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Schoor, M.; Arenas-Salazar, A.P.; Torres-Pacheco, I.; Guevara-González, R.G.; Rico-García, E. The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44867 (accessed on 14 June 2024).
Schoor M, Arenas-Salazar AP, Torres-Pacheco I, Guevara-González RG, Rico-García E. The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44867. Accessed June 14, 2024.
Schoor, Mark, Ana Patricia Arenas-Salazar, Irineo Torres-Pacheco, Ramón Gerardo Guevara-González, Enrique Rico-García. "The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44867 (accessed June 14, 2024).
Schoor, M., Arenas-Salazar, A.P., Torres-Pacheco, I., Guevara-González, R.G., & Rico-García, E. (2023, May 26). The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44867
Schoor, Mark, et al. "The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars." Encyclopedia. Web. 26 May, 2023.
The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars
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The concept of sustainability or sustainable development is based on the German word “Nachhaltigkeit”, which was defined in the book Sylvicultura Oeconomica, by von Carlowitz. Implementing sustainability can be traced back to the year 1713, when it was used in relation to the forest industry, along with an implemented discussion of whether a forest can recover from humans’ wood consumption.

sustainability food production agroecology

1. The Concept of Sustainability and the Sustainable Pillars

The concept of sustainability or sustainable development is based on the German word “Nachhaltigkeit”, which was defined in the book Sylvicultura Oeconomica, by von Carlowitz [1]. Implementing sustainability can be traced back to the year 1713, when it was used in relation to the forest industry [2], along with an implemented discussion of whether a forest can recover from humans’ wood consumption [1]. Furthermore, it discusses the main principles of sustainability and how to strike a balance between resource consumption and the natural regeneration process of nature to ensure the survival of future generations [3]. The von Carlowitz concept was redefined several times, one of these being the Brundtland report in 1987, also known as “Our common future” [4]. The Brundtland report focused on sustainability’s three main sections: the environment, the economy, and society (equity) [5]; more particularly, it directs people to their population’s economic growth and the life cycle of our goods [6].
The United Nations redefined sustainability and sustainable development by implementing the 17 sustainable development goals and set the objective of accomplishing peace and prosperity by 2030 [7]. Furthermore, the United Nations implemented an agenda to support the preservation of the environment for future generations, implementing measures against climate change and reducing global warming [8] by adopting clean energy concepts [9]. Therefore, the following section concentrates on the three principal sustainability pillars, their classification, and the importance of the definition of the cultural and technological pillars of sustainability (Figure 1). The standard concept of sustainability, defined by Elkington, specified three main dimensions, namely, the economic dimension, the social and human dimension, and the environmental dimension [10], as stated in the Brundtland report [11]. Nowadays, these three dimensions [12] must be complemented by two new dimensions, these being cultural [13] and technological sustainability (Table 1) [14]. Therefore, employing the right indicators to measure the differences between regional geography, local problems, and population structure is important [12].
Figure 1. The five sustainable pillars.
Table 1. The sustainable pillars’ characteristics.

2. Economic Sustainability

2.1. Generalities

The economic pillar of sustainability is defined as the balance between the environmental and social aspects in relation to economic goals [11], which can include the limitations that the human population must place on economic growth [15] to minimize the economic activities’ ecological impacts [16]. The past has shown us that technological improvements have led to products with shorter life cycles [17], made without considering an economic and environmental balance, in addition to the difficulty of establishing sustainable development [18].
In general, economic sustainability is more influenced by the social pillar of sustainability [15] due to the consumer decisions that are taken in the acquisition and the resulting quality of products and goods [19]. Therefore, the concept of consumer satisfaction with the least environmental impact possible must be adopted by introducing innovative products and goods [17] that have been produced according to environmental standards [20].

