Sustainability Triangle? One Pillar Missing!

Written by Moritz Bühner   // August 29, 2013    1 Comment

There is a significant growing concern in several arenas that the three-pillar model of sustainability, consisting of environmental, economic and social dimensions, may be overlooking something of fundamental importance.

This possible failure was expressed by the remarkably interdisciplinary research team behind “Bringing the ‘Missing Pillar’ into Sustainable Development Goals”. Eight researchers from academia, business, and the NGO-sector, with diverse backgrounds ranging from consulting to sociology and environmental engineering, call for extending the concept of sustainability by nothing less than a whole fourth pillar. Read on for an explanation of why three pillars are not enough, what exactly this new pillar should include, how its elements could be measured, and why “culture” and “ethics” are important dimensions for engineers anyway.

While some of you might question the significance of a “cultural” or “ethical” topic for a blog that usually circles around resource efficiency and manufacturing, I can assure you it is exactly a cultural question that determines the success of manufacturing going green. Two keywords to prove my point: the aesthetics of ecodesign; and the mindset of managers and employees, often referred to as corporate culture. It doesn’t need to be a big corporation, of course. Very often, small and medium-sized enterprises have a much more innovative spirit than large corporations. Still, business culture is essential.

It has become a well-accepted structure: “good development” serves three dimensions simultaneously, namely society, business and environment. However, the more popular this triangle gets among mainstream politicians and business makers, the more apparent become its flaws. Three pillars are simply not enough. The researchers mentioned above initially published such a well-written and thought-out paper that I immediately converted to being a four pillar supporter. Find the paper in the current issue of MDPI Sustainability.

1. The Cultural-Aesthetic Dimension

To put you in the picture, the authors give three main elements of sustainability that are generally overlooked. First of all, there is a cultural-aesthetic dimension to sustainability:

Jon Hawkes makes this case explicitly in his book The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning [3], where he argues that “cultural vitality, understood in the sense of wellbeing, creativity, diversity and innovation” [3] (p. 25), should be treated as one of the basic requirements of a healthy society.

Some companies are innovative, seek constant improvement, and, in the best of all cases, incorporate life cycle thinking. Taking into consideration that only with the latter is it possible to achieve sustainable production, developing and fostering a certain culture becomes an essential part of green business. If a business is to succeed in going green, it is indispensable that both employees and decision makers actively shape a green culture driven by their ethical values and their sustainability-embracing corporate goals. Thus, because it influences the economic pillar so much, the cultural dimension is at least as much of a pillar as are the three others.

2. The Political-Institutional Dimension

In addition to this cultural-aesthetic approach for the forth pillar, there have been a number of influential groups in the past calling for a fourth pillar, but a differently shaped one. Above all, two giant institutions expressed support for defining the fourth pillar of sustainability as “institutional”: the European Commission and the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development. Support also comes from none other than the founding work of the contemporary sustainability concept, the Brundtland report, which makes many remarks concerning the importance of institutional actions.

3. The Ethical Dimension

So far we’ve seen two ideas for the fourth pillar: a cultural and an institutional view. There is, however, a third one, the one that is most striking to me. Whether you call it spiritual, religious, or, what I prefer, ethical, the idea is always the same. It deals with consciousness. Basically, advocates of this type of fourth pillar argue that the fundamental ingredient for any sustainability transition is ethical awareness. The awareness that there is something wrong with the status quo:

In his keynote address at the 2010 Earth Charter conference “An Ethical Framework for a Sustainable World” Steven Rockefeller described this emerging consciousness as “in truth the first pillar of a sustainable way of life”, on the grounds that ethical vision and moral courage are essential to generating the political will required for transitions to sustainability [20] (p.174, emphasis added).

So we have three different concepts that somehow belong to sustainable development beyond the usual trinity that is discussed. We can argue which one of the new concepts is most important. We can also argue to what extent they’re already included in the common sustainability definition, especially in the social pillar. However, it is beyond any doubt that ethical values form the base, the seed, the one and only absolutely inevitable ingredient for sustainable development. Sustainability deals with caring for the future, and it is this very caring that couldn’t exist without a mindset based on values like responsibility, cooperation and respect. These values are related to all forms of sustainable action, be it social, economic or environmental. So ethics and values most definitely merit a prime position among the cornerstones of sustainability.

