What on earth is sustainability?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? I can imagine. The concept of sustainability is widely used and is at the core of this blog as well. That is why I have decided to explain it in this article. Let me start with the following: there is not one clear answer to the question. It depends on the context of a situation what is sustainable and what not.

The triple bottom line

Let’s put the context of certain situations aside though. In general I would argue there is a common outlook needed. Some people believe that human technology can mostly count for ecological losses. According to this view we can keep exhausting natural resources, because in the end we will invent some technology that will replace these natural resources. In scientific literature this is called weak sustainability.

A bit further on the sustainability scale is the triple bottom line approach. This approach acknowledges that the economic, social and environmental pillars all need to be considered in order to reach sustainability. The problem I see in this approach is that each pillar is given equal weight. This means that after considering the multiple aspects of a situation, economic growth on its own can be called sustainable. Even if it has a negative impact on the social and environmental world. The goal is mainly to minimize this negative impacts via reducing, reusing and recycling. Given the major challenge we are facing today (called climate change), I believe we need to take it a step further.

We need to put effort in saving and sustaining as much ecosystems as possible, since these mostly cannot (and should not) be replaced by human made technologies

The boundaries for growth

For me sustainability truly exists when economic development stays within the boundaries of the ecological and social world. Instead of seeing the pillars as equals, the strong sustainability approach views our natural environment (and with that our ecosystems ) as the boundary for growth. We need to put effort in saving and sustaining as much ecosystems as possible, since these mostly can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced by human made technologies. We have no full understanding of how many of our ecosystems actually work and the natural environment often serves multiple purposes. Other than that, I believe that nature has an intrinsic value as well. This means it has value, even if it can’t be used by humans.

The sustainability quadrant

Let’s visualize this. I like to use the sustainability quadrant introduced by Wolfgang Brunner, a lecturer at SWEDESD.

The green area of this figure represents sustainability. The two blue dashed lines are the planetary and social boundaries, which should not be crossed. As you can see, even with a high consumption expectation it is possible to keep a small ecological footprint. This is not necessary though. Sustainability is possible as well with a bigger ecological footprint. As long as it stays within the global bio-capacity and it does not exhaust natural resources. A certain level of consumption is even needed to reach the lowest standard of living.

Look at yourself and your travel behaviour critically and place yourself in the sustainability matrix

Sustainable tourism

So in this light, what is sustainable tourism then? Is it even possible to speak of true sustainability in tourism? I believe it is. Although I also believe that a lot of change is needed. Nowadays, Western societies are somewhere on the top-right side of the quadrant. Meaning that the level of consumption is high, and the lifestyle crosses the boundary of the ecological world.

Many societies in the world are positioned low-left or low-right. Meaning that some have a small footprint and a low level of consumption, which results in a life below the acceptable level of dignity. And some live below the acceptable level of a dignified life, but the planetary boundaries are still crossed. This is for example the case in countries with a high amount of tourists, but with many poor local people and (for example) without a developed waste management system. Resulting in beaches full of plastic and other waste.

For true sustainable tourism to exist, we need development on several levels. On the general level, certain parts of the world need to develop towards a smaller footprint, towards less consumption and towards a more balanced lifestyle. Other areas in the world need to develop towards a better livelihood for the people living there and towards more stability.

What you can do

How can you contribute as a tourist to this? Look at yourself and your travel behaviour critically and place yourself in the sustainability matrix. What is your level of consumption as a tourist? How big is your footprint? If you visit a country belonging to the low-left part of the matrix, what can you do to increase the standard of living of the locals? If you visit a country to the low-right part of the matrix, what can you do to decrease your impact on the natural environment? All these questions are important in sustainable tourism.

In this blog I will touch upon these questions and I will try to answer them. I will write about certain destinations and which green options you have as a tourist visiting this destination. I will write about more general sustainability topics, and apply these to tourism. Last but not least, I will also write about my own personal experiences. I hope that you understand my point of view on sustainability more after reading this article. Don’t hesitate to read more and leave your comments!


The following sources are partly used for this article and/or if you are interested in reading more:

Ekins, P., Simon, S., Deutsch, L., Folke, C., Groot, de R., (2003). A framework for the practical application of the concepts of critical natural capital and strong sustainability. Ecological Economics. 44, 165–185.

Sustainable Development Goals 2030: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

United Nations Environment Program & World Tourism Organization (2005). Making Tourism more Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers; UNWTO: Madrid, Spain. Via http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/DTIx0592xPA-TourismPolicyEN.pdf

World Tourism Organization (2018), Tourism for Development – Volume I: Key Areas for Action. UNWTO: Madrid. Via: https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284419722

The sustainability quadrant was presented by Wolfgang Brunner during a lecture at Uppsala University