What Is the People Pillar of Sustainability?

Lisa Peterson is an expert regarding the People Pillar of Sustainability
Lisa Peterson holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering and is a Sustainability expert.

Planet, Profit and People are the three interconnected pillars of Sustainability. In the last two blogs, we looked at Planet and Profit. Now let’s look at the third pillar, People and the health of our communities.

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Notice that the present and future needs of people are at the core of this statement.

Defining future needs is highly speculative because we don’t know

  • the developments and inventions of tomorrow that will change our needs; and
  • what the generations of tomorrow will need and value.

And even today, each person values items differently. Admittedly, for engineers, the social science side of this topic tends to be more difficult. The formulas and calculations that drive our assessments on the financial and physical science side of sustainability become “fuzzier” as we assess the social science side. So given the uncertainty, we need to proceed with mindfulness and open-mindedness.

Depletion of Natural Resources and the People Pillar of Sustainability

One way we impact the social pillar of sustainability is by depleting a non-renewable resource. Depleting non-renewable resources means that the resource won’t be there for future generations, whether they might need it or not.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are examples of non-renewable resources. Historically, fossil fuels fueled much of the world’s electric power. Today, there is much research work that has happened and is continuing to happen around biofuels and renewable energy as alternatives to fossil fuels. On the electric grid in the US, we are building solar and wind to complement our traditional power plants. Some countries in Europe are ahead of the US in terms of green energy adoption. The cost of increasing installations of solar and wind power has been power grid instability (1).

These issues can impact the social pillar of sustainability because the health of the community is dependent on reliable power. Massive blackouts across large regions mean that businesses, as well as households, have no power. Power outages have a devastating impact on communities because

  • water doesn’t get pumped;
  • food doesn’t remain refrigerated or frozen; and
  • manufacturing facilities are down.

Solar and Wind

Solar and wind are excellent solutions if one focuses on lowering the carbon footprint. However, the engineering community still has work to do in terms of improving energy storage capability and capacity. Engineers must do a better job managing grid instability with significant wind and solar installations. These issues are very complex, and future research will solve them. However, until these issues are resolved, the Social Pillar of Sustainability is stressed.

Anthropogenic Change

Another way to look at this topic is through the lens of anthropogenic change. Human presence creates change. Being mindful of what changes we are making and how these changes cause ripple effects to other plants and animals can help minimize negative consequences.

An example of anthropogenic change is a large development project that creates a significant increase in impervious surface area. When a major storm strikes, water cannot infiltrate as well as it did before the development. Flooding of homes and businesses result.

Government Regulation

For this reason, municipality and city leadership must review development projects. Appropriate stormwater management infrastructure must be installed to manage runoff to minimize and mitigate flood risk.

In these two previous examples, government regulation is playing a pivotal role in looking out for the well-being of society. In this way, citizens are involved passively, simply by their presence as consumers and actors in the system. However, citizens are not typically playing a lead role.

Citizens’ Collective Action

In some cases, citizens take collective action ensuring the health and maintenance of a resource and that we use it sustainably. The term ‘common pool resource’ means that many people share a resource temporally, spatially, or both. Furthermore, citizens can be involved proactively and intentionally when they form social groups for action on the topic of sustainability.

Two examples of citizen groups who have banded together to care for a resource, such as healthy waters, include Trout Unlimited and various community Watershed Alliances. In fact, there are numerous examples of citizen advocacy groups across all topics of sustainability, not just water.

Concluding Comments Regarding the People Pillar of Sustainability

In conclusion, sustainability can impact people and people can impact issues of sustainability. Sustainability, and specifically the People Pillar of Sustainability, indeed involves everyone independent of

  • homeownership, employment;
  • wealth; or
  • any other criteria.

As humans on planet Earth, our mere presence results in change that can range from positive to negative. Furthermore, the change can impact us from today to future generations. Lastly, each of us is a stakeholder. We all play a crucial role and don’t ever underestimate the role that each of us plays.

(1) Shellenberger, Michael. “Renewables Threaten German Economy & Energy Supply, McKinsey Warns in New Report.” Forbes Sept 5, 2019.

What Is the “Profit” Pillar of Sustainability?

Sustainability and Contiunous Improvement Expert Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is a professional Sustainability, ISO 14001, and Continuous Process Improvement Consultant with a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering

The 3 Interconnected Pillars of Sustainability are;

  1. Planet;
  2. Profit;
  3. and People.

In the last blog post, we looked at the Planet Pillar.  Now let’s look at the  Profit Pillar of Sustainability.

