Framing the elusive concept of sustainability: A sustainability hierarchy

Julian D. Marshall, Michael W. Toffel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

193 Scopus citations


Usage of the word "sustainability" is widespread and incorporates a plethora of meanings. After reviewing four extant sustainability frameworks, we propose a Sustainability Hierarchy to structure a broad array of issues that have been associated with sustainability. These issues vary widely in their urgency, severity and uncertainty of consequences, and temporal and spatial dimensions. It categorizes actions some view as unsustainable based on their direct or indirect potential to (i) endanger the survival of humans; (ii) impair human health, (iii) cause species extinction or violate human rights; or (iv) reduce quality of life or have consequences that are inconsistent with other values, beliefs, or aesthetic preferences. Effects considered include impediments to the ecosystem functions that support human life, human health, and species viability. This paper argues that for sustainability to become a more meaningful concept, the many worthy issues in the fourth category (values, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences) should not be considered sustainability concerns. Implications for companies, policy makers, and scientists are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)673-682
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2005


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