2.2. Economic Sustainable Food Production and Consumption

Social pressure from consumers can lead to a new focus on green product innovations [21]; economically, this can create corporate advantages and business benefits for companies investing in green products and process innovations [22], and, consequently, generate positive and sustainable economic growth for innovative companies [23]. There is a need for balancing all the long-term costs and benefits of economic activities to achieve sustainable economic growth, while simultaneously assuring nature’s regenerative ability along with economic progress [15].
Nature’s regenerative ability is even more important in the food production sector because of the adverse effects of climate change and the loss of productive croplands caused by rising food demand from the world’s growing population [24]. Economic growth in agriculture depends on increasing crop yields and using non-conventional plants to provide food security [25]. There is high economic potential in the use of new technologies in saline areas that use salt-resistant plants, which can sustain crop productivity and reduce freshwater consumption. In addition, the new focus must be on plants with high nutritional values that are also resistant to soil contamination and can be implemented in industrial production with biotechnological functions [26]. Furthermore, the use of waste products from food production (organic material and water residues) to create a second product or animal feed becomes ever more important for establishing a sustainable cycle of production [27].

3. Social Sustainability

3.1. Generalities

The social sustainability pillar implies the continuation of satisfying basic human needs [15], which can also involve preventing social injustices such as child labor, inequality, and the abuse of working time limits and living conditions for workers in important manufacturing sectors inside international supply chains [28]. Moreover, social sustainability is connected to social responsibility and sustainable development which ensures economic substance without affecting the ecological environment [12]. This also includes the legal, ethical, and philanthropic obligations and responsibilities that the different members of society have [29].
Legal responsibilities include activities in line with laws and regulations, combined with ethical responsibilities, which involve moral conduct and behavior according to society’s value system [30]. Therefore, social sustainability values include working rights, gender equality, non-discrimination, health coverage, and access to medical attention [31]. In addition, education was established as an important factor in the sustainable development goals outlined in the 2030 agenda of the United Nations, part of the social sustainability dimension and focusing on education’s contribution to reaching economic and social wealth, which can also lead to a greater consensus on the importance of environmentally friendly practices [32][33].

3.2. Social Responsibility in Food Production

Even though social sustainability can be considered as being secondary [34], difficult to quantify the impact of [35], and often overlooked, attention is still paid to social practices and the relationship between economic growth and social responsibility [28]. In agricultural food production processes and due to the harmful environmental impact of using intensive monoculture systems, population growth has created a high social demand for suitable practices [36]. Social damage and the loss of economic growth with intensive agriculture necessitate implementing sustainable strategies of cropland use and management practices, which include improving rural communities’ long-term quality of life [33].
The life quality of rural communities also depends on socio-economic indicators that focus on the rural population’s present conditions and families’ specific incomes in rural areas due to agricultural production, labor availability, seasonal climate variations, and crop requirements [31]. Furthermore, the indicators reflect the farmers’ actual conditions and regional development in the context of sustainable performance [37]. Rural regions and their local vitality create a state of isolation from urban areas, due to their lack of social policies [38]. Moreover, the rural population has different occupations and has passed through different educational systems [31], which necessitates a special regional social infrastructure to support local labor and discourage the local population from migrating [39]. The implementation of modern communication technology could also improve social cohesion, innovation, and education [40] in rural areas and stop regional depopulation [39].

4. Environmental Sustainability

4.1. Generalities

In recent years, environmental sustainability has earned more recognition as a way to guarantee socio-economic sustainability and a healthy ecological environment [41]. The environmental sustainability pillar refers to maintaining natural productivity and ecosystem performance, in addition to protecting different wild species and preserving biodiversity [15]. Protection of the environment also includes the loss of natural wildlife, soil degradation, climate change, contamination in urban areas, and the intensification of agricultural production due to the incremental human consumption of natural resources [42]. The human consumption and production activities that cause environmental degradation are reflected in biodiversity loss, increasing natural hazards, food security, and human health effects [43].
An investigation of the contamination caused by an area’s human population requires implementing an ecological footprint to control economic production density and development and the effects of urbanization [41]. Therefore, environmental sustainability necessitates improving and developing alternatives for conventional resources and using greener, cleaner, and more renewable processes [44] with a more balanced ecological footprint [41].

4.2. Environmentally Friendly Food Production

An important example of this includes the main effects and health risks caused by the use of chemical products, which have a negative effect on climate change and necessitate reducing industrial pollution to save the environment [42]. Especially in the energy sector, there is high potential for implementing sustainable energy requirements, such as by developing biofuels or using nanotechnology [44].
Focusing on food production, agricultural intensification is related to non-sustainable practices due to soil contamination, erosion, and water pollution, which cause environmental degradation and biodiversity loss [45][46]. Moreover, intensive agricultural production is the main cause of soil erosion because of salinization and a deficiency in organic substances, which cause biodiversity loss and general ill effects in agricultural regions [31]. Therefore, implementing sustainable agricultural practices and newly designed agricultural methods could play a key role in the development of sustainability and adapting practices to challenge the impacts of climate change [47].

