Why we should talk more about social sustainability

For our first blog post for Semester 2 of 2019, we hear from MIDPA’s Treasurer, Juliana Carreno, and her eloquent reminder of embracing social inclusion to close inequality gaps.

It is a fact that the sustainability concept is currently booming and initiatives to ban single-use plastic, to lower GHG emissions and to transition to the use of renewable energy sources are growing in strength onto political agendas, business strategies and the general public concerns. Yet, there is still a long way to go and little time to act, and even though a shift has already taken off and it represents good news for the environment, this revolution may be doomed to fail if we do not commit to embracing a more inclusive change. This constitutes a shift that not only encourages environmental or economic sustainability but a shift that promotes and embodies social sustainability and brings to it the same level of attention and sense of urgency.

We, as consumers that are now making more conscious decisions and are adopting more environmentally friendly behaviours and consumption manners, need to acknowledge that this shift constitutes a lifestyle that pursues the trend of a greener life. And as usually happens with trends, this trend is taking place among the middle and upper class, among those being lucky enough to be educated and among the young generations with access to social media channels that constantly promote such trend. In doing so, we are neglecting and forgetting about the more than 595 million people living in extreme poverty[1]. Not to mention that we are also overlooking the people without access to formal education, living without electricity and dying from malnourishment daily, among other equally important but often overlooked concerns. In a community facing such issues, saving the environment automatically recedes into the background.

We are being called the drivers of change only because we have the opportunity to make decisions to actually drive the most tangible change. We can afford to buy a stainless-steel straw, we can afford to reuse a bottle and refill it from the tap because is safe to do so, we can afford to buy a menstrual cup and access the information on how to use it in our language. Yet, nearly half of the world population do not have the option to make such decisions. In fact, we are trying to address global issues, but we are not taking into account the global population. What is worst, our economy is often undermining grass-roots movements and economies that naturally embody more sustainable ways of living through the implementation of trade agreements and the growing number of patents that make exclusive the use of new technologies for those at the top of the income scale.

And this is what social sustainability can bring to the table. Because there is no way to successfully address those environmental and economic issues that prevail on the global agenda if the global population is not included.  And our society runs on a system of capital accumulation, loss of cultural diversity and the prevalence of economic growth above social wellbeing. We are now not only experiencing a climate crisis, but we are also facing a social emergency too, an emergency that conveys a large inequality gap and lack of inclusion. Our planet is a whole system where every actor’s action will have a reaction in the balance of the whole system. So it should be evident that we need to embrace a shift that converges the three bottom lines (people, planet and profit).

The call is then not to give up on environmental goals, rather to boost, accelerate and guarantee it is sustainable in time through a balance among the social, economic and environmental spheres. This represents an opportunity window to put innovation and technology to the service of society through a collaboration between corporations, the economic system and humanity for a lasting and inclusive prosperity.

We as global citizens need to move from the analysis of isolated issues to the understanding of our system as a complex whole set of interactions and understand that solutions are interdisciplinary, involve multi-actor perspectives and respond to an adaptive system. We shall demand then not only environmental and economic indicators but also social impact procurement and measurement, because we cannot successfully address any problem if we do not take into account the people that are somehow both responsible and impacted by that problematic in first place.


[1] World Poverty Clock, https://worldpoverty.io/index.html