Moving social sustainability into the forefront
By Dr. Destenie Nock
Of the three pillars of sustainability (economic, environmental, and social impact) one of them tends to get sidelined in decision making. Social sustainability often gets treated like a bike’s kickstand—important during the planning stage before the journey begins, but overlooked once the wheels of the project are in motion. This is a critical mistake. To achieve a truly sustainable world we need to ensure that social sustainability doesn’t get treated as an afterthought.
Social sustainability revolves around the actions we can take to improve the lives of people and society as a whole. Positive social sustainability outcomes would include reducing inequality, enhancing cultural sustainability, helping people achieve better health and education outcomes, providing equal employment opportunities, and other interventions that help improve a person’s quality of life. To prioritize social sustainability, organizations can affect multiple social sustainability dimensions by pursuing one or more of the following measures:
- Emission reductions – Organizations can promote the use of low-carbon technologies to reduce carbon emissions in minority and low-income areas. Historically these groups have lived in areas with high levels of pollution which leads to negative health outcomes and higher levels of premature death.
- Childcare - Childcare is a universal challenge that impacts the economy, a person’s ability to work, and the community at large. Thanks to childcare services it is possible to help single parents to keep their jobs and income which can disrupt the cycle of poverty. However, in the United States childcare is expensive, which leads to unequal access to these services. As a consequence, parents feel pressure to leave their jobs (which largely impacts women’s careers) or children are left at home unsupervised. The introduction of parental leave policies has been shown to result in positive impacts for working mothers.
- Education - Education can provide upward career mobility, opportunities for personal growth, and improvements in society as a whole. Education is an important part of social sustainability because it helps people to learn about their community and environment. This in turn can lead to more environmentally conscious citizens. Education can also help with job advancement and retraining.
- Inclusion - Inclusion revolves around making sure that diverse groups have access to equal opportunities and are treated with respect and dignity. Some examples of inclusion are providing transportation vouchers for families who can’t afford a personal car (allows for commuting to work) so they can go grocery shopping or reach a job site. Another inclusive opportunity is to provide discounts on energy-efficient technologies to households who cannot afford them. These technologies could include heat pumps and efficient windows.
- Social credits - One way to track the social sustainability of organizations is through social credits. These tradeable credits could be generated and distributed when organizations do something that benefits members of society. For example, the W+ Standard, created by WOCAN, is the first women-specific standard that measures women’s empowerment in a transparent and quantifiable manner. W+ ascribes a monetary value to results and creates a new channel to direct financial resources to women. This standard could be used to determine which projects are socially sustainable in a way that supports women.
This just a start. There are more examples of social sustainability opportunities organizations can provide, which means there is simply no excuse not to act. It is imperative that multiple social sustainability criteria be integrated into any credible sustainability plan.