There is no universally agreed definition of sustainability.
In fact, there are many different viewpoints on this concept and on how it can be achieved.
Etymologically, the word sustainability comes from sustainable + ity. And sustainable is, for instance, a composition of sustain + able. So if we start from the beginning, to <sustain> means “give support to”, “to hold up”, “to bear” or to “keep up”.
What is sustainability, then? Well, ‘Sustainable’ is an adjective for something that is able to be sustained, i.e, something that is “bearable” and “capable of being continued at a certain level”. In the end, sustainability can perhaps be seen as the process(es) by which something is kept at a certain level.
Nowadays, because of the environmental and social problems societies around the world are facing, sustainability has been increasingly used in a specific way.
Nowadays, sustainability is usually defined as the processes and actions through which humankind avoids the depletion of natural resources, in order to keep an ecological balance that doesn’t allow the quality of life of modern societies to decrease.
In this way, the term “sustainability” has been broadly applied to characterize improvements in areas like natural resources over-exploitation, manufacturing operations (its energy use and polluting sub-products), the linear consumption of products, the direction of investments, citizen lifestyle, consumer purchasing behaviours, technological developments or business and general institutional changes.
As long as an action causes little, less, or no harm to the natural world – under the belief (not always ensured) ecosystems will keep on operating and generating the conditions that allow for the quality of life of today’s modern societies not to decrease – someone is often claimed to be sustainable.
Sustainability refers to sustaining the underlying pattern of health, resilience, and adaptability that maintain this planet in a condition where life as a whole can flourish (more about regenerative cultures at the bottom of this piece). And that for this to be possible in the long term, the way modern societies organized shouldn’t be sustained, but rather re-designed using a regenerative perspective.