Social Sustainability for Environmental Practitioners

When I’m running face-to-face training courses one of the areas that students sometimes struggle with is the social aspect of sustainable development. Generally the courses I deliver are based around environmental management and delegates usually grasp this side of sustainability. However we should not forget that sustainability has two other subjects related to it: social and economic. Leaving economic sustainability for another time, I thought it would be interesting to identify social issues and how they relate to sustainable development. I’ve noticed over the years that having knowledge of social issues is becoming more and more important as social issue management is increasingly being added to the role of environmental practitioners, as if we didn’t have enough to do!

What are Social Issues and How Do They Relate to Sustainability?

Firstly what does the term ‘social’ mean? A commonly held definition would be something along the lines of: ‘social means relating to society or the way that society is organised’, with ‘society’ being defined as a ‘large organised group’. Therefore, when we think of social issues we are very much looking at issues that are directly associated with people. What those issues are will vary dependant on the activities they undertake and their location. Common issues for organisations include occupational health and safety, health, equal opportunities, training, community action and data protection. 

A sustainability model that helps us to understand how social issues apply to organisations is the Five Capitals Model. In this model sustainability is categorised as being made up of five parts: natural, social, human, manufactured and financial. The ‘social’ and ‘human’ capitals are those that might be categorised as representing the social side of sustainability. The definitions of these two capitals are:

  • Social Capital: These are institutions that maintain human capital such as businesses, family trade unions and voluntary organisations
  • Human Capital: Peoples knowledge, skills and motivation required for productive work, improving human capital through education and training is required for a strong economy

Detailed Guidance

For more detail it is useful to refer to some type of guidance, in this mind let’s take a look at Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting standard to give an idea of what a social issue is within a sustainability context. The standard states 19 separate categories of social issues covering issues that may require reporting by an organisation. These include many issues but lets consider a few and to look in more detail at their coverage:

  • GRI 403 occupational health and safety – occupational health and safety management system, risk assessment, works training on occupational health and safety etc
  • GRI 404 training and education – hours of training per employee per year, percentage of employees receiving regular performance and career development reviews
  • GRI 408 child labour – operations at significant risk for incidents of child labour
  • GRI 413 – local communities – operations with a local community engagement or impact both positive and negative
  •  GRI 411 – rights of indigenous peoples – incidents of violations involving rights of indigenous people

Managing Social Issues within a Business Context

When we consider managing social issues within a business it is important that we consider the full life cycle, in the same manner as we should for environmental impacts. It is paramount that we consider the social impacts of upstream activities (see my previous post on life cycle thinking if you are struggling with the terminology). For many organisations this will be where their most significant social impacts lie. They may control social issues in their own workplace competently, but there could be significant issues that are associated with external suppliers such as child labour, occupational health and safety, labour management and relations to name a few.

We should also consider the downstream social issues of the organisation’s products. These cover the social issues associated with the use and disposal of a product. For example, a food retailer such as a supermarket chain might look at reducing the salt, sugar or fat content of its foods (use phase). A clothing retailer might provide return points for used clothes which would then be donated to the needy (disposal phase).

Don’t forget though that sustainability in most cases is highly integrated and that environmental and economic issues can lead to social problems. For example, urban air quality can lead to health effects and can have serious economic consequences. The full range of issues should be covered, not just those affecting one part of sustainability.

As we have explored it is important for an environmental practitioner to understand the social side of sustainability. These are obviously important issues that should be considered for both upstream and downstream activities.

John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MSc, MIEMA

With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.

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