Its high time for a new sustainability diagram


Updated Feb 2024


The commonly used diagram of sustainability – consisting of three intersecting circles – is vague, difficult to apply and interpreted in a variety of ways to suit the user. The three circles depict each circle – Economy, Environment and Society – as the same size, inferring that each has equal value and importance. If you’re like me, you’ll question how useful this is.

Recognising the biosphere

Alternatively, a diagram called the wedding cake – shows the economy as a subset of society and society a subset of the biosphere. Significantly, we get a more holistic picture when we consider that our biosphere is the global ecosystem that encompasses all the living things on Earth. Specifically, it’s the relatively tiny and fragile part of Earth’s environment in which living things can survive. The source of this diagram is Lokrantz/Azote, in Rockstrom & Sukhdev (2016)

I guess you know that the world is far more complex than both the three circles and the wedding cake depict.  For instance, Earth’s biosphere interrelates and overlaps with four other earth systems – the hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere and geosphere.  they make the Earth habitable for humans and all other life. Looking at the Earth as a whole gives us a better understanding of the many complex connections in our world. Consequently, we can see how humankind is introducing social and environmental stressors that erode resilience.                                                                                                             

Reflecting the role of governance

Another positive feature of the wedding cake is the bi-directional arrow running through the centre. It represents the fundamental role of the UN Sustainable Development Goal SDG 17: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. This is what we call governance, the part of the social system that places any person or group into a position of power and authority over others, together with how that power is exercised across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Governance is a critical element of ESG that connects – and defines the relationship – between an organisation, its environment and society. An important task of governance is to ensure economic activity stays within the planetary boundaries humanity must not exceed in order to remain safe. Without healthy ecosystems, the social systems – including the economy – will struggle to survive.

Aiming for a better world

The SDGs are a blueprint for a better world. The details of which SDG relate to each circle in the wedding cake is easily accessible from the UN website. You can see all the goals and 169 indicators as well as how we are tracking as a global community towards their fulfilment. In the mean time, consider how our economy and society are dependent on a healthy biosphere and whether the three circle diagram reflects the huge task we have at hand.

In the 2020s the world has become more complex and unpredictable. So a primary aim of every organisation has become resilience – to remain viable and in tune with shifting societal needs and expectations. This requires a balance of flexibility, risk taking and control . And good governance is essential.

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