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The principle of sustainability was first formulated in writing by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713 (memorial plaque with quote)
Today the public associates sustainable production with special quality seals (here the FSC seal for wood products)
But even small campaigns save water and electricity

Sustainability is a principle of action for the use of resources , in which a lasting satisfaction of needs is to be guaranteed by preserving the natural regenerative capacity of the systems involved (especially of living beings and ecosystems ).

Concept history

The term has a complex and multifaceted conceptual history. The word sustainability comes from the verb to follow , which means “to last or stay for a long time”. Nowadays there are three main meanings to be distinguished:

  1. the original meaning of a "long-lasting effect" ( Duden ),
  2. the special forest scientific significance as a "forestry principle, according to which no more wood may be felled than can grow back" (Duden),
  3. the modern, comprehensive meaning in the sense of a "principle [s] according to which no more may be consumed than can grow back, regenerate and be made available again in the future" (Duden).

A first-time use of the term sustainability in German in the sense of a long-term responsible handling of a resource is proven by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in his work Silvicultura oeconomica in 1713 . Carlowitz asked "how to do a sothane [such] conservation and cultivation of the wood / that there is a continuous, permanent and sustainable use / because it is an indispensable thing / without which the land cannot remain in its forge".

The noun sustainability was the latest in 1832 by the German forester Emil André his title in the Prague published book Simplest the highest yield and the sustainability of all making sure end Forst Wirth shaft method used.

In a dictionary entry from 1910, sustainability is regarded as a translation of the Latin perpetuitas and is the constant and incessant as well as the uninterrupted, the effective and emphatic or simply the success or the effectiveness of a thing. Before 1860, the designation as a noun was not yet lexically recorded, in 1915 for the first time in spelling (the adjective sustainable is different ); Until the 1980s it had the meaning of permanence in everyday language and was not used for a term with a political meaning. For example, the word sustainable appears in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon from 1905 in the sentence "In order to provide sustainable warming of the rooms, the boiler of the hot water heating must have a relatively large capacity", and furthermore in the statement that a forest is already sustainable Represents a form of forest management.

Younger use

In current linguistic usage , different conceptions compete:

  • an understanding in everyday language that states that something can or should last for a long time after it has been built, started and / or set in motion;
  • different political views that vary this basic understanding of permanence according to the position of different interest groups. This expansion resulted initially from the global environmental policy debate since the Second World War, in particular with the definitions provided by the World Commission for Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) set up by the United Nations in 1983, the Club of Rome or the German Enquete Commission Bundestag. They mostly expanded the term well beyond the original meaning of the system function. After ecological ideas have gained general acceptance, the term “sustainability” is used for a large number of concepts and products where economic interests have been identified, which is why the expression now has a somewhat “dubious reputation” in the eyes of some.
  • From 2009 the term grandchildren will appear as a synonym for sustainability . Since 2010, and increasingly since 2014, it has also been used in politics outside the green spectrum and also in the federal government's sustainability strategy . The German sustainability strategy in the new edition from 2016 is headed with the slogan "The way to a future that is fair to grandchildren". The synonym serves as a symbol for a markedly sustainable world, in which our economic activity does not reduce the chances of future generations (see also intergenerational equity ).


Some authors state that sustainability has become a “rubber word” due to the diverse definition . At the same time, however, it is emphasized that the idea "can only be communicated as a rubber word [...] in all areas of society". In order to avoid the blurring problems with the term sustainability , in disputes about environmentally friendly forms of civilization, other terms such as civilization ecology or future compatibility are sometimes used , which, however, have not yet prevailed.

Traditional sustainability

Extensive, traditional remote pasture (as here with yaks in Tibet could) only because of their sustainable production methods humans for thousands of years to earn a living offer
Industrial agriculture is far from being sustainable

Subsistence-oriented , traditional forms of economy that are still largely unchanged (such as hunting and gathering , farming (provided that the natural areas are still sufficiently large and sparsely populated) as well as remote grazing ) form stable and lasting - i.e. sustainable in the original sense - economic systems that operate in a variety of ways are networked with natural ecosystems. They are characterized by efficient , slow and continuous adaptation of land use to the respective site conditions for centuries.

However, this effect is more and more reversed when rapid economic and social change creates problems whose effects cannot be foreseen (see also cold and hot cultures or options ).

The Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations recognizes that traditional ways of life are sustainable in a particular degree, not reduce biodiversity. In contrast to industrialized societies, which are not directly dependent on a specific area, such communities have a direct interest in maintaining and protecting these ecosystems, the stability of which they have never endangered.

Ethnology has shown that traditionally sustainable economic activity in many indigenous cultures (before contact with Europeans) was anchored in the cultural memory of animistic worldviews , myths , rituals and taboos of the ethnic religions as a moral guideline of a "holy connection to the earth" (→ see also: wild thinking ) . According to Odum and Cannon , all stable systems have mechanisms that keep their state of equilibrium as constant as possible and compensate for fluctuations in the environment. The anthropologists Roy Rappaport , Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and Thomas Harding have independently established that the myths and ritual cycles of the so-called " primitive peoples " fulfill precisely this task and enable the communities to adapt to changes in the environment as much as possible and the stability of the Impairing ecosystems as little as possible .

