What is Sustainable Economic Development?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

"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.

Many alternative and sustainable farming technologies are still untested or not cost-effective for businesses.
Many alternative and sustainable farming technologies are still untested or not cost-effective for businesses.

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.

It is typically much easier to reap the benefits of sustainable construction when designing from the ground up.
It is typically much easier to reap the benefits of sustainable construction when designing from the ground up.

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.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@candyquilt-- I think that unsustainable economic development is far more dangerous to our survival than you realize. Conflict is of course, very harmful as well. But that doesn't take away the fact that the resources we are most reliant upon are slowly being destroyed and made unusable by greedy businesses. I'm talking about air, water and soil. All three are being polluted to very dangerous levels. Groundwater and fresh water are being polluted by toxic factory wastes. The same wastes render farming land unusable. Air is polluted and this has numerous affects on the environment, the greenhouse effect being one.

If we continue at this rate, I doubt that earth will be very livable in several hundred years. We won't have the most basic survival needs like clean food and water.


I personally don't think that unsustainable practices by businesses will result in the end of the world. I think that humans have always exploited the environment and resources. Some resources are limited and we need to use them wisely. But others are able to renew themselves. I think war and conflict is a bigger risk to the environment and survival of the human race than unsustainable practices of businesses.


I understand that businesses primary concern is profit and low costs. But businesses must also understand that profit today may mean a loss tomorrow. If the cost of production is the destruction of the environment and resources, that's a huge cost to bear. I don't think that businesses are thinking long-term benefits when they make decisions regarding their activities.

In reality, switching to alternative energy and environmentally friendly process, businesses are making an investment in the future. If any business in this century is serious about profiting and long-term economic development, they have to to make changes to their production systems so that the environment and natural resources are not harmed in the process.

Something else to consider is that consumers are making wiser and wiser decisions in regards to brands and products. Businesses that destroy the environment or that have other unethical practices take huge blows in their sales because consumers ignore them. So making ethical decisions about sustainability and development is also about establishing a positive brand name.

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