Our Common Future

Our Common Future Book Cover

What does "sustainability" mean? 

Many current definitions of sustainability can be linked back to two key reports: Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) and The Earth Charter (see below). 

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development was asked to formulate "A global agenda for change." It was an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations. From their report, Our Common Future, came the definition:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This view that sustainability is about the future of human societies on Earth is the most widely quoted definition of sustainability. While this definition is one that many can agree upon, it may not help everyone to understand what that means for day-to-day living and decision-making. In this regard, The Natural Step's science-based definition (see tab above) is helpful.

The Earth Charter, a declaration developed as a follow up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development's 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, outlines ethical principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful society.

The Natural Step

The Natural Step LogoThe Natural Step provides a science-based definition of sustainability. According to the Natural Step Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, these four basic principles or "conditions" must be met in order to achieve sustainability:

  1. We cannot take more from the Earth's crust than is re-deposited by natural process.
  2. We cannot emit more waste products than nature can process.
  3. We cannot undermine nature's ability to maintain its productive capacity.
  4. Human needs must be met worldwide.

Adapted from The Natural Step

Request a Presentation

The Office of Sustainability provides presentations and workshops to help further our community's understanding of sustainability and how it impacts our day-to-day actions.

If you would you like a presentation on sustainability for your class, lab, or unit, please contact us to learn more.

Learn More

Sustainability has multiple dimensions and because it is about how human society exists on this planet, it is relevant to all disciplines. Here are many excellent resources on sustainability within a diverse range of topcs—biology, economics, education, the arts and much more.


The Arts



Ecology and the Biosphere

Economics and Consumerism


Energy, Resource Use, and Climate Change


Media and Communications


Technology, Innovation, and Design

University Sustainability