Sustainability vs. Sustainable Development: A Guide for Businesses

Competitive businesses in today’s markets need to be green — not only because eco-friendliness increases efficiency, creates brand value, attracts top talent and builds a loyal consumer base, but primarily because developing an environmentally conscious business strategy is the morally right thing to do.

Yet, something that many leaders fail to consider when greenifying their business is: Are they taking steps toward sustainability, or are they working toward sustainable development? There is an important difference between sustainability and sustainable development, and knowing that difference could help leaders keep their organizations functioning efficiently and sustainably into the future.


What Is Sustainability?

Sustainability is efficiently managing resources without fully and irreparably depleting them. While the term is most often related to environmental sustainability, preserving natural resources and reducing harmful pollution and waste, economic and social sustainability are also of concern for business leaders who need to navigate their organizations through periods of financial and cultural change.

Ultimately, sustainability is a state of being — a company is either adhering to sustainability and operating sustainably or it is not. Pursuing sustainability is a noble and critical goal for business leaders, but sustainability itself isn’t a process.

What Is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development is the process of managing resources to improve long-term environmental, economic and social well-being to ensure that present and future generations can adequately meet their needs. Unlike the state of being that is sustainability, sustainable development involves changing an organization, adapting its strategies and processes to achieve growth without compromising quality of life now or for the future.

It is more important than ever that business leaders learn how to develop their organizations sustainably. Businesses stand to benefit from sustainable development in several ways, from reducing their expenses and increasing their profits to improving the lifestyles of their employees and customers. There are different strategies for sustainable development, which leaders can learn about in a business sustainability management online course from a top-tier university.

The 3 Pillars of Sustainability


To enact sustainable development and reach sustainability, business leaders need to strike a balance among the three pillars of sustainability: the environment, the economy and society.

The Environment

Plenty of business leaders overlook the importance of working to preserve the natural environment and keep the planet healthy. Businesses inarguably suffer negative consequences from climate change, to include disrupted supply chains and higher insurance rates. Perhaps more pressingly, the state of the environment affects the stakeholders of an organization — the employees, the customers and the investors. Thus, developing a sustainable business strategy for the sake of the environment is critical to long-term business success.

The Economy

There are demonstrable economic benefits from a sustainable business model. Because sustainable development typically involves reducing or fully eliminating waste, businesses are often able to significantly reduce their expenses with sustainable strategies. What’s more, green businesses are better at attracting larger numbers of consumers, so revenues can sometimes dramatically increase thanks to sustainability. This means businesses committed to sustainable development are able to produce an operational profit over a longer period of time.


Social sustainable development involves the process of advancing social systems that allow for health, well-being, stability and general livability. For communities to sustain themselves, they need a healthy environment, a prosperous economy and a positive culture, all of which can be impacted by corporate behavior. Business leaders can cultivate stronger social sustainability with fair labor practices, to include diversity and equity in the workplace. Businesses can also cultivate a workplace culture that puts the well-being of their employees and customers first.


The difference between the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” is a subtle one, but it is an important one to remember. Business leaders need to think of going green as an ongoing process to create a better business and community; sustainable development requires a conscious effort to improve the environment, the economy and the surrounding society. Through consistent sustainable development from leaders at all levels of organization, it is possible for us to arrive at true sustainability.

Charu decided to unite her Honors Degree in New Media and lifetime of geekiness to pursue a career in tech and gaming journalism. You can usually find her writing about a variety of topics and drooling over new gadgets and games.