Defining and Applying Sustainability

Big question:  What is sustainability and in what ways does it interconnect with global solidarity and local actions? 

Personal Reflection: What academic discipline are you most passionate about? What local community actions do you feel are most important? What global issues matter most to you?  

Time Commitment: 75 minutes 

Engage: Write the first 5 words that come to your mind when someone says the word SUSTAINABILITY. 

Why This Matters:  

Check out this excerpt from Portland State University’s Associate Vice Provost for Community Engagement, Kevin Kecskes, writing with colleagues in Sustainability of Our Planet and All Species as the Organizing Principle for SLCE:   

“There should be little doubt that sustaining our planet and its species is the global challenge of our times. A massive income gap has grown globally during our lifetimes to stunning proportions. Oxfam (2017) recently released an analysis that the richest eight individuals in the world own as much wealth as approximately half of the world’s total population. Connected to this rise in wealth inequality, the International Labour Organization recently reported that social unrest and migration increased more between 2015 and 2016 than at any time in the last four decades (Allen, 2017). Environmentally, the planet is warming at an alarming rate; NASA calls the evidence unequivocal, citing multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities (Cook et al., 2016).” Finally, in a recent book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, “the past president of Unity College, suggests “sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency. We are in the early stages of the sixth megaextinction (a catastrophic loss of species), plunging declines in biodiversity, and a rapidly destabilizing climatic/oceanic circulation.” 

Now, more than ever we need to connect the dots. We need to connect our actions to our communities and our communities to others around the globe. Solutions for the planet cannot be at the expense of people or our economy, and people and the economy are core to creating the needed progress for our planet.  The global pandemic of 2020 has shown us the importance and interconnectedness of collective action for dignity, peace, and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future. 

Against a grayscale background of leaves, this quotation -- attributable to Jochen Zeitz -- appears, "Sustainability is no longer about doing less harm. It's about doing more good."
Jochen Zeitz is co-founder of The B Team with Sir Richard Branson and Founder of the Zeitz Foundation to support sustainable solutions that balance conservation, community, culture and commerce. 

Reflection Question: How do I define sustainability and in what ways is it interdependent? 

Diving In, Part 1: How is Sustainability Defined and by Who?  

What counts as knowledge or expertise? 

Sustainability is about more than recycling and the environment. Sustainability is about answering a fundamental question: How do we improve the human condition equitably in this and future generations, while conserving environmental systems necessary to support healthy and vibrant societies?  

Sustainability is rooted in a concern for the future of the planet, its people, and its living systems, which are threatened by a growing human footprint that is consuming and degrading environmental resources at a rapid pace. It recognizes essential needs of vast numbers of people are not being met in the present, and that poverty and inequality are amplifiers of vulnerability to environmental and other hazards. It is motivated by values that seek balance among economic development, eradication of poverty and hunger, advancement of social justice, and protection of the natural world. 

This image conveys overlapping lenses of people (social variables dealing with community, education, equity, social resources, health, well-being, and quality of life), planet (environmental variables relating to natural resources, water and air quality, energy conservation, and land use), and profit (economic variables dealing with the bottom line, cash flow) to help define sustainability in ways that are viable, equitable, and bearable.
Via Maricopa College Sustainability

Many people and organizations have adopted a model of overlapping the lens of people, planet, and profit to help define sustainability. Finding solutions that are bearable, equitable and viable – the trifecta win – are what we hope to achieve as we examine complex interdependencies. 

View and Engage: 

What is sustainability? Defining it is difficult, but this video provides a nice introduction to its core concepts and time scales. 

Questions for Reflection: How might culture play into how sustainability is defined or demonstrated in communities? What are some of the elements in a healthy and vibrant society?

Review and Engage: Check out the image deck here – “What is Sustainability Images”. Select one image that most closely represents what sustainability means to you and one that DOES NOT represent your definition of sustainability. Write reflectively for 5 – 10 minutes about why you chose each of these images. Be prepared to share during group conversation.

Diving In, Part 2: How have the UN SDG’s helped to advance global solidarity and local actions? 

SDGs Video via CAFOD. For a comprehensive introduction to SDGs, visit our Sustainable Development Goals page

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) is committed to supporting the implementation of the SDGs at local, national, and global scales. They are building a global network of universities, research centers, and other knowledge institutions to translate the latest expertise in sustainable development into action.

