Puneet Varma (Editor)

Social sustainability

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Social sustainability

Social sustainability is the least defined and least understood of the different ways of approaching sustainability and sustainable development. Social sustainability has had considerably less attention in public dialogue than economic and environmental sustainability.


There are several approaches to social sustainability. The first, which posits a triad of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability, is the most widely accepted as a model for addressing sustainability. The concept of "social sustainability" in this approach encompasses such topics as: social equity, livability, health equity, community development, social capital, social support, human rights, labour rights, placemaking, social responsibility, social justice, cultural competence, community resilience, and human adaptation.

A second, more recent, approach suggests that all of the domains of sustainability are social: including ecological, economic, political and cultural sustainability. These domains of social sustainability are all dependent upon the relationship between the social and the natural, with the "ecological domain" defined as human embeddedness in the environment. In these terms, social sustainability encompasses all human activities. It is not just relevant to the focussed intersection of economics, the environment and the social. (See the Venn diagram and the Circles of Sustainability diagram).


According to the Western Australia Council of Social Services (WACOSS)[1]: "Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life."

Another definition has been developed by Social Life, a UK-based social enterprise specialising in place based innovation (originally set up by the Young Foundation). For Social Life, social sustainability is "a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve."


Social Life have developed a framework for social sustainability which has four dimensions: amenities and infrastructure, social and cultural life, voice and influence, and space to grow.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen gives the following dimensions for social sustainability [2]:

  • Equity - the community provides equitable opportunities and outcomes for all its members, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community
  • Diversity - the community promotes and encourages diversity
  • Interconnected/Social cohesions - the community provides processes, systems and structures that promote connectedness within and outside the community at the formal, informal and institutional level
  • Quality of life - the community ensures that basic needs are met and fosters a good quality of life for all members at the individual, group and community level (e.g. health, housing, education, employment, safety)
  • Democracy and governance - the community provides democratic processes and open and accountable governance structures.
  • Maturity - the individual accept the responsibility of consistent growth and improvement through broader social attributes (e.g. communication styles, behavioural patterns, indirect education and philosophical explorations)
  • Also we can speak of Sustainable Human Development that can be seen as development that promotes the capabilities of present people without compromising capabilities of future generations. In the human development paradigm, environment and natural resources should constitute a means of achieving better standards of living just as income represents a means of increasing social expenditure and, in the end, well-being.

    The different aspects of social sustainability are often considered in socially responsible investing (SRI). Social sustainability criteria that are commonly used by SRI funds and indexes to rate publicly traded companies include: community, diversity, employee relations, human rights, product safety, reporting, and governance structure.

    Application and Verification

    The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that countries have the obligation to “respect, protect, and fulfill human rights and fundamental freedoms” and that business enterprises are required to comply with all applicable laws and respect human rights. Both production and procurement of goods and services should be documented to verify satisfaction of these international principles and laws.

    The UN Guiding Principles also include a reporting framework, which teaches companies how to report their interaction with human rights issues. In addition resources like Free2Work, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Business and Human Rights Resource Centre all provide information on organizational disclosures and performance in social sustainability. Certifications from internationally recognized and accredited organizations are available to aid in verifying the social sustainability of products and services. The Forest Stewardship Council (paper and forest products), International Cocoa Initiative, and Kimberly Process (diamonds) are examples of such organizations and initiatives.


    Social sustainability Wikipedia