Differences between livelihood and sustainable livelihood

The world that we live in today, is changing faster than we can blink our eyes – we see infrastructure growing at a rapid rate, our nation rising to become one of the strongest global economies and we see our lives improving, via better spending capacities and an overall good life. However, in the brightness of our own futures, we often overlook those who are not as fortunate; but there is an increasing awareness regarding environmental degradation and social inequalities. 

It is during conversations like these that the concepts of livelihood and sustainable livelihood come into focus and while these terms might seem similar, they actually have distinct meanings and implications. Understanding the disparities and the few similarities between the two is crucial for addressing issues related to poverty, inequality, and building a world that is truly sustainable.


What is livelihood?


If we were to look at the dictionary meaning of the term livelihood, it would go something like this – the means by which individuals or communities sustain themselves economically. On a broader note, the term would encompass all the resources, assets, skills, and activities that people rely on to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and education. It is also important to note that livelihood can vary based on factors like geographical location, cultural and traditional practices and of course, the socio-economic status. 


What are the key characteristics of livelihood?


  • It primarily focuses on economic activities and resources required for survival and well-being.
  • It addresses mainly the immediate needs for sustenance without necessarily considering long-term implications or sustainability.
  • If one looks at traditional livelihoods, they probably have a heavy reliance on natural resources such as agriculture, fishing, or forestry.
  • Although some livelihood activities may have environmental implications, they are often placed secondary to the immediate economic concerns.


What is sustainable livelihood?


The moment the term sustainable is attached with livelihood, the whole idea takes on a brand-new meaning – sustainable livelihood focuses on long-term viability, resilience, and equity. There is a proper integration of economic, social, and environmental dimensions to ensure that present and future generations can meet their needs without compromising the ability of ecosystems to regenerate and support life. The sustainable livelihoods approach understands the connections between human well-being and the health of ecosystems, which eventually promotes a holistic perspective on development.


What are the key characteristics of sustainable livelihood?


  • It focuses on meeting current needs while safeguarding resources and opportunities for future generations.
  • It encourages diversification of income sources, skills, and assets to enhance resilience and reduce vulnerability to external shocks.
  • It is aimed at promoting equity, social justice, and inclusion, ensuring that benefits and opportunities are given to all. 
  • Environmental sustainability is a core principle, especially of sustainable rural livelihood– there is an emphasis on the responsible use of natural resources and biodiversity conservation. 
  • It can also involve participatory decision-making processes, which helps with an overall sense of empowerment. 


What are the main differences between livelihood and sustainable livelihood?


If one were the count the differences between livelihood and sustainable livelihood, there would be several, but these would probably be the most prominent ones:

  • While livelihood focuses on the immediate economic needs, sustainable livelihood takes a more long-term view of thing, because it takes into consideration, even the future generations.
  • Even in terms of resource management, livelihood tends to prioritise short term gain, but sustainable livelihood emphasizes responsible resource management and conservation.
  • Sustainable livelihood seeks to build resilience to external shocks and stresses through diversification and adaptive capacity, whereas livelihood may be more susceptible to disruptions.
  • Sustainable livelihood places a much larger emphasis on concepts such as equity, social justice, and inclusion, whereas livelihood may not explicitly address issues of inequality.


Are there any similarities between livelihood and sustainable livelihood?


Even though there are several intrinsic differences between the two, it is not like there is no common ground:

  • For instance, both concepts are focused with meeting the needs and improving the well-being of individuals and communities.
  • The activities in both are involved with income generation and helping build a better life. 
  • There is a utilisation of resources – human, natural and social – in both, because there is a need. 
  • Both, livelihood and sustainable livelihood, require adaptation to changing socio-economic and environmental conditions to ensure resilience and viability.


Creating sustainable livelihood for persons with disabilities and women from marginalised sections of the society


So, when we are comparing the notions of livelihood and sustainable livelihood, there are certain sections of society, which would need a more focused approach. At TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India), we choose to focus on promoting sustainable livelihoods for persons with disabilities and women who come from financially challenged or marginalised sections of the society. By offering them the skills to build a better life for themselves, we also aim to create a chain of sustainability. 

  • While traditional livelihood approaches may inadvertently perpetuate existing inequalities by marginalizing certain groups or limiting their participation in economic activities, sustainable livelihood majorly prioritizes inclusivity and equity, ensuring that marginalized groups such as people with disabilities and women have equal access to resources, opportunities, and decision-making processes.
  • Traditional livelihood approaches may offer limited options, many of which might be inaccessible or unsuitable for individuals facing physical, social, or economic barriers. However, sustainable livelihood approaches encourage diversification of income sources, skills, and assets, which can benefit people with disabilities and marginalized women by providing a range of opportunities that cater to different abilities and interests. So, when someone comes to us, we gauge the talent and capabilities of each individual and train them in accordance, so that they can shine in a professional capacity too. 
  • Traditional livelihood approaches may marginalize or exclude persons with disabilities or women as a whole, from decision-making processes, thereby perpetuating dependency and disempowerment. On the other hand, sustainable livelihood approaches tend to involve participatory decision-making processes that empower communities, to identify their own development priorities and strategies. The proof lies in the fact that several people, who have gone through our training programs, have gone on to take leadership roles in their professional space and done exceedingly well. 
  • Traditional livelihood strategies may lack the flexibility and adaptive capacity needed to cope with shocks, however, sustainable livelihood strategies have an in-built capability to pivot as per the situation. There is an enhanced resilience to economic, environmental, and social shocks

At TRRAIN, we consider it our responsibility to help create sustainable livelihood for persons with disabilities as well as women who come from challenging backgrounds, because they have been shunned to the background for too long. When you donate for livelihood creation, you are actually helping build a better world for everyone!



    Founded in 2011 by B.S. Nagesh, Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India (TRRAIN) is a 12A, 80G, public charitable trust that aims to catalyse a change in the retail industry by empowering people through retail and allied sectors in creating sustainable livelihoods for Persons with Disabilities and Young Women from marginalised backgrounds.

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