5. Cultural Sustainability

5.1. Generalities

In most analyses of the sustainability dimensions, the cultural pillar is included in the social dimension, in the form of the socio-cultural pillar [48], or under the cultural diversity concept [31], which is not considered as important as the three original sustainable development pillars [49]. Nowadays, it is valuable to distinguish between social and cultural pillars, which might improve the alignment between external sustainability goals and organizational missions [50].
Culture and cultural heritage represent the diversity and representation of communities globally [51]. Moreover, protecting cultural heritage properties and the trespassing of values and meanings among generations is vital for implementing cultural sustainability [52]. Additionally, implementing cultural sustainability can help us to understand regional population values and implement the necessary changes in accordance with the general sustainability concept [49]. Today, cultural transmission is more possible and is different from the traditional cultural structures [53], due to the connection between people using social media and the possibility of international travel, in this way passing cultural information and heritage on to other countries with the use of multi-language functionality [50], implementing the idea of a global cultural village [51]. Social networks are also a reflection of cultural heritage, exposing the economic status and sustainable problems inherent in the concept of cultural globalization [54]. The assessment of culture has a key role in sustainable development, including the topics of traditions, vitality, economic capability, diversity, locality, and the ecological resilience of cultures and civilizations [50].

5.2. Cultural Heritage in Food Production

In agricultural food production, evaluating the cultural pillar is based on qualitative measurements, whereby rural community-based indicators are centered on self-evaluation via surveys and interviews with the rural population [31]. Ilieva et al. [55] have shown that there is a certain cultural benefit of agriculture due to community commitment, economic opportunities, and educational benefits. Moreover, implementing food production areas has fomented investigations into new agricultural technology [56] and increased awareness among the population regarding the benefits of ecological farming in contrast to conventional agricultural food production [55]. Agricultural food production is an important part of cultural identity and diversity that corresponds with food production methods, education, and providing food for the community [57].

6. Technological Sustainability

6.1. Generalities

Technological sustainability is considered to be part of the economic pillar in most definitions, but technology now impacts all three pillars in the classic sustainable pillars definition [58]. The development and implementation of new technologies in shorter time frames have elevated natural resource consumption and decreased product life cycles, which will heavily impact future generations [17]. Therefore, it is necessary to have more efficient recycling and technology reuse processes [59], although this is difficult due to the high demand for new products [60].
There was a significant increase in the shift toward socio-technical transition [61] and an increased commitment to more scientific investigations based on sustainable methods [62]. Moreover, digital technological progress has transformed human society and the economic processes of technological sustainable development [63].
Technological innovations can help to achieve sustainability in various sectors and areas; in general, there must be a positive environmental impact [64]. The most recent investigations were focused on environmentally friendly technologies that resulted in sustainable accomplishments [65]. Therefore, technological advances can help to implement environmentally friendly practices and optimize resource usage [66], which are two important indicators of technological sustainability. This type of business model uses clean production practices, green innovation, and short supply chains as an advantage to achieve sustainable performance [64].
Modern technology concepts produced under sustainable methods include the use of recycled materials in the production processes of new goods [67], thus optimizing the production process by integrating sustainable resources [68]. Moreover, new technologies that support sustainability [69] need to avoid contamination [70], especially regarding transportation distances in international supply chains, and protect social values and codes [71], which, in the end, could support regenerating the environment and biodiversity [72].

6.2. Sustainable Technology Innovation in Food Production

Agricultural methods have adapted to new technologies that permit high crop yield rates using improved machinery and developed enhanced genetic seeds and agrochemical products [31]; they have focused more on food security [73] and less on sustainability. One of the latest technological developments is the use of nanotechnology in the production of biofuels [44] or agriculture [74].
In agriculture, sustainable technology can be used for optimizing production processes and transforming food production practices into green and clean methods [75]. For example, the treatment of wastewater from food production processes can help achieve sustainability by using new and innovative technology [76]. Moreover, wastewater treatment technologies and economic, environmental, and energy usage rate analyses [77] can help producers to implement technologies such as aquaponics [78].

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