It is a fact that today’s buyers are interested in goods that are sustainable, paying special attention to social sustainability, just look at fair trade, or fashion, a clear example where consumers demanded goods produced taking into consideration labour rights and against exploitation. There is a general demand out there that crops are grown sustainably and farmers rightly compensated, that the process is environment friendly, that chicken laying eggs do not do so in cages and this demand is on the rise, and even becoming affordable as in the past it used to be so costly that only a few could really afford it, and that motivation has two main drives, my planet and my health.
Nonetheless, the understanding of social sustainability seems something that has been given to a very small niche of city planners and architects and appears to be limited to that, and of course it is a lot more than making physical places for people (perhaps not even always succeeding). Think-tanks, academia and policymakers have been going crazy for the last 30 years trying to find a balance and match economic, environmental and social sustainability. One part claims It could well be that they automatically balance themselves without need of models and further research, especially as time is running out, it is simply time to act and enact. Another part instead claims that they need to be carefully balanced in order to prevent them from harming each other. Martin Christiansen presents the metaphor of three siblings, economy being the older brother, well respected and dominant; environment the outspoken younger sibling, and social is squeezed in between the two of them.
Although more and more discussions (and projects) are coming to the conclusion that sustainability is not just recycling and renewable energies, nor it concerns exclusively the climate crisis, it is that, and more. The tangible change can be felt in the motto of the UN Sustainable Development Goals “Leave no-one behind”, starting to stress also the importance of the quality of life, gender, contrast inequality, and generally social and individual wellbeing.
The climate crisis is bringing along plenty of social crisis which need an immediate answer, from migration from now inhospitable and barren lands of the earth, to uncontrolled unplanned urbanisation, to mention a couple, which demand social sustainability solutions, without that, mere interventions on the economy and environment will not be enough, and actually social unrest may well harm badly the other two processes and bring them to a standstill.
There is a need for a renewed commitment, from communities, civil society, private and public sectors concerning social sustainability toward inclusive and healthy societies where individuals are empowered towards their potential, while keeping in mind future generations. There is a need for policies on equity and equal opportunities, to make a new social contract that includes confidence-building in institutions, and mutuality; grounded on reciprocal respect and social cohesion. From primary schools to workplaces through urban planning, in an ecological fashion, as taking into consideration the personal benefit, that of the community and the biosphere with a long term perspective. The challenges ahead are social equity and justice, social cohesion, social capital, inclusion, quality of life and livability, and what each individual and sector of society is called to do specifically in each of these areas. What new economic indicators can be developed for business that include elements of social sustainability? This has already been extensively studied concerning the ecological footprint and is bringing massive changes to day-to-day business, and more is yet to be done. Imagine an agreed and widespread checklist of indicators showing how a company or an institution respects the social sustainability standards enacting practices of social safety, work-life balance, fair labour etc, sounds like a challenge, a necessary one, which can result in attributing the right attention and resources into it, for a social (and why not financial too) return beneficial to all on the short, medium and long term. A simple example can be upskilling/reskilling employees, up to providing trade training to disadvantaged social groups otherwise destined to live on the margins of society. Is it economic development that journey to society through social development.
When talking about social sustainability we are talking about people first, addressing urbanisation, as 60% of the world population now dwells in urban centres, we are talking about social systems and how they interact with each other, as well as democratic systems where opportunities are available, and so on. Social Sustainability is present, it is a perceived and real need and want and there is an increasing awareness and consciousness about it, a desire to live in sustainable societies. A simple example can be that of a waste-to-energy plant in a European city that generates only steam, and the construction was blocked by angry local citizens concerned about health and pollution which would actually be greatly reduced by the presence of a plant, and that is a classic result of an environmental sustainability physical infrastructure that did not take into account social sustainability in terms of establishing decision-making participatory processes, education and empowerment in order to make informed decisions; and there can be thousands more examples where environmental or even economic sustainable solutions have been disrupted or made inefficient due to a lack of socially sustainable processes enacted in parallel.
Special gratitude to Martin Christiansen, Line Dybdal, who inspired this article.