Sustainability means taking care of our environment. And more. Actually there are three “pillars” of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. If, as I insist, sustainable practices are only those we can continue indefinitely without harm, we must understand all three of these aspects.
Social sustainability is the least discussed and understood of the three. It seems especially important to explore it during this Christmas season when so many people turn their thoughts to the less fortunate.
What are sustainability issues? Here are some that have to do with social sustainability:
- Urban regeneration
- Community development and cultural diversity
- Workforce development
- Social justice and equality
- Human rights
- Globalization, consumerism and ethical trade
- Health and wellbeing
These issues all require involvement of government, both national and local. But we can’t leave it there. Social sustainability will not happen with tax money alone or with governments picking “winners and losers.”
When governments try to bear the burden of wealth distribution, bureaucracy grows faster than the economy. There is never enough revenue to keep all the promises. Squabbling over who gets what leads only to social division (not to say class warfare), not to equity.
Local government is closer to the problems than national government. It’s at that level where it is possible to focus on helping people more than demographics.
But take a look at that list again. What is our personal responsibility? Just to name one tiny piece of urban regeneration, poor neighborhoods often lack convenient access to grocery stores.
Individuals own the businesses, form the community groups, serve in the governments, and elect the government officials.
Individuals have be informed about this or any other issue in order to do anything about it—including blogging, writing letters to the editor, or talking about it among friends and acquaintances.
As with any other aspect of sustainability, we as individuals have more power and influence than we can ever recognize. It comes in part through millions of like-minded individuals who care enough to do something—anything—to be part of the solution.
Let’s look more closely at just three issues.
Somehow we have gotten into the habit of disassociating business from social justice.
After all, the people who speak up the most about social justice issues seem to regard business with suspicion. It’s very shortsighted.
In his article Why Social Sustainability Should Be Part Of Every Business, Paul Rice points to the collapse of a building in Bangladesh that housed many garment factories as a wake-up call for business.
We in this country no longer tolerate businesses that force workers to labor in facilities known to be unsafe. It’s also bad business to be any more tolerant of those practices by partners in third world countries.
American shoppers don’t pay much attention to where products are made or by whom. That is, until preventable tragedies grab attention. Companies doing business with those factories in Bangladesh had to scramble with the public relations fallout.
Rice points out that workers who are paid a living wage, trained and empowered to recognize problems, and rewarded for coming up with solutions tend to care about their work more than exploited workers. They also product superior products and greatly minimize the need for expensive and wasteful product recalls.
More and more large corporations are building social sustainability into their business plans. They are creating more and more organizations dedicated to fostering it.
Therefore, smaller companies can easily find help for implementing their own social sustainability programs. Rice insists that social sustainability is fast ceasing to be a feel-good adjunct to business and becoming a mission-critical aspect of business.
Globalization, consumerism and ethical trade
One important aspect of social sustainability, fair trade, aims to help producers in developing countries make better economic deals when they export their products to the developed nations.
It seeks to insure that workers receive adequate pay and good working conditions.
Once again, I cannot even define an aspect of social sustainability without reference to economic sustainability. Fair trade also includes some issues of environmental sustainability.
For example, clearing rain forests to grow palm oil is not environmentally sustainable, and such practices cannot be certified as fair trade.
The fair trade movement traces its origins to Ten Thousand Villages, a non-governmental organization founded through the Mennonite Church in 1946.
It in turn became a founding member of the International Fair Trade Association. Fair trade began to grow in importance in the 1960s, when multinational corporations began to attract international criticism for their trading practices.
Ten Thousand Villages is still primarily known for selling handicrafts made in developing nations. The fair trade movement in general now seeks to certify a broader array of goods manufactured and sold under fair trade principles.
Food products such as coffee, cocoa, and tropical fruits comprise more than half of the fair trade market. Important non-food sectors, in addition to handicrafts, include textiles and flowers.
Products made to fair trade standards will inevitably cost more than products made through underpaying and exploiting workers. Americans can be amazingly altruistic in some circumstances and amazingly callous in others. As in the case with workplace safety, the callousness comes through failing to consider the workers that produced the bargain goods.
Fair trade now represents only a tiny amount of the American economy. For it to represent any more, somehow American shoppers will need to be encouraged to extend their altruism to their shopping behavior.
How can we do that? All I know is that scolding and lecturing won’t work. Just look at how few Americans pay much attention to the scolding and lecturing about climate change! Do you have any ideas? Be sure to leave them in the comments.
Health and well being
The current disgracefully petty national “debate” jumbles a number of issues together as if they were the same thing.
Good medical practices and outcomes make one issue. Paying for good medical care is another. Appropriate access to it is still another. And that’s just health care proper. Health insurance is another matter. It has its own set of related but distinguishable issues.
Improved health is one important outcome of environmental sustainability. Sustainable practices reduce pollution of our air, water, and soil. On the level of individual households, sustainable practices avoid introducing toxins while cleaning, among other outcomes.
In some ways, the health advantages of environmental sustainability just make economic sense. In other ways, they are not enough. While sustainable living may well lead to major reductions in sickness and injury, it won’t eliminate the need for doctors and hospitals. Everyone is concerned about costs.
Health care meets social sustainability in the issue of access to health care. I’m sure that there is a broad consensus that poor people deserve the same access to good medical care as rich people, that rural people deserve the same access as city dwellers, and that the specialized hospitals that offer services to the sickest patients should not be dropped from insurance networks simply because they’re expensive.
The US, however, is not the best illustration of inadequate access to health care. The poor who can’t afford routine doctor visits can go to the emergency room. Patients with a rare disease treated at only a few hospitals nationwide still have some recourse regardless of how insurance companies define their networks.
These are not good outcomes, but it becomes a cost issue, not an access issue. Access to health care is much more of a crisis in the developing world, where often health care is not readily available at any price. Some huge problems could be solved with relatively inexpensive medicines and practices if they could be made available.
Some issues of social sustainability don’t get the attention they deserve because we don’t think of them most of the time. Others don’t get the attention they deserve because public debate has degenerated into demagoguery. In that case, half-truths and outright falsehoods at high volume push facts and good reasoning out of the debate.
In either case, informed individuals have the power to improve the level and tone of the various debates, but only if there are enough of us working to influence our own corners of society.
Sustainability diagram. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Food desert cartoon. Source unknown
Rana Plaza. Found on Wikimedia Commons. Link no longer works.
Old Fairtrade certification marks. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Men arguing. Some rights reserved by o5com