Sustainability: What is sustainability?


Humboldt Advisory Committee on Sustainability (HACS)

Definition of Sustainability: Sustainability is the recognition that humanity is a part of the natural world, not separate from it, and that healthy social and economic systems depend on the resilience of ecological systems.  (Established Spring 2018)

STARS (the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System) is a well-respected and deeply vetted tool for stakeholders at institutions of higher education to understand and report on sustainability. As such, this group provides the following text when describing sustainability in their Technical Manual  (2018, version 2.1, page 14):

“Popular representations of sustainability underscore the concept’s three dimensions. Sustainability experts often use a three-legged stool as a symbol for sustainability. The social, economic, and environmental components each represent one of the stool’s legs. If one of the legs is missing, the sustainability stool can’t balance or function. A common illustration of sustainability is the diagram depicting three overlapping circles representing environmental needs, economic needs, and social needs. The area where the circles overlap and all three needs are met is the area of sustainability.”


Graphic showing triple venn diagram for making sustainability-focused or related qualifications for courses or research. Splits categories into social, economic, and environmental dimensions and calls out where and how they overlap.

Sustainability-related topics

Table gives conceptual examples of intersections between social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainability.
Society-environment interconnectionsSociety-economy interconnectionsEconomy-environment interconnections
Food insecurity Dynamics/causes/impacts of povertyNatural resource supply chains
Resource access/allocationBusiness ethicsBusiness practices that minimize environmental footprint
Environmental justice/injusticeFair tradeLifecycle analyses for particular materials and products
Land use policy or politicsWorker's rightsEnvironmental impacts of neoliberalism & consumer culture
Governance of environmental resourcesSocial impacts of supply chains and marketsEnergy efficiency
Law and regulatory landscapes of natural resourcesAccess to educationCarbon markets
Population, demography Causes & impacts of housing insecurity Renewable energy


Click here to see Humboldt’s most recent Guide to Sustainability.  

Download a list of example classes and research projects that have been designated as sustainability related or focused by the Sustainability Office and their partners. 

Review a logic tree to understand how sustainability designations are made by the Sustainability Office and their partners.