Reconceptualising sustainability assessment

Jenny Pope*, Alan Bond, J.J.A. Hugé, Angus Morrison-Saunders

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Sustainability assessment as an ex ante tool for directing decision-making towards sustainability has emerged in a diverse range of forms across the world over the past decade or so. This broad practice of sustainability assessment embraces a wide and continually evolving range of processes, making the field potentially conceptually confusing and difficult to navigate. In recognition of this, there have been numerous attempts to develop conceptual frameworks to make sense of the diversity of practice. Through a process of literature review and reflection upon practice, this paper builds on earlier work, including our own, to develop a new descriptive conceptual framework for sustainability assessment. The conceptual framework distinguishes two dimensions of sustainability assessment, each with several sub-dimensions: sustainability concept (with sub-dimensions of underpinning sustainability discourse and representation of sustainability) and decision-making context (with sub-dimensions of subject of assessment, decision-question and responsible party). Drawing upon further literature, several examples of different approaches are then identified for each sub-dimension, demonstrating the range of approaches evident within current and emerging global practice. Within the ‘sustainability concept’ dimension, the first sub-dimension calls for critical reflection upon what the normative goal of the sustainability assessment is, while the second refers to how the concept of sustainability is represented in the decision-making process through the use of indicators. Although these two sub-dimensions are closely related their distinction is a key feature of the conceptual framework. The second dimension describes the practical context of a sustainability assessment. The proposed new conceptual framework enables a particular body of practice to be located within the broader field, as we demonstrate by categorising five examples of sustainability assessment according to the framework. We believe this framework has value to both researchers and practitioners, as a structure to guide sustainability assessment research and analysis and as the basis for comparing bodies of sustainability assessment practice within the range of possibilities defined by the contours of the framework. The framework encourages reflective practice, particularly in relation to how the concept of sustainability is understood and embedded within the process, and what the practice might deliver. This new conceptual framework is presented as a relatively simple road map and guide as sustainability assessment theorising and practice enters its second decade.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-215
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Impact Assessment Review
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • sustainability assessment
  • sustainability
  • sustainable development
  • impact assessment


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