Burghard Flieger / Elmar Sing

Social sustainability
The 'poor relation' in the sustainable development discussion

The term 'sustainability' in this text embraces the conflicts and synergies between the social, ecological and economic dynamics of economic activity. Despite the damaging effects of production and what is produced, with most businesses side-lining the sustainability issue, the earth's ability to regenerate itself must be guaranteed.

Regeneration instead of optimisation
Sustainability, in this sense, is not a process of optimisation but a means of guaranteeing regeneration. In other words, products and production methods are not really improved upon in an ecological sense; rather, the aim is a kind of compromise: second-best will do. Their negative ecological consequences may be minimised, if economically viable. Many companies deem this to be an 'outstanding achievement', which they parade in their PR.

The same is true in the social arena. Whilst companies might acknowledge social issues in passing, no genuine effort is made to address them. The result: For many employers, altruistic donations or their own internal social security contributions are already something special to be advertised in the event of external auditing or monitoring. Within these parameters, 'social sustainability' is only compensation for social destruction, rather than being a genuine response to social needs.
This can be seen above all in the often negative consequences of paid work for primary social groupings, such as the family; consequences such as having no time for child-rearing, or stress-related ailments. These consequences permeate family life via behaviour such as fighting (offloading frustrations), communications break-downs (excessive television viewing), or comfort eating/consumption (displacement activities). Sometimes companies attempt to alleviate such problems through family-friendly working hours or by offering training courses on stress-management, but these are mere compensations for the underlying problems, rather than solutions which would enable a healthy balance between work and life. Many companies find such tactics necessary as a means of retaining employees as a long-term resource. In this sense, sustainable processes are in place simply to protect the foundations of the (capital) value-orientated economy, according to Marxist analysis.

A thorough-going assessment of needs
The limitations of sustainable production demonstrate how far even a consideration of social sustainability is from achieving optimal improvements. Apart from their main function, goods and services also fulfil more abstract, social and culturally-related functions. For example, a car fulfils the requirements of mobility, personal luxury, image etc. As with every product or service, it's about the fulfilment of a whole host of needs. Products are starting to take on multi-functional dimensions.

The concept of the Kinder Egg is a particularly good example of how clever marketing can make a single product fulfil many needs: confectionery, surprise, adventure, a model, a collectors' item, the 'special collection', the completion of the full collection, etc. If a company set out to fulfil people's needs whilst having a determined commitment to ecology and social issues, it would be aiming for self-destruction. In the long term, the self-determined fulfilment of employees' and consumers' needs would have this result. Most companies' marketing strategies are, however, exactly the opposite, as demonstrated by the Kinder Egg. By attaching a maximum number of needs to a product, the consumer will become even more addictively hooked. The creation of an unlimited desire to buy more is a company's ideal objective.

Ecological and social effectiveness
Beside the issue described above, another issue is that companies can reach a point where it is no longer financially viable to take social aspects into account. This leads to an economic 'social exclusion' for some companies. A similar dilemma faces consumers. Many products that are considered to be ecologically effective are also seen as elitist. Although they are environmentally friendly (or perhaps because of this) they are expensive, and only a few well-off consumers can afford them. Such contradictions require further examination in the context of product-development. The following criteria should be followed, to make a product both environmentally and socially efficient:  

  • The removal of peer pressure or social respectability from ecological/social consumption.

  • The sustaining of a product's image long-term, despite changing ecological and fashion trends.

  • The participation of customers in the development of products, including the use and disposability of products.

  • Communications to be personal and interactive rather than technical or, worse, one-sided.

  • Consciousness-raising among low-income groups about their right to have access to ecological products and services.

  • The gradual introduction of these criteria in the Third World

Initiatives stimulated by ratings
Monitoring of 'social sustainability' is not limited to a rating of how far customers' needs are met. It can be extended to any party - or 'stakeholder group' - having an interest in a company at whatever level. One school of thought in the sustainability discussion wants 'interested parties' to include the next generation, or people in the so-called Third World: groups which aren't immediately present. As such, hardly any issue or group will be left out of the picture when sustainability is discussed in relation to big business in particular.
The complexity of sustainability rating can be seen in the 'Corporate Responsibility-Rating' system developed by Ökom in Munich. This system measures a company's responsibility in its social and cultural context and in relation to the people and environment the company affects. The rating, according to the Frankfurt-Hohenheim Guide (Frankfurt-Hohenheimer Leitfadens), is conducted on the three levels of cultural, social and environmental compatibility. The relevant information is gathered by the companies themselves but also by independent consultants. Information evaluated includes business reports and reports on environmental social issues by the companies, plus secondary literature, questionnaires, and interviews with employees. Independent consultants give a rating on the basis of all this information.

'Responsibilities towards culture and society' are evaluated according to the company's awareness of issues and attitude to them. Important aspects to this are: ethical objectives in general; the attitude to conflict between immediate economic versus long-term ethical objectives; a responsibility for the common good; contact and communication with NGOs; contributions to sustaining the region's cultural diversity; activities abroad such as the exploitation of lower production standards or export markets; relationships with authoritarian states; the suppression of a society's traditions through the introduction of new products and services.

'Social compatibility', the second level, is a rating of a company's responsibility towards those affected by its activities. Management systems and underlying ideology; relationships with employees (e.g. the participation of employees, working hours, pay, health and social security); also, the attitude to the socially deprived, are all evaluated.
'Environmental compatibility', the third level, is a rating of a company's responsibility for nature and natural resources. Apart from general information on the subject, this rating emphasises an analysis of a company's ecological balance; in other words, whether the company sees and responds to risks to the environment, and whether the company can demonstrate, in the context of environmental management, that it is pursuing the development of ecological products or services. Since environmental risks vary between sectors, a group of independent experts has created a ratings list tailored to each sector.

