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Earth Day: don’t forget the people

Ah, Earth Day. A sustainability expert’s favorite holiday. We here at Sustrana have a fun tradition of focusing on our waste stream for the entire month, culminating with a zero-waste day on the 22nd. Odds are, our small office’s activity is not outside the norm for how others choose to celebrate.

Across college campuses, the month of April brings lights-out power hours and water bottle collections. Companies participate in specialty recycling drives. And I’m willing to bet there are office managers who turn off their printers for the day.

It makes sense, of course, to be focused on activities surrounding resource conservation on Earth Day. And yet isn’t the whole reason we focus on creating a sustainable planet in the first place to guarantee the survival of its inhabitants…especially, you know, the people?

For all the talk of the Triple Bottom Line – “people, planet, prosperity,” or “environment, economy, equity” – it does seem as though the social side of sustainable thinking is easily lost in the conversation.

Perhaps part of this is because social sustainability is a bit wooly in terms of how we should proceed. The concepts of “equity” and “prosperity” are simple enough, but how do we realize that in a world where nations have different resources, different needs, and different cultures?
Even within a country, what are the standards to aim for? To abolish all social classes? To have perfectly equal representation across a multitude of demographic categories?

You can see how easy it is to get lost in the weeds; no wonder water bottle drives are so attractive!

Of course, one solution many companies turn to is to organize community service events or offer volunteer hours to employees on Earth Day. These certainly relate to social sustainability, but can often feel like one-off activities, quickly forgotten. Building an understanding of social sustainability…that’s something that might take more time.

Fortunately, a new paper out of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment suggests seven key concepts that are crucial to long-term solutions. They are:

• wellbeing,
• culture,
• values,
• inequality,
• justice,
• power, and
• agency/sense of self-determination.

Though these concepts are still not as easy to quantify as “tons of waste per year,” they offer a foundation for how leaders should move forward when it comes to thinking about social sustainability.

On a company level, these concepts can be useful for thinking about how day-to-day operations impact the global community. Think about the “wellbeing” of your stakeholders. Are workers in your office protected? What about clients? “Culture” is a big consideration for organizations with an international footprint. “Justice” might be covered in whistleblower policies. And so on. It’s not glamorous by any means, but it is a way to integrate triple bottom line thinking into your company’s culture, and one that is likely to have a lasting impact.

To take a deeper dive into this, the Sustrana platform offers a wealth of information about this social sustainability, as well as a database with lots of projects that specifically target the social aspect of sustainability. Sign up for a webinar if you’d like to know more.

Maybe this conversation doesn’t lend itself to a fun, department-wide activity. And maybe volunteer efforts feel swallowed in the grander scheme of things. But as far as I’m concerned, just taking the time to ruminate on social sustainability — to remember that people matter to our planet’s future just as much as our water supply — is one great way to celebrate Earth Day.