Current concepts of sustainability

Ideally, sustainability should relate to ecological, economic and social aspects

The World Commission for Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) set up by the United Nations in 1983 had a decisive influence on the international debate on development and environmental policy , without, however, referring to the origin of the German forestry debate. The commission, chaired by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland , was given the task of identifying long-term prospects for a development policy that is also environmentally friendly . In its final document, Our Common Future, from 1987, also known as the Brundtland Report , the concept of sustainable development inspired by this guiding principle is defined.

Variety of definitions

Sustainability is a term used in science as well as in politics and business practice. It serves less as a descriptive but rather as a normative target term. The terms "sustainability" and "sustainable development" are often used synonymously . At least the following three variants compete in the debate:

  • With the work of the Brundtland Commission of the UN and the subsequent UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 , a concept of sustainability that was supposed to unite different political interests became socially acceptable; environmental policy goals should be placed on an equal footing with economic and social development goals. The term sustainability is used here as a set of goals: Permanently stable societies can be achieved by not playing off ecological, economic and social goals against each other, but striving for them on an equal footing. This understanding of sustainability includes the requirement that these goals apply to all countries in the world (global justice) and for future generations (intergenerational justice). This approach was further elaborated by the Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag and presented as a three-pillar model of sustainability ; according to this, the concept of sustainability itself is composed of three components to form ecological, economic and social sustainability. Critics of this understanding of the term see the equal weighting of these pillars basically only describing the current state of all things and not a demand for more sustainable development.
  • A prominent interpretation of the term that began soon after the UN conference sees it as a leitmotif of ecological modernization. This interpretation also characterizes various funding programs, which means that this environmentally-oriented understanding of the term is also implemented with the help of high funding. From this point of view, the UN conference in Rio was even criticized as a failure by many environmental associations. Well-known critical books were Die Ökofalle by Christoph Spehr and Sustainable, modern, loyal to the state by Jörg Bergstedt .
  • In the economic and economic policy debate, sustainability is occasionally also used in the combination of "sustainable economic growth" in the sense of lasting economic success. Here the term sustainability is used e.g. B. applied to fiscal policy .

Sustainability Debate in Germany

The German political debate on this term is closely linked at the local level to the Local Agenda 21 processes initiated by the UN conference . At the federal level the designation since that is Study Commission on "Protecting humans and the environment, objectives and framework of Sustainable Development" from 1995 used stronger. The first interim report of the commission already served at the first Rio follow-up conference in New York in 1997 (“ Rio Plus 5 ”) to report on the German contributions to the implementation of the sustainability concept.

In the German political debate, Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen still dominated the concept of sustainability in the 1998 Bundestag election , but it was also mentioned by all other parties represented in the Bundestag. For the 2002 Bundestag election , with the exception of the Greens, the other parties used the word sustainability much more frequently than four years earlier.

Three guiding strategies

Three strategies are often used in the discussion about sustainable development:

  • Sufficiency : reduction in production and consumption
  • Efficiency : more productive use of material and energy
  • Consistency : nature-friendly material cycles, recycling, waste avoidance

Sustainability in the modern economy

Lighter with a "lifetime guarantee"

Lifespan of products

  • Companies use the durability of their products as a sales argument for their customer loyalty . However, the proportion of products that advertise with a “lifetime guarantee” as an advantage only makes up a small percentage. Such products have an increased shelf life through the use of higher quality materials and manufacturing processes.
  • Industries that maintain short product cycles and, such as the automotive industry, very often use design model updates to visually age their products, therefore refer less to their products than to production or disposal when it comes to sustainability.
  • In terms of sustainability, an economy that develops products with planned obsolescence is questionable. These products are manufactured in modified versions and advertised with new product features. For this purpose, companies rarely store spare parts beyond the guarantee period. The cost of a repair is usually higher than the market value of the product. As a counter-trend, a market has emerged for high-priced goods that uses engineering methods to identify defects in wear parts and offers improved spare parts compared to original parts. Another counter-trend is the purchase of old products that have proven their reliability over a long period of time and, due to their low complexity, can be easily repaired if a repair is necessary.

Sustainability as a sales argument

  • For many companies, the attribute “sustainable” has become a component of their PR strategy that is difficult to verify. On the other hand, there are concepts of sustainability management, which combine business success with the consideration of social and ecological aspects. Accordingly, companies can gain a competitive advantage through particularly sustainable action.
  • Certification of products should make sustainability in various areas (e.g. eco, fair, biodynamic) verifiable for the consumer. Sustainability certification and balance sheets for the entire company, including its products, cover a broader range of sustainability and signal the sustainable management of the economic player.

