programs, and policies that promote access to education and healthcare.

Political Challenges

Political challenges include the need for political will and the need for international cooperation. For example, implementing policies to promote sustainable development often requires political will, which can be influenced by a range of factors, including public opinion, interest groups, and political ideology. It also requires international cooperation, as many environmental challenges are global in nature and require coordinated international action.

Overcoming these political challenges requires a combination of advocacy, diplomacy, and political leadership. This could include efforts to raise public awareness and build public support for sustainable development, diplomatic efforts to build international consensus and cooperation, and political leadership to implement policies and initiatives that promote sustainable development.


Sustainable development is a complex and multifaceted field, encompassing a wide range of principles, practices, and goals. Despite the many challenges, it offers a promising approach to addressing our most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges. By promoting a more equitable and sustainable future, sustainable development can help to ensure that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

While this glossary entry provides a comprehensive overview of sustainable development, it is by no means exhaustive. Sustainable development is a rapidly evolving field, with new concepts, principles, and practices emerging all the time. As such, it is important to continue learning and staying informed about the latest developments in this important field.

So... What now? 

We obsess with scaling impact with our clients (local governments, housing sector, supporting the adoption of global treaties and more) and still... We're constantly frustrated with our own lack of impact sustainability-wise, so we're launching new services.

Think of it as a whole new sustainability consultancy supported by creative strategy and digital innovation.

Get in touch with us if you need help: 

  • With your B Corp assessment, we're building a network of outstanding sustainability consultants who can help you with your (re)accreditation
  • With your sustainability strategy or carbon audit
  • Organising a carbon literacy workshop for your team, we run tailored versions for SMEs, marketers (including greenwashing), CEOs and more
  • Finally check out "Ally & Bibi: Back to the Jungle" - our epic children's book adventure on the Sustainable Development Goals.