Measuring Sustainability: The Indicator Challenge

Values are important, no doubt about that. Sustainability needs values. Check. Assuming there was a common will to include a fourth dimension in a new definition of sustainability, there is still an essential, unanswered question. Pragmatically oriented readers may have already have asked it themselves. And reflecting on the difficulty of measuring the well-established concept of social sustainability, how on earth you would make ethical sustainability measurable. And that is an issue the authors of our study counter with a trenchant critique of contemporary indicator approaches. More on that later.

First, be warned that indicators of sustainability are a topic on their own. Generally speaking, there are two levels of indicators, depending on what they’re trying to assess. On the one hand, there are what economists would call micro level indicators. These determine how sustainable one company or one department inside a company is. On the other hand, there are indicators for the entire economy or for certain branches of industry. Sustainability, if you like, on the macro-level.

The field of (micro-level) indicators for a company’s sustainability is relatively tried and tested. For instance, to calculate the carbon intensity of your business, just divide your corporate carbon footprint by the turnover. Carbon intensity alone certainly does not determine how sustainable a company is, holistically speaking, but it makes a pretty good proxy. And because it is easy to calculate, assessing environmental performance with a single score becomes central to business practice. You can even use traditional cost accounting methods to asses them. So why would a company want to know how much carbon it emits? Because there are at least 5 Economic Benefits that come with sustainability reporting. With integrated reporting, business even has the power to transform society. To today’s, and to all future societies’ benefit.

The Flawed Approach to Macro-Indicators

On a macro-level, however, the indicators that measure a country’s sustainability face more difficulties. I explored this issue for a while and finally found 10 Appropriate Indicators to Measure Green Growth in Industry. The most ambitious of all measurements are indicator baskets or composite indicators. Holistic sustainability measurement is striven for with the composite 3-pillar-index, for instance. Still, even though they are the most advanced of their kind, even these indicators suffer from one important structural fault. When it comes to data collection, most of the current indicators follow a deductive approach. They analyze which of the existing data the indicators could employ, instead of asking themselves “inductively” what data should actually be collected to suit a certain indicator. In the words of the authors:

It might be assumed by a lay person that indicator development would precede data collection, but as indicator specialists will attest, the reverse is often true. As noted by McCool and Stankey [37] (p. 295), in the absence of broad public debate about what constitutes sustainability, efforts to develop new indicators are “guided more by what can be measured (a technical issue) than by what should be measured (a normative issue)”. Indicator development thus appears to be severely constrained, whether by a failure of imagination, resource provision, or both: no matter how important something might be to the public, if it is not currently measured for other purposes (e.g., government statistics) there may be less interest in exploring whether it might be measurable.

This is the central part of the paper: it shows that sustainability is actually very “important to the public”. That’s why we need more financial resources devoted to create better indicators, more imagination in developing the right indicator or refining the existing ones, and more than anything, a broad public discussion that circles not around the question why our development should become sustainable, but rather what sustainability precisely means to us.

Further Reading

Burford, G.; Hoover, E.; Velasco, I.; Janoušková, S.; Jimenez, A.; Piggot, G.; Podger, D.; Harder, M.K. (2013): Bringing the “Missing Pillar” into Sustainable Development Goals: Towards Intersubjective Values-Based Indicators. Sustainability 5 (7): 3035-3059. PDF Download here

Article image edited by Moritz Bühner, CC BY 2.0, based on K_Dafalias’s photo showing a pillar of National Museum Greece, Athens.


About Moritz Bühner :

Blogger at knowtheflow from 2011-2013, now Sustainability Manager in the wood-based products industry. Bachelor in Environmental and Bioresource Management at the University of Applied Life Sciences Vienna. Born in Hamburg, Germany, lived in Quebec (CAN), Vienna (AUT) and Pamplona (ESP). Why he blogged? "The possibility of going into detail with every link, satisfying the desire to learn. The direct feedback. The free global distribution. I just love the medium!"

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