This paper identifies the main references, authors and journals influencing the sustainable development literature. The task is accomplished by means of a citation analysis based on the records of ISI Web of Science. We found that the core of sustainability thinking is framed by a pattern of landmark studies published around every 5 years. Only 380 publications have been cited at least ten times. References with the highest influence are those with a global dimension and large diffusion, such as Brundtland Commission's “Our common future” (1987) and classics such as Meadows’ et al. “Limits to growth” (1972). The list of the most influential references over the period 1960–2005 is dominated by contributions from economics (particularly ecological economics) and environmental science, but includes many other disciplines such as urban planning, political sciences and sociology. References are also made to policy documents such as “Agenda 21”, one of the main outcomes of the Rio Summit in 1992. In analyzing citation trends, we found that classics, because of their high rates of citations per year, seem to have a more enduring and stable influence.