The Social Component of Sustainability

By K. McVey

People in our community often ask how sustainability differs from environmental stewardship. The answer isn’t a short one. From a high-level view, social sustainability encompasses the broadest components of business operations and their effect on employees, suppliers, investors, customers as well as local and global communities. It includes human and labor rights as well as corporate governance.

Dr. Rosemarie Russo, Sustainability Professor, CU – Boulder, puts social sustainability into context at a more concrete level. “The simple answer is that one of the key components to balancing the environmental and economic aspects of overall sustainability is the social piece. It’s the part of sustainability that’s about providing community access to social resources and equity—such as employment, culture, education, healthy food, safety, social diversity, gender equity, and dignity,” she says.

One of the challenges that companies and organizations sometimes face is the extent to which they adopt a sustainability program that fully embraces the interconnectivity of those three components—environmental, economic and social.  Dr. Russo provides the following example. 

Let’s say a business decides to manage their resources wisely and they want to start by setting up a cartridge recycling program. The best environmental decision they arrive at is to use a local company that refills cartridges such as Green Cartridge. They believe that by choosing a local company, the city’s economic viability is strengthened.  According to Dr. Russo, for every $100 that’s spent at a locally-owned business, $25 more remains within Fort Collins. “In terms of environmental and economic factors, “says Dr. Russo, “they made a sound decision. But this example doesn’t address the social factor, which is often the weak link in sustainability hierarchy. One way in which this example could have incorporated the social sustainability component is if the company had chosen to contract with an operation that contributes a portion of their profits to a local charity such as “Cartridges for Kids” or “Community Safe House,” she says. Access Computer, for example, has a “charity of choice” option.

 According to Dr. Russo, in the majority of sustainability rankings and surveys, social factors aren’t ranked. “Yet social investments create resilient communities. It isn’t always about the number of new businesses or contribution to GNP. A legitimate indicator of social commitment in a community can also be measured by the number of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunches,” says Dr. Russo. She adds that at Poudre School District, the fraction of kids enrolled in such lunch programs range from 7% to 71% depending on the school.

“In 2010 the percentage of kids at Webber Middle School who are enrolled in a lunch assisted program jumped from 5% to 25%,” says Dr. Russo. “I think this jump reflects a need in our community and an opportunity for businesses, residents and municipalities to partner in new ways so that our join efforts can strengthen our commitment to lunch programs and other such as ‘Feeding the Families,’ an initiative by Happy Heart Farm that enables citizens and companies to purchase vegetable shares for local families in need.”

For more information, contact Dr. Rosemarie Russo at  You can also join her at the next Sustainability Film event, “What’s On Your Plate?”, at 12 noon on November 17, 2010, at the Harmony Library.


Author: Rick Casey

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