Profit Has Been Crucial Throughout History

Our companies and families all revolve around a healthy economy.  Whether we conduct our trade in direct exchanges of goods and services, trading beads, IOU notes, or any of the world currencies, humans have engaged in the practice of commerce for at least as long as written history (including cave art) has existed.  We buy the things we need, and we sell the items we have.

Adding environmental concerns has not removed the need for a business to be profitable. Therefore, profit remains an essential component of an analysis of sustainability.  If a product we use requires a mineral or material that is scarce, the laws of supply and demand increase the price to buy it until it is no longer available and can’t be purchased at any cost.

Why Bankers and Investors Are So Concerned about Sustainability

Banks and investors care about risks in their portfolios of investments.  They are looking at the complete

  • upstream supply chain for the product in which they are investing including complementary products that are used side-by-side with the product in question; and
  • downstream consumer chain including the complementary products that are used side-by-side.

The trend from years ago, where banks and investors were only looking at the direct supply chain and the direct consumer, are changing.

Crucial questions now include:

  • Are any raw materials from nature in short supply, meaning that the price for that raw material will rise sharply, affecting the price point for the product?
  • Are there pending regulations on water utilization or air emissions that will change the operational costs of the company?

Sustainability issues represent risks to investors. Therefore, more and more annual company reports are now reporting on sustainability.

In conclusion, the Profit Pillar of Sustainability considers the viability for

  • consumers to continue to purchase the product at a price they can afford; and
  • suppliers to continue to make the product at a cost that provides a healthy profit.

What Is the “Planet” Pillar of Sustainability

Sustainability and Contiunous Improvement Expert Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is a Sustainability, ISO 14001, and Continuous Process Improvement Consultant with a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering.

Sustainability has three interconnected pillars, namely

  1. Planet;
  2. Profit; and
  3. People.

But what does this mean, and how does one measure or address each of these pillars?  Let’s first look at the “Planet” pillar of sustainability. The other components will be addressed in upcoming blog posts.

A common way to classify the features of planet Earth is to include

  • Land;
  • Air; and
  • Water.

Sustainability scientists use these same terms to measure the health of the Earth. Here are some measures we might consider for these terms.

  • Land Health
    • terrestrial ecotoxicity;
    • terrestrial acidification; and
    • land occupation.
  • Water Health
    • aquatic ecotoxicity;
    • aquatic acidification; and
    • aquatic eutrophication.
  • Air Health
    • smog formation; or
    • particulate matter.

What Is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is one of the tools we use to estimate impacts on our planet or the environment.  LCA considers the effects of a process or product from cradle to grave, meaning that we consider all stages of the product’s life from raw material extraction from the earth to disposal or recycling.

The LCA process is frequently used by designers to assess the potential impacts of their designs.  You might have seen a company advertise that their new packaging material design saves x billion kg of carbon dioxide equivalent from entering the atmosphere.  Or, perhaps a company will advertise that their new manufacturing process reduces sub 2.5-micron particulate matter by x tons per year.  These are examples of statements companies make to communicate that they’re thinking about the Planet Pillar of Sustainability.

4 Critical Steps for Conducting an LCA Study

Step 1: Define the Goal and Scope of the Study

This step might sound simple and unimportant, but it is the foundation of the whole study.  Ensuring that the study is well-defined allows us to draw comparisons between equivalent solutions.

Step 2: Prepare an Inventory

In the manufacturing world, we think of this as the Bill of Materials.  But in addition to just the Bill of Materials to manufacture the product, we include all

  • Upstream Materials and Transportation for movement of the materials until we have the inventory in terms of raw materials from nature,  and
  • Downstream Materials and Transportation
    • of the product to the customer;
    • materials required during use;
    • maintenance and repair; and
    • finally, disposal or recycling.

We again define this in terms of raw materials from nature.
Create an Inventory Flow Diagram to show flows from nature to nature, including

  • water;
  • energy;
  • raw materials;
  • releases to land;
  • releases to air; and
  • lastly, releases to water.

The inventory and associated flow diagram for even a simple product can be quite complex.

Step 3: Perform an Impact Assessment

Each inventory item is associated with a potential environmental impact.  Summing all the potential environmental impacts for each inventory item provide an estimated quantification of impact.  Various software packages can assist with this assessment of impact.

Step 4: Interpreting Results

The final step involves interpretation of the results, performing sensitivity analysis on the data, and making recommendations.

