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What is sustainability?

As defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission, sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Overview: What is sustainability?

Definition of sustainability: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

While “sustainability” is not a new word, this definition of sustainable development was coined in 1987 in Our Common Future, a report written by the United Nations (U.N.) Brundtland Commission. This watershed report was the result of extensive data gathering and hearings with scientists, researchers, industry leaders, and governments from around the world. It concluded that, to be able to solve diverse global environmental crises, the world needed to treat them as “interlocking crises” that must be addressed with holistic, sustainable solutions.

In this article, we’ll discuss sustainability trends and technologies—including the sustainability benefits of cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT)—that have emerged to help address this need for sustainable solutions.

Sustainability principles

Since the U.N. Brundtland Commission report, people, businesses, and governments have begun rallying around four main principles to achieve a sustainable future:

Carbon negative

Reducing direct emissions, using carbon-free energy, offsetting carbon energy used, and removing carbon used from the environment.

Water positive

Reducing water use, replenishing water used, and increasing access to clean water.

Zero waste

Reducing waste, eliminating single-use plastic, and making fully recyclable products and packaging.

Healthy ecosystems

Preserving species and protecting habitats.

When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, there are three scopes that many organizations are trying to address:

Direct emissions

Emissions that directly result from business activities, such as combustion of fossil fuels for manufacturing and transporting goods.

Indirect emissions

Emissions that indirectly result from producing energy, such as electricity, heating, and cooling for buildings.

Indirect value chain emissions

Emissions that indirectly result from all other business activities, including things like building materials and emissions produced by suppliers, partners, and infrastructure.

The importance of sustainability

Sustainability is of course critical to keeping our planet inhabitable. To do so, we need to make real progress in areas like reducing waste, conserving natural resources, and preserving ecosystems. Fortunately, individuals, businesses, and governments around the world are setting ambitious goals to do this.

Technology has several vital roles to play in this. Industries are transforming how we harness and use energy, such as expanding the output of renewable energy sources and building more environmentally friendly vehicles, homes, and commercial structures. However, without timely and accurate data to measure these impacts, we’ll have no way of knowing if we’re on the right track. This is where IoT comes in. What is IoT?

Just as the availability and diversity of consumer smart devices has exploded in the past two decades, so has the number and type of industrial IoT devices. These devices make it possible to monitor temperatures, rainfall, and wildlife, allowing the collection of valuable data—even in remote locations. IoT devices also enable governments to detect and act against illegal activities like wildlife poaching, waste dumping, and harvesting protected forests.

Learn more about IoT for sustainability.

Sustainability trends

As the science behind global warming, deforestation, and other environmental issues has become progressively alarming, more and more people and organizations are committing to reducing or reversing their environmental impact and contributing to a sustainable future. While these efforts are well-intentioned, they can be difficult to implement and measure.

A familiar example is sustainable manufacturing. Consumers have become familiar with the myriad certifications and standards that manufacturers adopt and promote—often on product packaging—to help people make sustainable purchasing decisions.

However, not all businesses or certification programs are able to measure their real-world impact effectively—and measuring carbon impact is especially vital. To this end, Microsoft has created a free sustainability guide based on its own experiences working to become carbon negative. This guide can help businesses achieve three critical goals:


Sustainability Guide

Helping businesses take the next step in their sustainability journey.

Assess your impact.

Access their impact

Measure and monitor their environmental footprint.


Accelerate your progress.

Accelerate their progress

Adopt sustainable solutions to minimize their impact up and down the supply chain.


Transform your business.

Transform their organization

Reimagine their business models and systems while addressing the needs of the planet.


Good impacts for organizations to strive toward and measure are carbon negativity, water positivity, zero waste, and ecosystem health. Increasingly, businesses are publishing their progress and challenges, which is critical for the global community to measure impact and learn from one another’s successes and challenges. Microsoft, for example, publishes its results in its annual Environmental Sustainability Report.


Examples of sustainable technologies

Discussions of sustainability often focus on individual contributions and the technologies that individuals can implement, such as electric vehicles and local recycling initiatives. However, sustainable technologies being developed by industries and businesses also offer an exciting path forward to address climate change.

Here are two examples of sustainable technologies that industries are implementing:

  • Manufacturing


    Manufacturers of heavy industrial equipment use automation software and intelligent manufacturing insights to optimize sustainable principles at every stage of the manufacturing life cycle.

    Manufacturing companies use cloud and IoT technology, automation software, and data insights to find ways to optimize their operations, reduce waste and energy usage—while increasing output throughout the manufacturing life cycle.

