aerial photo of campus and lake


SUSTAINABILITY: At the University of Washington, we define sustainability as the capacity to create and maintain healthy, equitable and diverse communities and ecosystems.  That capacity comprises 1) an understanding and respect for the interdependence of the atmosphere, the waters, the land, and all life on Earth, 2) a full recognition of legacy and on-going impacts of human activity, and 3) a commitment to cultivate collective wisdom and to deliberately act out of that understanding, respect and recognition.

This definition of sustainability was created in 2021-2022 using an iterative process that included students, faculty and staff from all three campuses. It is part of the work of the UW's Sustainability Action Plan.


By “we,” we mean the entire UW community comprising students, staff, faculty, and others who choose to participate in this endeavor with us. 

By “communities and ecosystems,” we refer to connected groups of not only people, but also other living and non-living entities such as landscapes. We recognize that these communities are connected through multiple social and environmental systems. 

By “healthy,” we mean experiencing well-being and sound functioning at all levels from the individual, to neighborhoods, nations, populations and ecosystems. 

By “diverse,” we refer to the variation in habitats and species as well as cultures, ideas and individual expression that makes us resilient and protect us from the fragility of uniformity and homogeneity. 

By “equitable,” we mean rooted in a commitment to social and environmental justice. We include this term because we recognize the inextricable link between equity and sustainability. 

an understanding and respect for the interdependence of the atmosphere, the waters, the land, and all life on Earth” means recognizing the far-reaching impacts of our actions. 

We include “a full recognition of legacy and on-going impacts of human activity” because we recognize the importance of acknowledge and addressing the decisions and actions of individuals and groups in the past to fully inform actions in the present.

The final phrase of the definition: “a commitment to cultivate collective wisdom and to deliberately act out of that understanding, respect and recognition,” contains two key concepts. One is that achieving sustainability requires deliberate action. The other is that this action needs to come from a depth of wisdom that transcends the limitations of individual perspectives. As a university, we bring together insights from across a wide spectrum of perspectives. We are scientists, policy experts, philosophers, business experts, and health experts. We are grounded in history. We are attuned to diverse cultures and wisdom traditions. We are practitioners in the arts, medicine, law, environmental science, engineering, architecture, design, management, communications, and more. We have skills and experiences necessary to maintain and operate physical infrastructure, to manage budgets and programs, to facilitate research, to acquire goods and services, to teach, to manage information and technologies. We've come to this University from places far and near, we represent multiple generations, genders, cultures, abilities, languages, spiritual traditions, experiences of power, and experiences of oppression. 

Acting upon the wisdom that emerges when we bring all of our perspectives into our decision-making is essential to achieve sustainability and to heal the harm caused by ignoring or undervaluing some of our perspectives (particularly the perspectives of those of us who are black, indigenous or people of color).


We intend to use the definition in the following ways:

  • As a tool for engagement
    This definition is crafted to stimulate thoughtful discussion as we use it to make decisions about how to be more sustainable. For example, our intention is for people to look at a sustainability-related action such as electrifying our fleet, and ask how this work supports healthy, equitable and diverse communities.
  • As a tool for deepening our individual understanding
    This definition is crafted to push us to challenge, and deepen our individual understanding of sustainability. 
  • As a tool for developing common understanding
    Having a “UW definition of sustainability” will enable us to create alignment as we do this work. If we disagree, for example, about whether a policy or practice is sustainable, we can use the definition to ground that conversation.
  • As a tool for measuring progress toward sustainability goals 
    We will use this definition to enable us to recognize progress toward our stated goals. Sustainability is too complex to measure in simple ways, but this definition does give us parameters to include in our efforts to measure progress (e.g. sound functioning) and considerations for ensuring that our efforts to measure inherently subjective concepts such as “well-being” are grounded in multiple perspectives.
  • As a tool for identifying research and coursework that is “sustainability-related”
    We will use this definition to answer questions like “is every course about the natural world sustainability-related?” “When is a course about economics sustainability-related?” "When is research about social history sustainability-related?"

Student team in lab


This definition of sustainability was created in 2021 from the insights, ideas, and critiques provided by students, staff and faculty at the University (below is a description of the process we undertook. A more detailed description can be found here). It will be revisited each year and may change as we learn and grow.

I. Background work

  1. Identified existing definitions and literature on defining sustainability
  2. Identified themes within this literature and definitions
    • Nature of “sustainability”
    • Facets of sustainability 
    • Natural world
    • Relationships
    • Role of ethics/responsibility
    • Goals of sustainability
  3. Identified goals for the definition
    • Create Common Understanding
    • Deepen Our Understanding
    • Tool to Measure Progress
    • Guide to define “sustainability-related”
    • Tool for engagement

II. Gathering input

  • We created an exercise to elicit feedback about what a UW definition should look like based upon the themes we identified in the first step, and presented this to the following groups:
    • January 12 2021: Core Working Group
    • February 16 2021: Environmental Stewardship Committee (ESC)
    • February 24 2021: Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF)
    • February 25 2021: Faculty advisory group
    • March 8 2021: Students in ENVIR 439 Attaining A Sustainable Society
    • Created summaries from each group

III Drafted a definition

  • Created a draft definition modeled after the Community Engagement definition then elicited feedback on the draft definition from:
    • April 6 2021: Bothell Sustainability Committee
    • April 8 2021: Students in ENVIR 439 Just Sustainability, Deep Sustainability

IV Endorsement

  • March 2 2022: Presented to the Board of Deans and Chancellors. Several members provided input for final changes.
  • April 5 2022: Definition endorsed by President Ana Mari Cauce