The 6 Rs of sustainability: what does ‘sustainable’ really mean?

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Since it’s a crucial aspect in every facet of life, what are the 6 Rs of sustainability, and what do its three pillars look like?

It’s a word we hear swatted around almost on a daily basis now. With food, fashion, lifestyle, everything. Individuals and companies alike have all increasingly talked about living and doing things more sustainably. But what does ‘sustainable’ really mean?

Meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs is the most common and widely accepted way of defining sustainability. And that’s great, but what does it entail?

The 6 Rs of sustainability

6 rs of sustainabilityWithin the waste hierarchy, there are six agreed-upon principles of sustainability: rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.


Do you really need that? It’s the question you should be asking yourself according to this principle of sustainability. It implores one to question and understand their consumption habits and impact on the environment. If a person realises that natural resources are limited, they are likely to rethink their everyday choices.


Refrain from buying stuff you don’t need. There can be a lot of considerations when buying a new product — the quality, the packing, the company’s ethics, et al. Basically, refuse to pay money for something that would end up generating more waste. For example, an overly packaged parcel, like a box within a larger box filled with paper (looking at you, Amazon).

Read how brands are innovating with plastic to make more sustainable packaging.


You didn’t think the 6 Rs of sustainability wouldn’t have the 3 environmental Rs, did you? The first of the reduce, reuse, recycle trio, it essentially asks you to Marie Kondo your things. For the uninitiated, that means reducing the amount of stuff you no longer need and actively making decisions that reduce waste. The idea is: consume less, waste less.


If you don’t need something, before throwing it away, try and see if you can reuse or repurpose it in another way. Instead of buying a replacement, reinvent it and find an alternative use. You’re paying for the product and the packaging; so make use of both.


Before you recycle, hold up. Can you fix it? Expand the shelf life of your possessions. Make the most out of whatever you buy and have, and only pass it on when there’s nothing left to do with it.


If you really can’t reuse something, recycle it. You have no excuse not to do recycle everything you can in 2021. By separating your waste, you help it reach the right treatment centres. The raw materials in such products can be reclaimed and reused to make another product, which means you’re not using any new reserves of the natural resources and contributing to sustainable development.

The three pillars of sustainability

three pillars of sustainabilityIn addition to the 6 Rs of sustainability, here are what are considered its three pillars, commonly referred to as the people, planet and profit.

People: the social pillar

The social pillar focuses on balancing the needs of an individual with the needs of the group. If a company rewards its workers and invests in upskilling them, that will pay off when those skills are required at the company level and the workers are happy. Successful corporate sustainability programs take an approach that complements the company’s missions and employees’ interests.

Planet: the environmental pillar

The final pillar focuses on environmental sustainability. It encourages activities, processes and systems that help reduce the carbon footprint and environmental damage done by an organisation. Many corporate and non-profit organisations have been laying out plans to reach net-zero emissions and become carbon neutral, which the United Nations Climate Change Committee says is crucial for environmental protection.

Profit: the economic pillar

The economic pillar refers to using a set of resources in a profitable way that will allow them to be used long-term. Economic sustainability proposes a model for the equitable and efficient distribution of goods and services, in a way that establishes sustainable benefits and profitability.

Anay Mridul
Anay Mridul
Anay is journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.