    Learn more about sustainability in IoT

  • Construction


    Construction and demolition industries are among the largest producers of waste in the world. Reducing waste addresses the quintessential images of environmental decay: giant mountains of garbage in landfills.

    Construction companies can reduce the amount of waste that winds up in landfills by using technology platforms that provide raw materials with an identity that’s linked to a location and registered in a “materials passport.” This technology allows materials to be recycled, resold, and reused to drive more sustainable construction decisions.

    Learn more about sustainability in construction

Sustainable technologies and cloud computing

A common denominator in sustainable technologies being developed to address climate change is cloud computing. Cloud computing is simply the delivery of computing services—including servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and intelligence—over the internet (“the cloud”).

Cloud computing reduces environmental impact by:

  • Requiring less energy than traditional enterprise datacenters.
  • Improving IT operational efficiency.
  • Improving IT equipment efficiency.
  • Optimizing datacenter efficiency.

A 2018 case study from Microsoft showed that moving on-premises workloads to the cloud can reduce the carbon footprint of businesses by up to 98 percent.

Read the case study


Progress towards a clean-energy, sustainable future starts with local impact

While the challenges of climate change remain critical on a planetary level, examples of progress at a local level give a glimpse into the possibility of a more sustainable future. Around the world, communities are finding ways to make a local impact on climate change by using technology to improve environmental outcomes. These communities are committed to reducing energy use, transitioning to a more carbon-neutral grid, and promoting a greener future with innovative, sustainable technologies.

Here are some examples of local projects that are making progress toward sustainability:

Two hands cupped together holding water.

Mitigating a water crisis in South Africa

For three straight years, the Western Cape region of South Africa had experienced a difficult drought with minimal rainfall, leaving their reservoirs only 10 percent full. A lack of reliable water sources made it difficult for local hospitals to provide adequate care to their patients, and the health and survival of the population was at grave risk.


The Western Cape Provincial Department of Health partnered with local officials and organizations to determine which conservation efforts would provide the greatest benefit to avoid a complete shutoff of water taps. They used intelligent technologies to install smart meters at 53 public hospitals to gauge water and energy usage through a reporting dashboard. The hospitals then used this dashboard to proactively monitor leaks, water pressure, and usage, which enabled the rapid deployment of repair and water tanker services. The project impacted nearly 10,000 hospital beds—about 100,000 patients per month—and resulted in an estimated savings of 6.4 million kiloliters of water per year.

A forest.

Reforesting native woodlands in Ireland

While its green hills and verdant landscapes earned Ireland the nickname of the Emerald Isle, Ireland has been experiencing a massive deforestation. In fact, Ireland has tied with the Netherlands as the least forested country in Europe, at just 11 percent—with only 1 percent of native forest remaining. To help remedy this, the government of Ireland created a program to create new native woodlands.


Through partnerships and funding with private corporations, the Irish Forestry Service gave farmer landowners €1,000 per hectare to create new native forests. In exchange, the farmers would have forests on their land indefinitely. As a result, farmers and other landowners diversified their income while helping with reforestation, an important tool for reversing the adverse impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

Small plants being planted in soil.

Urban area forestry in Des Moines, Iowa

The benefits of planting and maintaining trees in urban areas and communities are myriad. Trees provide shade from the sun and increase air quality. Being in proximity to trees can also improve mental health and inspire people to exercise more, be it a Sunday stroll in the park or an early morning jog before work. What’s more, researchers have found that the more trees a community or neighborhood has, the safer it is.


The nonprofit agency Trees Forever takes a unique approach to urban forestation. The agency combines planting trees and protecting the environment with developing the workforce and promoting green careers among young people. By training youth to plant and care for trees in underserved neighborhoods that don’t have enough vegetation, the agency empowers communities and promotes stewardship of the earth. These efforts led Trees Forever to receive an Environmental Sustainability award from Microsoft.

Learn more about tree-planting in cities and tree equity

Accelerate your sustainability journey

Wherever you are on your path to net zero, Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability enables you to amplify progress and transform your business through environmental, social, and governance (ESG) capabilities.


Frequently asked questions

  • Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

  • Following sustainability practices is critical to keeping our planet inhabitable.

  • The three pillars of sustainability are social, economic, and environmental.

  • Sustainable technologies help organizations run operations with less negative impact on people and the planet. Technology can help reduce waste and resource use, increase operational efficiency, and create healthier communities.

  • Sustainable solutions are those that help organizations improve their social, economic, and environmental impact. Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability can help businesses better understand their current impact, set achievable sustainability goals, and track and report on their progress.

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