The three pillars of sustainability framework is an applied and solutions oriented approach to sustainable development, which at the broadest and most important scale supports the creation of new economic and political institutions that embed (from start to finish) the key inputs, stakeholders, and incentive structures necessary for sustainability planning and projects to be feasible and successful. The three pillars framework is based upon the key and connected roles of: (1) technology and innovation; (2) laws and governance; and (3) economics and financial incentives. Through the lens of a review of the evolution of sustainability models over the last several decades, it is proposed that the three pillars framework can more effectively help us translate complex sustainability issues into ideas and an applied focus that can be better understood and acted upon by community and economic stakeholders. This, combined with full transparency, creates the necessary, and often sufficient, foundation for successful, scalable, more rapidly deployable, and culturally acceptable sustainability solutions. As demonstrated in practice and in numerous case studies, sustainability solutions that engage all three pillars at once—good governance, technology implementation, and creating market incentives—are most effective and durable.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Burkhardt-Holm P, Zehnder AJB (2018) Fishnetz: assessing outcomes and impacts of a project at the interface of science and policy. Environ Sci Pol 82:52–59
Clune WH (2011) A comparative law analysis of the use of state-level green procurement in the European Union and the United States. Nordisk Miljörättslig Tidskrift/Nordic Environ Law J 2:3–34
Clune WH, Zehnder AJB (2018) The three pillars of sustainability framework: approaches for laws and governance. J Environ Prot 9:211–240
da Cruz NF, Marques RC (2014) Scorecards for sustainable local governments. Cities 39:165–170
Elkington J (1998) Cannibals with forks: the triple bottom line of 21st century business. New Society Publishers Gabriola Island BC, Stony Creek CT
Hirsch Hadorn G, Bradley D, Pohl C, Rist S, Wiesmann U (2006) Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecol Econ 60:119–128
McG Tegart WJ, Sheldon GW, DC Griffiths (eds) (1990) The IPCC impacts assessment: climate change. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/ipcc_far_wg_II_full_report.pdf
Meadows DH, Meadows DL, Randers J, Behrens WW (1972) The limits to growth—a report for the club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. Universe Books, New York
Porter ME (1991) America’s green strategy. Sci Am 264(4):168
Porter ME, Kramer MR (2011) Creating shared value. Harv Bus Rev 2011:62–77
Rockström J et al (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating pace for humanity. Ecol Soc 14(2):32
Sandor R, Kanakasabai M, Marques R, Clark N (2015) Sustainable investing and environmental markets—opportunities in a new asset class. World Scientific, Singapore
Schmidheiny S (1992) Changing course. MIT Press, Cambridge
Schmidheiny S, Zorraquin FJL (1996) Financing change. MIT Press, Cambridge
Schmidt-Bleek F (1997) MIPS and factor 10 for a sustainable and profitable economy. Wuppertal Institute, Wuppertal
SCOPE-Rep. No. 13 (1979) The Global Carbon Cycle. In: Bolin B, Degens ET, Kempe S, Ketner P (eds) John Wiley Chichester
Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972), in Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, UN Doc.A/CONF.48/14, at 2 and Corr.1
Turner G (2014) Is Global Collapse Imminent? MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (2019) The impact of rapid technological change on sustainable development. Report of the Secretary-General
UNCTAD (2015) Investment policy framework for sustainable development. United Nations
Von Weizsäcker EU, Lovins AB, Lovins LH (1997) Factor four—doubling wealth. Halving Resource Use Earthscan, London
WCED (1987) World commission on environment and development. Oxford University Press, Oxford New York
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Handled by Vinod Tewari, The Energy and resources Institute (TERI), India.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Clune, W.H., Zehnder, A.J.B. The evolution of sustainability models, from descriptive, to strategic, to the three pillars framework for applied solutions. Sustain Sci 15, 1001–1006 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00776-8
- Economic development
- Sustainability framework
- Planning tools
- Policy tools