The role of Inclusion and Diversity in Social Sustainability 

Simply said “Put people first” as stated by the United Nations’ Development Goals, and that translates as addressing the poor and vulnerable through social inclusion, which is done by; empowering people, building resilient society, cohesion, and the accountability, transparency and responsibility of institutions. 

Environmental and economic sustainability can’t happen without addressing diversity and inclusion, and, hold on to your seat! This is actually good for business, improving profits by increasing the quality of productivity, efficiency and involvement in decision-making, enhancing a more widespread sense of belonging. That is exactly the meaning of people first. It starts by accepting one simple truth, communities are diverse and this is something to be embraced for the community itself to grow and develop, and each community has that one and unique voice which can be heard once it is united and participated, upon this depends the resilience, benefit and even survival of a community when facing challenges, demographic growth, lack of resources and climate crisis of course, unity and joint work make the community more resilient, from local to global. We may think of ourselves as humans as above nature, in ecosystems the more biodiversity there is, the more that ecosystem is sustainable as it is inclusive and harmonious of all its variables, human communities work just the same! The more diversity is embraced within a community the more the community-system is sustainable, the more conflict, exclusion and marginalisation we have the more the community becomes dysfunctional and unable to reach its goals. 

Where equality is better promoted and protected there we see more social cohesion, and the outcome of that is a sustainable approach applied to society, economy and the environment; whereas where this is absent then both development and sustainability are heavily obstacles. Social Sustainability has social inclusion and promotion of diversity as one of its pillars, as equality, education and employment opportunities can’t happen without inclusive actions and policies, and an effect of proper investment in fostering inclusion and promoting diversity is actually economic growth. 

Sustainability goes hand in hand with equity, because it is the seed to a world which can be more just and sustainable, as sometimes equity becomes synonymous to social sustainability – Equity, Environment, Economy (EEE), though this is often forgotten or bypassed, and we lack measurables and metrics concerning social sustainability and equity, although we have plenty concerning economic and environmental sustainability, somehow it seems harder to reach consensus on that pillar of sustainability when compared to the other two. Nonetheless there is more or less consensus on a few aspects, a sustainable future can’t exist without meaningful and real participation of all community members, be it local, a city, tribes, or the whole world, where barriers to participation and inclusion of diversity are removed or to the least greatly reduced to ensure each has a right to a say and a duty to contribute. For example, the poorer communities of the world are the ones suffering the most from the effects of the climate crisis and more prone to receive long term harm from environmental disasters, and yet dispose disproportionately fewer resources and means to speak up or make the necessary physical and social infrastructures for safekeeping, as a result of a systemic injustice which hampers sustainability. In our first article on sustainability we mentioned that current lifestyles and systems we live are unsustainable and some of the damage has been done beyond repair, therefore it is mandatory right now to work on regeneration or as much as possible that was destroyed along the way of unsustainable progress, and regeneration also concerns or societies, divisions (artificial especially) means of participation, and envision in diversity the added value missing from our communities, there is indeed much to do and not so much time, and it is possible. 

Social sustainability, diversity, inclusion, we were led to believe that these fields mostly belong to the Third Sector of civil society groups and NGOs, as well as a political agenda. True that in the last decades this was mostly a field of operations limited to this niche, and yet we would like to take an example of actually how diversity and inclusion can have a strong and positive impact on the corporate world. 

The stereotype says that companies are cold-blooded profit-before-people institutions, and again it is a stereotype, and yet stereotypes come from somewhere and can say that the reputation is not the best at present and are by many considered to be the culprit of the current climate crisis. There might be some truth there, but this ignores another truth, that nowadays the private sector is leading the sustainability effort, upon finding how that is indeed ethical and as added value brings quite a bit of a competitive advantage.  Investing in diversity and inclusion indeed has positive impact on Planet, People and Profit! As many enterprises out there already prove it, from applying gender equality policies, to transforming one’s market from environmental harming practice to sustainable ones, and actually seeing their revenues steadily increased. Much of this is a result of people’s habits and increased environmental consciousness, choosing certain labels instead of others because of a lesser impact on the ecosystem or sustainable practices, even if it costs more. This resulted in companies needed to rebrand and reposition by introducing eco-friendly practices in economy, environment and society. Even we at Rescogita in a recent contract upon making recommendations to a customer regarding some software companies we gave priority to those who had a clear and tangible CSR policy.  The trend is that eventually all companies will need to move towards sustainable practices, consumers, governments and our ecosystem demand it. Besides the environmental and economic criteria that we mentioned above, there is a dawn of social criteria against which it is possible to measure the social sustainability of a company, for example how it manages relationships with its workers, customers, suppliers and their community, and how this is reflected in the internal governance, controls, leadership and shareholders. 

And after that preamble let’s look closer at diversity and inclusion as a corporate asset, and how such practices make business very attractive to investors and customers. It the private sector this means that the company is the beneficiary of a social licence, which translates in support from its employees, stakeholders and the community where it operates. Includes fair treatment of employees, non-discriminatory policies, flexibility in working hours, fair salary, ethical sources and reinvestment in the community. 

And inclusive culture creates equity, all can access equal opportunities and fair treatment, when in place it obstacles discrimination on the job, increases and improves empathy and the social impact of the company. Inclusion also improves decision-making, as it requires elements of transparency and also leads to actually understanding the unconscious bias and privilege by raising awareness, thus improving fair decisions. It also improves the psychological safety from within the company, enabling risk-taking that can lead to improving the company’s job or its social impact, courage stemming from inclusivity, sense of belonging and community from within the enterprise itself. Another asset is the creation of a safe environment that enable to spot weaknesses and vulnerabilities, that enhances transparency and allows more widespread efforts to face and overcome challenges, which is the foundation of healthy organisational culture. 

An enterprise that wishes to be sustainable, let’s face it, needs a bit of an effort, oftentimes rewarding on the medium-long run, and will be a step by step process. What we can assert is that the very first step happens inside the enterprise, towards its own people, starting with inclusion and diversity, this will immediately impact productivity and efficiency, and can ripe right away benefits also when it comes to decision-making, creating a pleasant and satisfactory environment within the working place to grow and develop. Once this step is accomplished it will be so much easier to enact all the rest, up to the structural changes necessary to bring out of a business a positive impact on itself and profits, on the customers, on the community of belonging and the whole ecosystem. 

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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