So hopefully, the next time you see a company advertise that their redesigned product uses x million liters less water per year or their redesigned manufacturing process releases x million tons less particulate matter per year, you’ll have an idea about the analysis that they went through to define that estimate for impact on our planet.

How are Sustainability and Continuous Improvement Related?

Reasons Why the Earth is Changing

Sustainability and Contiunous Improvement Expert Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is a professional engineer and Sustainability and Continuous Process Improvement Consultant serving businesses throughout the United States.

While the terms “Global Warming” and “Climate Change” have believers and disbelievers, Earth has been in a constant state of change for many reasons. Some changes have nothing to do with human beings.

  • Scientists find bones of animals like dinosaurs on planet Earth that don’t exist anymore.
  • There have been ice ages and periods of high heat on planet Earth.
  • Meteors have hit our planet.
  • Volcanos have erupted.
  • Lastly, Tectonic plates have shifted.

In contrast, some changes are related to human beings, called anthropogenic effects,  that include

  • Increasing the impervious surfaces through our land development alters the flow of stormwater and increases the flooding effect.
  • Leaching of chemicals into our soils and waterways as a result of dumping wastes which causes toxic impact on humans, animals, and plants.

Therefore, whenever and wherever we can influence change, we should do so with an eye toward improved sustainability associated with the change.

Being Mindful of Anthropogenic Change

Another way we change planet Earth is with the extraction of resources, like materials or minerals. Resources on our planet are limited. If we use the last bit of what we have, there won’t be anymore, for perhaps many human lifetimes in the future. Lack of crucial resources could have a devastating effect on our economy and the lives of people. So, the rate at which we consume those resources is an important consideration and where sustainability comes into play.

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is the ecological capacity to endure and occurs when biological systems remain diverse and productive. It is the endurance of systems and processes. When I speak about sustainability, I think about the three interconnected pillars of sustainability:

  • our natural environment (planet);
  • the vitality of our economies (profit); and
  • lastly, the health of our communities (people).

Using the definition from Investopedia.com, “Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

An Engineer’s Perspective on Sustainability

As an engineer, my thinking next turns to the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Creed, which opens with the statement,

“I dedicate my professional knowledge and skill to the advancement and betterment of human welfare.”

This statement means that we need to be continuously looking for ways to improve

  • our planet;
  • our profits; and
  • finally, our lives as people.

Therefore, let’s join one another on our mission for continuous improvement.

Metrics to Measure Sustainability – Which one? Why? Huh?

Pennsylvania Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is the President of Aftan Engineering. Lisa is an expert in the metrics best suited to express your sustainability initiatives to your company’s stakeholders.

We hear so much about global warming. But what about other impacts on our earth?  Sometimes the metrics show that one solution to a problem may have less impact on global warming, but more impact on human health or smog formation.

There are several metrics available to you, i.e. your carbon footprint and water footprint. How have you considered these different metrics in your analyses? Do you know which metrics to include? Do you have a clear understanding of the questions your metrics are attempting to answer?

We can help you by looking at your unique business profile and help you determine the best metrics to communicate your sustainability initiatives and answer the important questions asked by your Continue reading

Recycling Plastics – Is it So Easy? | Aftan Sustainability Consultants

Recycling Plastics Presents Challenges

Pennsylvania-based Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant and Lean 6σ Black Belt Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is President of Aftan Engineering. Lisa is an expert Sustainability and Continuous Process Improvement Consultant with extensive experience in the plastics industry.

In the spirit of being environmentally responsible, we want to recycle our plastic waste.  But there are some challenges that we can face.


  • for many products has a limited lifetime until the quality of the recycled material has fallen below acceptable levels.;
  • can take more energy and water than using virgin materials; and
  • lastly, facilities may be located far away resulting in huge transportation impacts even to get the products to the recycling facility.

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Reducing, Reusing, Recycling Waste… Sounds easy, but is it?

Pennsylvania-based Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant and Recycling Expert Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is an Expert Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant and Lean 6σ Black Belt.

Many times we think about the 3Rs (reducing, reusing and recycling waste) as the answer to sustainability and circularity.  But wait, it’s not so simple.

First, think about all the stakeholders involved across this topic.  There are many players

  • manufacturers;
  • supply chain;
  • customers;
  • infrastructure to handle the reuse such as transportation and sterilization;
  • infrastructure to handle recycling such as sorting and washing;
  • landfill infrastructure; and
  • lastly, energy recovery (trash-to-steam) infrastructure.

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