INSS members met last week with ten sustainability officers from Charlotte area businesses, government agencies, and universities to talk social sustainability in business and related industries. We wanted to understand how organizations are thinking about social sustainability, and what barriers they face in applying these ideas in their work.
Overwhelmingly, the group argued that assessment tools are most important for their work, so that measurement can make social sustainability tangible. While assessment can be painful, it is meaningful for organizations as it helps identify the values important to the company, as well as how to start tackling social sustainability. Importantly, assessment tools can make values explicit.
For example, one attendee mentioned that engagement in greening efforts seems to lead to greater engagement in sustainability issues more broadly, but that they know of no clear way to assess this dimension of social sustainability. Helping them identify appropriate assessment tools might be useful for this group and others.
However, there was a consensus that social sustainability needs to be made more relevant for business – both in terms of being meaningful for people, but also important to industry. Many talked about “value proposition” – how to show that social sustainability has practical value for business.
Many focused on the ways that sustainability efforts have arisen in response to market demand for this – and that a similar kind of growth is starting with social aspects of sustainability. One attendee suggested that social sustainability has also entered (primarily small) businesses because of owner interests, but that other reasons motivate larger businesses.
Several participants argued that many businesses are engaging in social sustainability without knowing it or communicating about it. This opens up the possibility of working with them to identify what they’re already doing and helping them identify other similar kinds of efforts. Actual behavior change requires seeing that social sustainability is a central value for the business, and it helps if they see it already is.
There was also some discussion about scope – what is the range of influence that businesses are expected to impact – just their employees? their community? global? Businesses have different perspectives on this and also want to know what’s expected of them.
We also learned about talking with the business community, and the need to shift from research focus (we’re interested in social sustainability) to a greater focus on values more central to businesses, like cost-benefit language and the value of community sustainability for the company’s future.
Overall, the group seemed concerned about the social problems facing the world, and want to see companies and individuals engage with social sustainability as a way to address them. What it seems to require is: tangible measures, a clear connection to business goals and efforts, and ways to highlight current unrecognized efforts.
On a final note, what might we see as a next step for INSS? We know there are a lot of indicators out there for social sustainability, so there may be some value in communicating what these are. But we also think it is important to examine the validity of these: we don’t know if they are telling us we have socially sustainable systems. This would likely benefit from understanding the community perceptions of these indicators. Jamie Fischer and Adjo Amekudzi wrote an excellent paper about quality of life indicators, concluding:
New QOL measures should link community priorities and values to objectively measureable indicators for living standards, thereby capturing the interaction between external conditions, institutional decisions, and the expansion or restriction of choice. (47)
Fischer, J. M., & Amekudzi, A. (2011). Quality of life, sustainable civil infrastructure, and sustainable development: Strategically expanding choice. Journal of Urban Planning and Development, 137(1), 39-48.