Cultural Sustainability


Cultural sustainability places culture as an enabler and driver of economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It involves normative questions on ethics and values. 

Sustainability and sustainable development are by now largely accepted notions (see the entry on ‘Sustainability’). Sustainability is usually understood in three dimensions, the three so-called ‘pillars’: economic, social, and ecological (Purvis et al., 2018). Recently, several authors have argued that an important factor is missing – culture. Meireis & Rippl claim that “The overall significance of the cultural dimension of sustainability has only recently been acknowledged by the UNESCO’s Hanghzou Declaration, which voices a commitment to “Placing culture at the heart of Sustainable Development Policies” (Unesco 2013)” (2019, p. 3-4). Without a change of culture, the road to a sustainable future will be difficult. Soini and Dessein argue that a fourth dimension or pillar should therefore be added: cultural sustainability. Only when sustainability has become embedded in culture, do we achieve an eco-cultural civilization (2016, p. 3).  

Why is culture so important? Culture can be understood as the set of beliefs, morals, methods, and collection of human knowledge that is dependent on the transmission of these characteristics to younger generations. Culture is a symbolic system and is necessary to effectuate any kind of change. Ideas, imagery and concepts are rooted in culture. Art and fiction, not to mention food, and fashion, are social imaginaries. One of the functions of those social imaginaries is to raise awareness and to change values (Meireis & Rippl, 2019: 6). Therefore, culture is not only relevant as a ‘fourth pillar’, but it is also a driver of and a mediator between the three original pillars (Soini & Dessein, 2016).  

A community’s culture can play a pivotal role in the acceptance or rejection of the scientific evidence that supports the urgent need for environmental concern. Only then can a population’s worldview deter their commitment to sustainability (Hoffman, 2015).  

With this in mind, Soini and Dessein (2016) focus on three different representations of cultural sustainability, each aligned with a different interpretation of culture. According to the first one, culture in sustainability, culture can be seen as an independent ‘fourth pillar’, in addition to the economic, social, and ecological pillars. In this representation, culture is seen as a valuable social asset that is achieved and maintained through (sustainable) development processes. Further, culture shapes society’s perception, understanding, and relationship to nature. The second representation, culture for sustainability, describes culture as the bridge to achieve economic, social, and ecological sustainability. As such, culture represents a resource that can drive development. Nature and culture exhibit a dynamic but constant interaction, acting and reacting to human activity across different cultural contexts. Lastly, the third representation, culture as sustainability, regards culture as the groundwork upon which all other pillars for sustainability can be built. From this perspective, culture takes a broader meaning, namely signifying system influencing human social life, giving it sense and meaning. Culture provides human societies with the ability to interpret signs from their communities and from their surroundings. From this perspective, nature constitutes an element within culture, and as such is understood through various meanings and symbols. It is through culture that society can undergo a paradigm shift towards sustainability.  

To give a very concrete example: what is the point of working towards sustainable food and fashion if the consumers do not change their attitudes of buying, consuming, discarding? We have to imagine another pattern of consumption than ‘buy, wear, throw out’.  

To conclude: the imagination is necessary to change ideas, world views, and behaviour, and develop alternative values (Meireis & Rippl, 2019: 252). This is of course highly relevant for fashion studies; for example, Mora et al (2014) put an emphasis on the cultural dimension and the imaginary as necessary vehicles for change towards a sustainable fashion system. 

Hoffman, A. J. (2015). How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (1st ed.). Stanford Briefs. 

Meireis, T., & Rippl, G. (2019). Cultural Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences. Routledge. 

Mora, E., Rocamora, A. and Volonté, P. (2014), ‘On the issue of sustainability in fashion studies’, International Journal of Fashion Studies 1: 2, pp. 139–147. 

Purvis, B., Mao, Y., & Robinson, D. (2018). Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, 14 (3), 681–695.  

Soini, K., & Dessein, J. (2016). Culture-Sustainability Relation: Towards a Conceptual Framework. Sustainability, 8 (2), 167.