A further evaluation takes into account whether a company is active within sectors which score negatively: nuclear energy, gene technology in agriculture, gambling, defence, etc. Such activities on the part of a company are not rated but are reported on. The relative importance of the three research areas (cultural, social and environmental compatibility) depends on how significant a company is within its own sector. After recording the data, the next step is the classification of a company's conduct in each of the three areas, independently from one another on the scale D- to A+. D- would signify that no positive activity had been found. A company achieving A+ would be fulfilling all the positive criteria. Finally, a document rating performance is created with ranks from 1 to n depending on the number of companies rated in that sector.

The attempt to carry out such ratings and the effort invested is certainly important in that it might lead to new initiatives in developing sustainability. In any case these ratings may promote development in the social sphere alongside any ecological progression, since the questionnaires make companies think through particular issues systematically.

Communication: a learning experience
A problem with these ratings, however, is that many companies try to use them to polish their image. Issues tend to be delegated to the company's environmental/women's/sustainability representative who is made fully responsible. The representative's job can very quickly degenerate into a systematic processing of an issue, which can then be 'ticked off the list'. This mechanical procedure reduces the evaluation of check-lists, questionnaires, ratings and audits to a mindlessly automatic task. The emphasis gets shifted to individual difficulties within companies without taking the wider picture into account. Hence no real effort is made to restructure the company according to the results learned from the rating; in other words, in favour of improved sustainability.
The perspective is often too narrowly focused on an individual company while the complexity of the wider situation goes unacknowledged. Consequently, companies which come out top in the ratings lists bask in their 'success' at being sustainable, but there is no movement towards any social and economic sustainable development in the wider context. As such, companies do not fulfil their responsibilities towards society.
The question is: what procedures might lead to better results? An important aspect of social sustainability is the resolution of conflict situations, or the positive use of conflict situations in social innovation. This is unlikely to be achieved through developing detailed checklists, complicated ratings procedures, or extensive audits, as these can't make use of the forces for positive social transformation that are released from existing diverse conflicts of interest between people and groups. The constructive use of these forces would be a dynamic and communication-orientated process.
Seven identifiable areas of conflict caused by social sustainability offer opportunities for companies to develop:
1.    Individual (relating to upbringing, training, etc)
2.    Inter-personal (due to gender, age, dependency, etc)
3.    Within groups (team development, bullying, etc)
4.    Between groups (management versus employees, management versus consumers)
5.    Between individuals and society (employees involved in civil rights issues, etc)
6.    Between groups and society (company foundations)
7.    Between societies (peace, human rights, development, etc)

How can we find activists in these areas, among people who are affected directly or indirectly by a company's actions and who have an interest in sustainable development? The more the central issues are publicly discussed, the greater the chance that local spokespersons or intermediaries will be willing to negotiate with the management of the individual companies concerned. These people are out there somewhere. Such individuals or groups must be found by companies, and accepted as well-informed partners.

Towards a constructive dialogue
Knowledge of, and interest in, these issues is to be found among the many NGOs, from Kritischen Aktionären, Terre des Hommes, and Ärtze für den Frieden, to groups and individuals who belong to BUKO, BUND, or Greenpeace. In almost every area there are NGOs which are able to name social problems which relate to a certain economic sector's products, and their sustainable solutions to those problems. If this knowledge could be employed in a public debate about individual products and production, their significance, and the damage they cause to individuals/society, the debate would be strengthened.

The aims of such a debate would not primarily be to expose or rectify the existing damage, or compensate those affected as a kind of social after-care, but to create structures for social provision. Such provision should be in place before a product is put onto the market. As with ecological issues, social issues should be taken care of with preventative rather than palliative measures.

This requires the development and use of various forms of communication. Experiences and methods gleaned from participation in the political process such as public hearings, planning groups, workshops etc. should be adapted and used. Once established, an attempt to institutionalise these dialogues could be made. Companies could set up advisory groups or committees to promote ethical investments, or employ representatives of social minorities to become members of the supervisory boards.
This communication with stakeholders could result in ecologically and socially adapted product-design, which would also bring the afore-mentioned multi-functional dimensions of products into the spotlight. There should be a shared solution to the conflict between ecological and social demands. There would still be a conflict with the third dimension of sustainable development; namely, economic viability, even if this dialogue and participation were to go ahead. While the other two dimensions have a good chance of succeeding, the involvement of stakeholders in a company must strike a reasonable balance between investment and profit.
Although this approach has its problems, and more are bound to emerge, one good thing to come out of it is that 'sustainability' is now understood as a process rather than a condition or the desired outcome. The terminology used also indicates this: the discussion is about 'development towards sustainability'. Participation in development and in the development process improves communications skills but also the ability to take responsibility and make decisions, on the part of all involved. As such, the intensive dialogue about social sustainability is both an end and a means.

This essay reflects contributions to discussions during a workshop on 'Social dimensions of sustainable development' at a conference held by the 'Theory Working Group on Alternative Economy' (TAK AÖ) in Oberursel, August 2000.


Email: Burghard Fliegeri
For more than 20 years Dr Burghard Flieger has been an advocate, lecturer, researcher, editor and consultant for the co-operative movement, especially new co-ops in the environmental sector. He holds the chair of the supervisory board of the Ökobank
Contakt: Erwinstraße 29, 79102 Freiburg

Email: Elmar Sing
Elmar Sing works as a management consultant specialising in conflict-management, team and personal development. He is a board member of UnternehmensGrün, an association for ecological and social justice in the economy.

Contakt: Frankenberger Weg 9, 68309 Mannheim-Vogelstang