Why Social Sustainability Should Become the New Buzz

By Tatjana Mauthofer

There are no doubts that sustainability has become the buzzword of the century. At the same time definitions become blurry and confusion arises about what it really means. Many people still refer it merely to ecological and economic issues. Go Green is “hot” and businesses are eager to show that their operations guarantee long-term success. The so-called Triple-Bottom-line does contain an additional perspective though: Social Sustainability, the missing pillar.

dharavi childrenAccording to  the overlapping circle-model all three perspectives of sustainability should nowadays be balanced. People, Planet, Profit is claimed. So we do care about our environment, we care about our economy, but shouldn’t we care about our people first?Despite the inclusion in the triple bottom line, the role played by the social is rarely equal to the economic and environmental concerns. Partially this is because there is a general agreement that social sustainability is lacking a clear definition. It’s a normative concept that presents several challenges when putting it into a framework.

Social sustainability is how individuals, communities and societies live with each other and set out to achieve the objectives of development models, which they have chosen for themselves. To put it in a nutshell:Social sustainability is about equity and basic needs. It’s about human rights, working conditions and fair wages. About participation and cultural diversity.

The list of indicators is long,covers a broad range and the assessment seems even more difficult.McKenzie (2004) points out that social sustainability is far more difficult to quantify than economic growth or environmental impact, and the existing all-purpose indicators of social sustainability are too general to be useful.In contrast to GRI environmental indicators, reporting on social performance occurs infrequently and inconsistently across organizations.

This all seemed rather pessimistic.So shall we continue to gloss over the third pillar? I read about social sustainability. I read about all the theories and models that exist and kept being quite confused. And then I went to the Dharavi-Slum in Mumbai and suddenly everything made sense. I was surprised about the great productivity, the incomparable creativity and the impressive degree of community-feeling, I found there.  Then I thought: Wages in Dharavi are too low, waste management is an issue, hygiene must be improved. But at the same time, everyone has their role at Dharavi, and Dharaviworks. So how to tackle issues then, how to improve a functioning system?

I concluded that development programs shouldn’t aim at destroying social systems like Dharavi, just because one toilet is shared by too many people. The ultimate goal shouldn’t be that rural people find better income opportunities in urban areas, just because they’re paid more money there. Instead we need sustainable villages. Villages, which possess experts and improve their living conditions on their own. If villagers have another loss of power, an electrician is needed. Women, who want to promote their handicraft, must know basic marketing and in case of being sick a family shouldn’t drive for 30 minutes to find help. Every village needs its own doctor.

After seeing the beauty of Dharavi I like the idea of fostering the concept of sustainable villages.  The most prominent example is probably the barefoot college, where elderly women are trained to install solar energy in their own villages. They are reliable, eager to learn and pass their knowledge on. At the same time they do stay in the villages, since younger people would likely leave to a city in order to use their new skills somewhere else.

The importance of social sustainability definitely must not be underestimated in the future. What we need is a more practical approach. We need innovative ideas and better implementation. We need best practices and success stories like the solar energygrannies. Social sustainability is then very likely to become the new buzz.

(Tatjana Mauthofer is the key member at 4th Wheel, a Social Enterprise )





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