What Is Sustainable Economic Development?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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"Sustainable economic development" refers to the balance of economic growth with social and environmental needs. In order for economic growth to be considered sustainable, it must not compromise resources or environmental factors for the future. Sustainable economic growth has become a topic of considerable discussion in the 21st century, but many economic and environmental experts believe there is a long road to be trekked before economic growth stops compromising societal and environmental health.

It may be easy to think that society, the economy, and the environment exist in their own vacuums of function and need, but proponents of sustainable economic development insist that these three pillars of human existence are interdependent. A factory that spews toxic waste into the air and water can pose risks to global health and do irreparable damage to the environment. Similarly, if the environmental stores of a resource fully vanish, industry may be decimated for want of usable supplies, thus depriving the public of necessary goods. The principles of sustainable economic development focus on creating a balance between the needs of these three concerns; only when economic growth can be obtained without unduly harming society or the environment can it truly be considered sustainable in the long term.


One of the biggest issues facing the promotion of sustainable economic development is a disconnect between the goals of environmentalists, and the goals of many economic groups, such as businesses. In general, the goal of a business is to make as much profit as possible, to ensure its economic future and retain its shareholders. Unfortunately, many alternative energy, alternative farming, and sustainable resource management technologies are either still untested or not cost-effective for businesses. Though the arguments in favor of sustainable economic development point out that without air to breathe, water to drink, and resources to use,industry will have no customers, this argument in itself seems insufficient to spurring change. Some economists suggest that the drive toward sustainable growth will occur only when green technology becomes cheaper than traditional methods, and when consumers drive the market toward sustainability through social change.

Another major issue preventing the spread of sustainable economic development is the lack of environmental regulations in developing nations. Many developing nations are desperately in need of economic stimulus, and thus willing to allow major sacrifices in terms of wage, labor, and environmental laws in order to bring in new industry. If a company based in the Western world can have goods made for significantly less money, with less regulations and virtually no chance of violating environmental standards, there is little incentive to manufacture in a developed country.

Still, proponents of sustainable development argue that those who do not adapt to sustainable practices will destroy their own markets, just as a fish farm that harvested all of its fish for sale would have none for the next year, essentially destroying its long term survival. Unfortunately, the effects caused by non-sustainable growth do not occur in a vacuum, meaning that ecosystems, species, and even human society as a whole can be damaged and endangered by unsustainable practices.


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