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SUSTAINABILITY: MORE THAN JUST THE ENVIRONMENT 

Read to find out how and why it is important to look beyond just environmental protection when talking about sustainable development.

Words By Varnika Srivastava

23/06/2021

The world’s population has been growing at a rapid pace in the past centuries. The industrial revolution saw an improvement in living standards, health conditions and sanitation. This invariably led to an increase in deforestation and exploitation of nature for resources. Mines began to be overexploited, changing the social and natural landscape of many regions. Industries based on the exploitation of cheap labour, such as rubber tapping, saw an unprecedented boom with an increased demand for rubber in the world wars. After the smoke had settled down, and the land lay barren, the buzzword ‘sustainable development’ began to be thrown around. It soon became clear that the damage to the environment that humans have done in roughly 200 years might just be impossible to reverse. So it was natural that when talking about sustainability, policy makers and the general public chose to focus more on reversing the damage to the environment and ensuring that there is no more exploitation. 

The Brundtland Report of 1987 gave the first concrete definition of sustainable development, that is development that fulfills the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. This definition was broad and did not specify much on how the goal can be fulfilled. But the most common interpretation of the term was that humans need to use natural resources in a mindful manner. With rapid technological improvement and greater efforts by scientists and researchers, it soon became clear that it was not just the environment that needed protection. The demand for rubber, for example, relied on the exploitation of cheap labour in the Amazons and Indonesia. Mining in many Global South countries relied on child labour. By the early 1990s, world leaders and researchers had soon realized that sustainable development had to be more holistic than just taking care of the environment. Sustainable development had to ensure that the increasing population had less income inequality, less hunger and less labour exploitation. Moreover, it is also important that new economic opportunities are created that do not rely completely on the overexploitation of nature. In the following section, I will be explaining the concepts of social and economic sustainability.

SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

“The ability of a community to develop processes and structures which not only meet the needs of its current members but also support the ability of future generations to maintain a healthy community.” – Business Dictionary

The goal of social sustainability is to protect social capital through investing in and producing services that make up our society’s framework. The notion allows for a broader perspective of the world in terms of communities, cultures, and globalization. It entails safeguarding future generations and acknowledging that our actions have an influence on others and the planet at large. With principles like cohesiveness, reciprocity, and honesty, as well as the importance of interpersonal interactions, social sustainability focuses on preserving and increasing social quality. Laws, knowledge, and shared notions of equality and rights can all help to foster and promote it. The concept of social sustainability is entwined with the concept of sustainable development as described by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The notion of sustainable development aims to improve social and economic conditions while also protecting the environment and promoting equality; as a result, the economy, society, and ecological system are all interdependent. 

Human sustainability attempts to preserve and strengthen society’s human capital. Social sustainability includes investments in health and education systems, as well as access to services, nourishment, knowledge, and skills. Natural resources and space are finite, and it is necessary to strike a balance between continued expansion and gains in health and economic well-being for all.

Businesses and the techniques used to get raw resources may have a beneficial or bad influence on communities all around the world. Social sustainability also includes the development of skills and human capacity to support the organization’s operations and long-term viability, as well as to promote community and societal well-being. 

So, what are the signs of an unstable social system? Poverty on a big scale, big-scale injustice, low educational rates, conflict, and resource instability are only a few examples. Consider what occurs when a country is engulfed in conflict. Environmental challenges are put aside, and in some cases, exacerbated, by wartime situations. Companies should aim for social sustainability in their supplier chain and workforce on the business side. Are the factories where items are made safe and healthy to work in? Do they pay a reasonable wage?

Do they make sure your products don’t include any child labour? What about the use of animals in research? 

ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY

Economic sustainability refers to an economy’s ability to maintain a constant level of economic production indefinitely. This covers subjects such as examining the costs of enterprises’ sustainability initiatives, employment creation and upward mobility, government incentives for sustainable practices, and market strategies that promote environmental health and social prosperity. Economic sustainability is frequently the driving force for environmental activities being put on hold. Projects based on exploiting the environment, for example, are frequently the first to lose money and interest during a recession. Priorities shift to economic matters, putting the environment’s future on the back burner. 

Cost is another way the economic pillar stifles the environmental exploitation agenda. For example, if the cost-effectiveness of a new, more sustainable technology is much more than that of a legacy technology, its implementation will be substantially more challenging. As society grows more aware of the need for environmental sustainability, however, initiatives to develop solutions that benefit both businesses and the environment have begun to emerge. Governments have begun to provide incentives and tax advantages to businesses that employ green business strategies. Many firms have seen their bottom lines improve as a result of waste reduction and increasing use of recycled materials in production, while simultaneously lowering their environmental effect. Economic sustainability also entails safeguarding the long-term viability of businesses that rely on natural resources. If the resource on which your firm relies runs out, your firm will cease to exist. As a result, it is in those firms’ best interests to guarantee that natural resources are preserved for the future, as well as to develop new, sustainable business models that will not jeopardize the company’s long-term prosperity.