19. 10. 2016

Social Sustainability: Tackling the Confusion

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Forum for the Future has always been totally committed to the idea of ‘full spectrum’ sustainability, embracing environmental, economic, social and governance issues. Far too many people still see sustainable development as some kind of fancy substitute for the environment, despite the growing presence (and influence) of the Sustainable Development Goals. These high-level, universal goals, all 17 of them, provide the best possible articulation of why everything is linked to everything else, and why governments (and businesses) can’t play ‘SD pick-n-pick’ to give themselves an easy ride.

That said, sorting out the social sustainability story has always been quite a challenge. With its ‘Five Capitals Framework’, Forum for the Future committed right from the start to using social capital (‘embracing the institutions and networks that help us maintain and develop human capital in partnership with others – families, communities, businesses, trade unions, schools and voluntary organisations’), alongside natural, human, financial and manufactured capital. This is intellectually solid, but companies don’t necessarily find it that user-friendly.

Which explains in part the proliferation of other terms and ideas used by companies and other organisations to make sense of the whole social sustainability space: social impact, social value, social return on investment, social licence to operate, social dividend, corporate social responsibility etc.

All these concepts are used more or less interchangeably in all sorts of different contexts for all sorts of different reasons. In other words, it’s a total muddle!

So I asked three of last year’s graduating Master’s students (Nikki Clegg, Bex Dawkes and Amy Mason) to help sort out that muddle, laying out the origins and current usage of each one. And they’ve done a terrific job, casting light on a lot of very murky areas, in a new report called The Social Lexicon: Sorting out the Muddle.’ 

That whole social sustainability scene may get even more confused after the publication of a much-trailed report from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, set up after the issuing of the Sustainable Development Goals to provide a powerful new business voice on global sustainability.

In early drafts of the report, its authors are suggesting that levels of trust in corporations have fallen so low, and that people are now so cynical about standard CSR spin, that we need to develop a new social contract between business and civil society to help rebuild trust and underpin deeper, more substantive partnerships between them to help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals – alongside efforts being made by governments.

This has always been a crucially important part of the sustainability debate, and in a world where chronic social injustice scars our societies more and more painfully, often exacerbated by the actions and indifference of greedy business élites, I’ve no doubt that it will receive more and more attention from herein on.

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