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A three-legged stool: Balancing the three pillars of sustainability


October 22, 2012
By Paul Hogendoorn


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“Sustainability” is the new big buzzword in industry and, indeed, society. 


All too often though, the topic is only thought of as an environmental issue, or even more specifically, as a green energy issue. But it’s far more than that; it’s best thought of as a three-legged stool.

Many years ago, when I was a kid spending a summer at my uncle’s farm, my uncle pointed out the engineering brilliance of the three-legged stool he used in the barn. One less leg and the stool would always fall over. One more leg and the stool would always wobble if the floor was even slightly uneven. Three legs made it perfect for the job.

And so it is with “sustainability.” The first leg is “environmental,” the second “economic,” and the third “ethical.” Each one is as important as the other two. None should be longer or shorter than the others, and none should be considered more or less important.

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Every decision being considered by a company, a government, or indeed by each of us as individuals needs to consider the environmental impact of that decision. But, there are two other legs of equal importance.

For industrial, organizational and even societal sustainability, economics must be considered when choosing a course of action. As companies, countries, or even as individuals, we do not accomplish much when we are bankrupt. For us to harness the collective contribution of our human minds, efforts and toils, we need to do so in a way that sustains us economically.

Ethics is a word that is linked closely to social responsibility and also to corporate and organizational behaviour. When a factory is moved from one country to another to escape tough environmental laws, it’s a step backwards for the whole planet environmentally.

I once saw an illustration of the relationship of these three factors, and a series of equations quickly formed in my engineering mind: 

  • Environmental + Economical = Viable
  • Economical + Ethical = Equitable
  • Ethical + Environmental = Bearable
  • Environmental + Economical + Ethical = Sustainable

Every major question we are facing requires addressing the same three issues. If a company and a union are only considering economics and ethics, they are only looking for an equitable deal. If a government and a strong lobby organization are only considering environmental and ethical issues, they are only looking for a bearable solution. If a company is considering a plant relocation for purely economic reasons, and perhaps to escape some burdensome local environmental regulation, it is only looking for a viable solution.