Social Sustainability Revisited: On the Ground Perspectives
Recently I skimmed through Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland report, hoping to find some hidden clues and derive a simple definition for social sustainability. In over 300 pages of testimony, the report was published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development to assess and propose solutions to critical environmental and social issues related to economic development, while calling the international community to action.
In addition to concerns about ecological and equitable economic development, the report emphasizes the importance of responsibility to the poor, food security, education, and well-being among other things. Essentially, the report lays the groundwork for sustainable development by integrating social, economic, and environmental issues affecting our planet.
I came to know this report as a graduate student over 10 years, through its often-quoted definition of sustainability:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
At that time, I was on a trajectory to get my Masters degree in economics, energy, environment, and sustainability. I applied this definition of sustainability in a way that would fit my classical economic study requirements, from the environmental perspective based on supply and demand, willingness to pay, and cost-effectiveness analysis. I knew these economic models would all be put to good use one day, but in the meantime something gnawed at me. Every now and then I would ask the question: where is the social element in all of this? What if humans don’t perform well in these economic models and institutional systems when affected by poverty, hunger, inequality, lack of education, or disregard for culture?
My neighbors and I, who lived in public housing, were precisely these types of humans. I was a poor single mother, and a returning student trying to finish my education. My neighbors and I were caught in a kind of economic abyss. For some, the way out was not straightforward and filled with what seemed like insurmountable barriers.
It was after discussing these perplexing issues with Dr. Mary King, a labor economist at Portland State University (PSU), that we decided to work together on a research paper exploring the social aspects of sustainability. Mary was chair of the economics department and busy stirring up solutions for equality, social justice and well-being. That is precisely the reason I followed her around from class to class along with the rest of her admiring students.
Mary and several of her colleagues, professors, and graduate students in various departments at PSU, had been involved in a discussion group to develop a working definition of social sustainability. These discussions led to a seminar series, various research papers, and eventually compiled into a book that has since been used in academic studies at PSU and around the world.
The book, called Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability, provides an overview of emerging principles of social sustainability in the field, international perspectives, the role of business, and local applications. Since the publishing of this book (in 2009), PSU has established a graduate certificate program in sustainable development, incorporating the interdisciplinary studies of environmental, economic, and social factors.
For my contribution to this book I researched and co-wrote a chapter with Mary called “Working out Social Sustainability on the Ground.” We devised a set of questions to gather impressions from Portland business owners who were leaders in environmental sustainability, and involved in the Natural Step Network. I interviewed several business owners to find out how they defined social sustainability, what social aspects they believed should be included in sustainability, and to what extent it was their responsibility to incorporate these practices voluntarily.
Although these business owners were not working with a formal definition of social sustainability, they were prioritizing responsible labor practices such as competitive wages, benefits, and opportunities for personal development. They believed that volunteering, charity, and providing educational opportunities to the community benefited their bottom line. Although these businesses were voluntarily incorporating socially responsible business practices, some believed codes were necessary to ensure wide-scale adoption of things like health care and living wages.
Lately these questions I once asked during graduate school have resurfaced, and I’m still asking (though from expanded lenses): How does the social element fit into sustainability? How can we ensure that the basic human needs are met to avoid poverty, hunger, inequality, and economic decline in our societies?
Though I have had the benefit of working with socially responsible business leaders, and have been the recipient of competitive wages, benefits, and opportunities for professional development, it appears to me that social sustainability has yet to be embraced and practiced on a wide scale in our communities locally, nationally, and globally. I worry that my community is at the mercy of a system that promotes unchecked economic growth above the ecological and social health of our people and our planet.
To answer my questions, I searched online and reached out to some colleagues to find out who is now working on these issues and what are the new developments in social sustainability. Since this piece is not a thesis or dissertation, my research is limited but I came up with a few leads for further studies.
Wikipedia explains that social sustainability is the least defined of sustainability and sustainable development approaches. Most commonly it is viewed in a model with intersecting domains of environmental, economic, and social aspects, encompassing issues of equity, livability, health, community development, social capital, human rights, justice, and culture, among other things. A more recent approach uses a model called circles of sustainability and suggests that all domains of sustainability are social including economic, environmental, political, and cultural, and encompass all human activities.
The Integrated Network for Social Sustainability is working to develop more awareness, educate the public, and arrive at a common understanding of social sustainability through a network of professionals. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the network is guiding its work with a set of research questions to determine how social sustainability is characterized, defined, and evaluated across differing disciplines, activities, and institutions.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Website contains a simple tag line: “What is sustainable development: Environmental, economic, and social well-being for today and tomorrow.” IISD approaches sustainable development for the world as an ecological and social system over time.
IISD has been following the history of sustainable development for a number of years, following release of the Brundtland report and leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20 in June 2012. Rio+20 led to establishment of Sustainable Development Goals that would continue well beyond 2015. The aims of the goals are to integrate healthy and thriving societies while preserving the earth’s ecosystems. You can view all 17 of these ambitious social, economic, and ecological goals at this UN site.
From these emerging Sustainable Development Goals I believe at least one of my questions is answered, and it is easier to understand how the social aspects fits into sustainability. Among the goals are to alleviate poverty, end hunger, achieve food security, ensure equitable education, achieve gender equality, and build resilient, peaceful communities that promote sustainable consumption and equitable economic growth.
Social sustainability is quite simply, the ability to meet these basic human needs now and into the future. The other question – of how we will do this – remains unanswered. That will be the topic of my next blog, or the next one, or the one after that.
By Kathryn Thomsen
Author: Kathryn Thomsen
Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. In addition to social entrepreneur, Kathryn is a consultant, researcher, writer, communicator and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to evaluate and develop climate change, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.