Skip to Content


11 Apr 2022

The past few years have revealed the fragility of social systems across the globe.

We’ve seen healthcare systems buckle and collapse under a global pandemic, witnessed rising international tensions and attempted to mitigate the outcomes, and continue to grapple with issues such as poverty and racial, ethnic, gender, and religion-based inequalities. Human society has, over the years, improved key socio-economic indicators in most regions of the world. However, the largely stable, advanced, and just communities that most of our readers picture themselves living in has revealed itself to be a far cry from reality.

What is social sustainability?

According to the United Nations Global Compact, “social sustainability is about inclusive and resilient societies where citizens have voice and governments respond.” It is often broken down into the four dimensions of quality of life, equality and diversity, social cohesion, and democracy and governance.

Figure 1: Social sustainability includes aspects of quality of life, equality and diversity, social cohesion, and democracy and governance

Social sustainability is the least quantifiable of the three principles of sustainability. Less measurability makes this principle difficult to enforce and its benefits hard to track – rendering it most susceptible to being ignored by organizations and institutions, who would rather focus on the more easily tracked environmental and economic principles. However, all three principles are closely interlinked and require equal focus to avoid unintended negative consequences.

Figure 2: Social sustainability is inherently linked to environmental and economic sustainability

Social sustainability and the environment

The recent IPCC report – “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” makes it clear that adverse impacts of climate change, development deficits, and inequality exacerbate each other. Due to their socio-economic conditions, many poor communities, especially in regions with high levels of vulnerability and inequality, are less resilient to diverse climate impacts. Even with moderate climate change, people in vulnerable regions will experience a further erosion of livelihood security that can interact with humanitarian crises, such as forced migration and violent conflict, and lead to social tipping points.

Conversely, communities act as key enablers of climate action. A joint paper published by the WHO and other UN organizations titled The Social Dimensions of Climate Change draws attention to how people and society are often silent but assumed beneficiaries of international efforts and national policies. Simultaneously, however, they are the end users of climate technology and promulgators of climate solutions. They are also key actors in pressuring for social change, whether that be via collective social movements or individual actions. The paper therefore theorizes that the success of global climate responses for both mitigation and adaptation can only be improved by, and may very well depend on, the integration of social dimensions alongside technology, infrastructure, environmental science, and other predominant considerations.

Social sustainability and the economy

The relationship between social and economic aspects of sustainability is much better documented. A World Bank report on The Cost of Gender Inequality, for example, estimates lost human capital wealth due to gender inequality in earnings in 2017 to be USD 172.3 trillion. The report goes on to postulate that human capital wealth could increase by about one fifth globally under gender equality in earnings, leading to substantial gains in global wealth (including natural and produced capital).

In the future, more and more businesses will be held accountable on social sustainability measures, just as they are being held accountable for climate action today. Regulations regarding labor and working conditions, occupational and community health, safety, security, indigenous people’s rights, and land acquisition have already existed for a long time. We can expect more regulations covering a broader view of social sustainability to emerge and to be more strictly enforced. If organizations do not begin their transitions to a more socially sustainable future today, they will be forced to do so at a time when regulatory and reputational costs are higher.

In these worrying times for our planet and communities, leveraging technology and human energy to accelerate the social sustainability transition is vital: there is no plan B, no planet B. And the private sector has a pivotal role to play.

So where do you stand? Do you want to participate in a future where climate and social actions are developed together to build an inclusive and sustainable future?

Connect with us and help us get the future we all want!

Invent for Society (An article written by Shreya Pande, Isaac Smadja & Jean-Baptiste Perrin)