Defining Sustainability

Sustainability at UW–Madison unites equity, efficiency, education, and research in service of environmental health for all.

Sustainability Advisory Council (2022)

Extended Definition

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “sustainability” is the process of teaching, learning, researching, and operating in our community that actively contributes to the equitable, just, and healthy management of our planetary environment, now and in the future. To be sustainable, this process must be:

  • Rooted in equity, justice, diversity, and inclusivity; 
  • Dedicated to restoring, maintaining, and/or preserving  our shared ecosystems;
  • Guided by Indigenous knowledge and wisdom; 
  • Informed by fiscal responsibility and operational efficiency; 
  • Committed to responsible resource management; 
  • Oriented toward positive public health outcomes; and,
  • Responsive to local, state, national, and global contexts, including the urgent threat of anthropogenic climate change. 

For UW–Madison to be sustainable, it must become a living model for sustainability, integrating all facets of the process into its culture, its purposes, and its practices.


People stand in a circle on a sunny day, with a background of solar panels in a field

Global frameworks for the concept of sustainability include The Bruntland Commission, Earth Charter, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainability Advisory Council developed the definition within the context of these frameworks, with the qualification that any inclusive definition of sustainability must encompass “human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” 

Moreover, while mainstream scholars and institutes of higher education have contributed to the evolving definition of sustainability, Indigenous knowledge is equally important to scholarly and/or scientific methodologies in addressing sustainability challenges. Advancing sustainability at UW-Madison will be actively informed by this knowledge through collaboration with Native Nations_UW, the Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council, and other communities as appropriate.

Furthermore, UW–Madison is also part of the UW System, which states that its sustainability efforts are intended “[t]o cultivate a sustainable future, and to fulfill the UW System mission of educating people and improving the human condition.” Specifically, “students, staff, and faculty across UW System work to:

  • Develop a shared ethic of responsibility for people and the planet;
  • Fulfill our obligations to sound environmental practices that ensure ecosystem resilience and diversity;
  • Support just, equitable, and diverse communities across the state, country, and world;
  • Pursue innovative sustainability solutions for UW System that are grounded in systems thinking; and
  • Balance long-term considerations with near-term urgency in all decision making processes.”