To read this content please select one of the options below:

Constructing definitions of sustainable development

Gareth Abrahams (Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK)

Smart and Sustainable Built Environment

ISSN: 2046-6099

Article publication date: 3 April 2017




The purpose of this paper is to ask how two normative definitions of sustainable development identified in the Brundtland report contribute to individual definitions constructed by a network of professional actors working in the construction industry.


This paper draws on 74 questionnaires generated from a purposive sample of professional actors working in the construction sector. These questionnaires are analysed using a coding strategy based on pre-defined categories generated from a review of academic and policy literature.


The results show that these definitions mostly appeal to actors working in roles with a strong input into the design process. The evidence suggests that all professional actors in the construction industry construct definitions of sustainable development to valorise their professional role, to support professional critiques of the industry or to reinforce their personal ideological beliefs.

Research limitations/implications

These results present a challenge to a normative agenda aimed at “pinning the concepts down” to an unequivocal, universal definition. It suggests that research might be better redirected towards a context dependent and pragmatic use of the term.

Practical implications

These findings suggest that future policy making should acknowledge multiple, sector and role-specific definitions of sustainable development. It also suggests that a better understanding of this diversity within the construction industry could improve the efficiency of the design, procurement and construction process.


These findings provide new insight into the “in use” definitions of sustainable development in the construction industry and question some of the academic arguments that support a single, universal definition of the term.



Abrahams, G. (2017), "Constructing definitions of sustainable development", Smart and Sustainable Built Environment, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 34-47.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles