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Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins

Purvis, Ben; Mao, Yong; Robinson, Darren


Ben Purvis

Associate Professor

Darren Robinson


The three pillar conception of (social, economic and environmental) sustainability, commonly represented by three intersecting circles with overall sustainability at the centre, has become ubiquitous. With a view to identifying the genesis and theoretical foundations of this conception, this paper reviews and discusses relevant historical sustainability literature. From this we find that there is no single point of origin of this three pillar conception, but rather a gradual emergence from various critiques in the early academic literature of the economic status quo from both social and ecological perspectives on the one hand, and the quest to reconcile economic growth as a solution to social and ecological problems on the part of the United Nations on the other. The popular three circles diagram appears to have been first presented by Barbier (1987), albeit purposed towards developing nations with foci which differ from modern interpretations. The conceptualisation of three pillars seems to predate this however. Nowhere have we found a theoretically rigorous description of the three pillars. This is thought to be in part due to the nature of the sustainability discourse arising from broadly different schools of thought historically. The absence of such a theoretically solid conception frustrates approaches towards a theoretically rigorous operationalisation of ‘sustainability’.


Purvis, B., Mao, Y., & Robinson, D. (2019). Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, 14(3), 681-695.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 23, 2018
Online Publication Date Sep 3, 2018
Publication Date May 7, 2019
Deposit Date Sep 5, 2018
Publicly Available Date Sep 5, 2018
Journal Sustainability Science
Print ISSN 1862-4065
Electronic ISSN 1862-4057
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 14
Issue 3
Pages 681-695
Keywords Sustainable development; Conceptual review; Historical origins; Triple bottom line; History of sustainability
Public URL
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