Sustainability in cultural history

The wall of the palace of Inca Roca has largely retained its structure after 800 years due to the arrangement of the natural stones without any binding agents
  • Different cultures have applied the idea of ​​durability to their architecture - partly for its function as a monument over time and for purely practicality. Buildings and structures were designed and built that could fulfill their function and be operated without maintenance, so that future generations could benefit from them.
  • The principle of sustainability in forest management can be found long before the founder of the term, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, in an old ecclesiastical document: in the constitutions of the Camaldolese Benedictine hermits from Camaldoli from 1350 - practically the first forest system in Italy. The Benedictines cultivated their fir forests around the Camaldoli Monastery, founded in 1012 in northern Tuscany, without clearing, with individual tree trunks and replanting. The monastery, with its criteria for sustainable forestry drawn up by an abbot, is therefore considered to be the nucleus and "root of sustainability".
  • In its basic idea, sustainability contains benefits for everyone involved . If, however, the switch to sustainable forms of economy takes place out of necessity, because the depletion of resources is already very far advanced, then there is definitely potential for conflict. In the German timber industry of the 18th and 19th centuries - when there were hardly any forests left - people asked themselves who would benefit from this new forest management and who would not. This can be better understood if one realizes that in the winters (the “ Little Ice Age ” at that time ) people relied on every fathom of firewood in order not to freeze to death. The need was there immediately and far too great to be met - there was an acute shortage of wood . Sustainability in forestry requires, however, that enough trees remain standing, some of which had to be protected from theft by desperate people with police force. Similar “inevitable” conflicts of interest are still the order of the day in many areas of the world where sustainability is supposed to replace advanced overexploitation.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 "UN-SDGs" with their logos

At the end of September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” at the 2015 World Summit for Sustainable Development . This includes 17 " goals for sustainable development " ( English Sustainable Development Goals , SDGs ; French Objectifs de développement durable ): They are political objectives United Nations (UN) to ensure sustainable development in economic , social and ecological level in the world and were in Designed based on the development process of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). On January 1, 2016, they came into force for a period of 15 years (until 2030). In contrast to the MDGs, which were particularly applicable to developing countries , the SDGs apply to all countries.


The subject of sustainability science has been established at universities since 2001 . Research outside of the university environment is mostly summarized under the heading of social-ecological research . The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding research projects on climate change, the seas and oceans, the cities of the future and the sustainable use of resources in the framework program “Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)”. With the FONA framework program, the federal government is implementing the national sustainability strategy .

At the beginning of March 2015, the Freiburg Sustainability Center , a cooperation between the Albert Ludwigs University there , the five Freiburg institutes of the Fraunhofer Society and companies from industry, started.


Since 2008, the Foundation has awarded German Sustainability Award annually to the German Sustainability Award publicity at a major gala.

See also


Factual reports

Newspaper articles

  • Ulrich Grober , The Inventor of Sustainability , Die Zeit, November 25, 1999 (No. 48), p. 98 online .
  • Ulrich Grober, sustainability - but what is it? A journey through time to the sources of our guiding concept, insights and perspectives (3/12), pp. 148–163
  • Ulrich Grober, The Discovery of Sustainability - Hans Carl von Carlowitz , natur, 03/2013, pp. 62–63


Scientific literature and specialist articles

  • Felix Ekardt: Theory of Sustainability. Ethical, legal, political and transformative approaches - using the example of climate change, scarcity of resources and world trade . 3rd edition or 2nd edition of the new edition Nomos, Baden-Baden 2016, ISBN 978-3-8329-6032-2
  • Bernd Klauer: What is sustainability and how can you achieve sustainable development? , in: Journal for Applied Environmental Research , Vol. 12 (1999), Issue 1.
  • Armin Grunewald, Jürgen Kopfmüller (2006): Sustainability . Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York, NY 2006. ISBN 978-3-593-37978-4 (= campus introductions ).
  • Hans G. Nutzinger (Ed.): Sustainable economy and energy supply. Concepts, conditions, starting points . Metropolis, Marburg 1995, ISBN 3-89518-023-8 .
  • Wolfgang Wüst: Sustainable State Policy? Princely rule and the environment in the premodern , in: Journal for Bavarian State History 70 (2007) Issue 1, pp. 85-108. ISSN  0044-2364 .
  • Diethelm Klippel / Martin Otto: Sustainability and conceptual history , in: Wolfgang Kahl (Hrsg.): Sustainability as a collective concept . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2008, pp. 39-59, ISBN 978-3-16-149573-1
  • Gerhard de Haan et al .: Sustainability and Justice. Basics and practical consequences at school . Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg 2008, ISBN 978-3-540-85491-3 .
  • Hans Diefenbacher : Justice and Sustainability. On the relationship between ethics and economics , WBG Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2012, ISBN 978-3-534-25050-9 .
  • Michael Rödel: The Invasion of Sustainability. A linguistic analysis of a political and economic buzzword , in: Deutsche Sprache , Jg. 41 (2013), pp. 115–141.
  • Ingolfur Blühdorn / Felix Butzlaff / Michael Deflorian / Daniel Hausknost / Mirijam Mock: Sustainable non-sustainability. Why the ecological transformation of society does not take place . transcript, Bielefeld 2019, ISBN 978-3-8376-4516-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Sustainability  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Sustainability  - Collection of images, videos and audio files



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