Social sustainability refers to the equitable distribution of physical and social resources. Physical resources include food, shelter, clean water, clothing and energy. Social resources include access to information and knowledge, freedom of speech, participation in decision-making processes, and strong community networks.
What is social sustainability?
Social sustainability (sometimes described as ethical sustainability) is one of the three pillars of sustainability, the other two being economic and environmental sustainability. As such, it is part of the Environmental-Social-Governance (ESG) framework used by investors, businesses, and organizations to assess the sustainability and societal impact of an investment or business practice.
The main goal of social sustainability is to meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This requires identifying and proactively managing the impacts of business and industry, positive and negative. What sets social sustainability apart from the other two pillars is that it relates directly to people, focusing on the importance of human sustainability, both now and in the future.
In September 2015, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that address the overarching topic of what humans need now and in the future from a holistic standpoint.
The first 5 goals covered by the SDGs are poverty, hunger, health and wellbeing, education and gender equality. Other important social issues are clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, climate action, and decent work.
Types of social sustainability
Social sustainability is an important component within all evolving societies. At its core, it focuses on promoting physical and social wellbeing through fair distribution of resources and opportunities.
Here are some common types of social sustainability:
- Community welfare services for those in need
- Gender equality and women’s empowerment
- Equal education opportunities
- Support for people with disabilities
- Access to healthcare for marginalized communities
- Safety and diversity at work
- Collaborative community engagement
- Advocacy for human rights and social justice issues
- Participatory decision-making processes
Examples of social sustainability
Recognizing the widespread impact and importance of social sustainability is crucial. It requires efforts on individual and community levels to enhance quality of life in areas of healthcare, education, employment and social equality, among others.
Access to healthcare is a cornerstone in promoting social sustainability. It is a public service that benefits everyone and not just those who pay for it. In this sense, making healthcare accessible for all, as an essential universal service, is key to fostering a more resilient society.
Not only does it reflect a commitment to safeguarding the health of every member, but it will also impact the health and wellbeing of future generations.
Reducing economic inequalities and improving the quality of life for impoverished communities is both critical and urgent. The United Nations has officially made it its number one Sustainable Development Goal to “end poverty in all forms and dimensions by 2030.”
While the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by more than 50 % between 1990 and 2015, poverty remains one of the greatest challenges in many parts of the world. Eradicating it requires a dramatic increase in basic resources and services, and supporting marginalized communities that have been impacted by conflict and climate change.
Education is a powerful tool for achieving personal and collective development. Equal access to education encourages people to want to learn more about their community and environment. Schools and universities are places where people can develop new skills, access career opportunities and form valuable relationships.
This creates a more unified community of highly educated members who are mindful of the environment and their own ecological impact.
Ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities to grow and be heard is a fundamental principle of social sustainability, and the essence of social equity.
It is about the more intangible components of any society, such as being able to share experiences openly and without coercion, the right to express one’s identity without fear of discrimination, participating freely in cultural events, and having a sense of belonging within the community.
How organizations can achieve Social Sustainability
Social sustainability usually starts with the stakeholders. Stakeholders are the people who have a vested interest in the decisions of an organization.
These can be divided into two categories: stakeholders within the organization (employees, suppliers, consumers) and stakeholders who are external to the organization (investors, local communities, governments, NGOs, and the broader society).
Here are some tips on how to enhance social sustainability:
- Fair labor practices: Employee rights and benefits are of vital importance in the supply chain and should not be secondary to business profits. Implementing fair labor practices means prioritizing the wellbeing of workers, ensuring safe working conditions and fair wages. Recognizing that employees are key stakeholders should be at the forefront of any organization’s priorities.
- Health and safety practices: This includes robust and appropriate health and safety services for all employees. It also ensures a safe working environment, helps reduce the risk of accidents, and demonstrates a genuine commitment to employee welfare.
- Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: Equal employment and growth opportunities for all employees without prejudice is an essential part of promoting an inclusive workplace culture. Moreover, it demonstrates a commitment to social equity within the workplace and beyond.
- Incorporating ISO 26000 and the GRI Standards to internal policies and procedures: These can provide valuable guidance on ethical business practices, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability reporting. ISO 26000 is a global standard that encourages organizations to consider the social and environmental impacts of their operations, making sure they align with internationally recognized principles of social responsibility.