Among their many open-access resources, SDSN provides an exception overview of the SDGs in Chapter 1 of the Getting Started with the Sustainable Development Goals.  

To begin to consider the role of the Sustainable Development Goals in local action, this workshop outcomes summary from a meeting including SDSN, the Ford Foundation, Office of the Mayor of New York City, and 100 Resilient Cities provides several insights, including:

  1. Align existing sustainable development efforts with the SDGs
  2. Phase SDG implementation to achieve early wins
  3. Work with local champions to build on social and political capital for sustainable development
  4. Consider the opportunities and limitations of a local government’s mandate when strategizing for the SDGs
  5. Align budgeting processes with sustainable development strategies
  6. Utilize performance indicators to track achievements, motivate progress and improve efficiency
  7. Build awareness and consensus through participatory methods

Question for Reflection:  Think about a community in which you have lived (domestic, international, home or school) and identify some of the community challenges and struggles. Would any of the UN SDG goals address these challenges? Who holds the solutions to these local issues? Who is leading the efforts there? 

Question for Application:  How do I and the places in which I engage connect to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? 

Review and Engage: Take the image you selected as part of previous review and engage and map it to as many UN SDGs as possible. Then, select one of the 17 SDGs and map it to as many of the images selected by your peers as possible. Review your community or institution’s recent news stories and identify three local actions by citizens, students, faculty, or staff that have made headlines. Map these stories back to as many UN SDGs as possible.  

Diving In, Part 3: How can this be applied to you? 

Why do you think the Sustainable Development Goals do or do not have merit in your life and communities? 

Who will benefit the most and who will have a more difficult time connecting to the benefits? 

How could the Sustainable Development Goals be applied to work that matters to you? What connections can be made to your discipline, your passions or the communities where you have lived? 

Transitioning towards more sustainable and resilient societies also requires an integrated approach that recognizes that these challenges—and their solutions—are interrelated. As summarized in the UN SDGs Report on Interlinkages

  • Transitioning towards sustainable and resilient societies hinges on responsible management of finite natural resources. 
  • Access to basic services is not only a fundamental human right, but also a stepping stone to sustainable development. 
  • Social protection systems provide a safety net for the vulnerable. 
  • The path to resilient cities must address growing social, economic and environmental challenges. 
  • A resilient society can deflect the threat of conflict. 
  • Migration can work for all in building more inclusive and sustainable societies.

Review and Engage:  COVID-19 Case Study. Using the interlinkages provided here as a guide, create a list of 10 examples of ways that the global coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the interconnectedness of our societies with the environment and our economic structures. Map each example to one or more UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Page Completion – Outcomes: 

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your ability to: 

  • Define sustainability, outline its core components and describe what it means to you. 
  • Identify UN Sustainable Development Goals and targets and map local actions and outcomes back to the UNSDGs. 
  • Apply the interconnectedness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to a recent case study of the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Please share feedback on this page by taking this 5-question survey. Thank you!

Next:  How do my actions connect to sustainability and how have my behaviors been shaped by my identity, culture, frame or position? 

Citation for this page: Lyons, L. & Brandauer, S. (2020). What is sustainability and in what ways does it interconnect with global solidarity and local actions? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from

Further Reading: 

Cover of a book, "Introduction: Why a guide for getting started?"

Getting Started with the Sustainable Development Goals (translations available) 

Book cover, "The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift."

The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift by Andres R. Edwards 

Background Information and Resources for Facilitators: 

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals? 

Reimers, Fernando M. 2017. Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons. Version 1.0  

Nolet, Victor. 2015. Educating for Sustainability: Principles and Practices for Teachers. 


Kecskes, Kevin et. al. Sustainability of Our Planet and All Species as the Organizing Principle for SLCE. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Volume 23, Issue 2, Spring 2017. 

Lyons, Lindsey. 2018. What is Sustainability. Retrieved from: 

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).  (2014, December 14).  SDG Guide. Retrieved from: 

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). (2016, July 25). Localizing the SDGs: From a Global Agenda to City Action. Retrieved from: 

Zhenmin, LIU. (2018). Sustainable Development Goals Report: Interlinked nature of the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from: 

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

ACCIONA. (2016). What is Sustainability. Retrieved from: 

CAFOD. (2016). The Sustainable Development Goals – Action Towards 2030 | CAFOD and SDGs. Retrieved from: