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Social Sustainability: How Well is Your Organization Doing?


By Darcy Hitchcock

A lot of organizations 'get' environmental sustainability, issues related to natural resources, climate change, toxics and waste. It's tangible, and nature sets the bar for sustainability. But many organizations in the developed world struggle to understand what social sustainability has to do with them. They assume we’ve legislated out of existence many of the problems associated with social injustice: slavery, child labor, racial discrimination, unsafe workplaces, etc.

When asked about social sustainability, business owners throw their arms akimbo, thinking they’re done. While it’s true that many of the most egregious social offenses seem to occur outside the industrialized world, those of us in the so-called developed world may share more responsibility for them than we care to know. In addition, there’s a risk that we have become blind or inured to our own special violations and can’t see the dysfunction we’ve created in our own backyards.

"We need love, and to ensure love, we need to have full employment, and we need social justice. We need gender equity. We need freedom from hunger. These are our most fundamental needs as social creatures."

David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster

What women (and men) want

You’ve undoubtedly heard the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present while ensuring that future generations can meet their own needs. Sounds fine, but what exactly does that mean? Defining social sustainability can be tough. What are needs and what are wants? We need a way of defining what a healthy society is. One approach is to base this on research on human needs.

Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, discovered which human needs were consistent across different cultures. These same needs, Max-Neef found, showed up despite different social norms, conventions or locations. The way we satisfy those needs, he concluded, is what defines the differences from culture to culture. So, his model helps us to see past our differences and understand what is at the core of human behavior and motivation.

Nine human needs — Max-Neef identified the following human needs (used with permission):

  • Subsistence

  • Protection

  • Affection

  • Understanding

  • Participation

  • Leisure

  • Creation

  • Identity

  • Freedom
Not a hierarchy — Max-Neef’s list is not hierarchical like the one Maslow hypothesized. One of Max-Neef’s insights is that a deficit in meeting any of these needs is a type of poverty that in turn generates pathologies. Some are obvious. Certainly if you don’t have enough to eat (subsistence), you have hunger or starvation. In babies, the lack of affection leads to what’s known as “failure to thrive,” sometimes even leading to death. If you don’t have enough leisure, you become a workaholic who suffers from stress and related maladies.

But it’s also true if people don’t have enough opportunities to influence matters that affect them (participation and freedom), they often get passive-aggressive or even aggressive. In organizations, you will often see ‘malicious obedience,’ as one of our colleagues coined it: disgruntled employees doing exactly what they’re told even though they know it’s not the right thing to do.

Not substitutable — Another of Max-Neef’s insights is that these needs cannot be substituted for one another. If you compensate for a lack of affection with food (subsistence), you have another well-recognized problem: obesity.

These needs are all important for a healthy human being.

From a sustainability standpoint, we want to find synergistic ways of meeting these needs while at the same time contributing to a healthier triple bottom line.

For a more detailed conversation of social sustainability, check out this article.
"Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them."

Dalai Lama

Organizational social sustainability diagnostic

So, now that we know what people need, how do we use this information to assess our social sustainability? In organizations, we need to ask two questions:

  • First, do no harm: In what ways are we undermining these needs for our stakeholders?

  • Second, make a positive difference: How can we contribute to meeting these needs in a sustainable way?

Use this diagnostic at your next management team meeting to uncover opportunities to improve your social sustainability across your stakeholder groups. We built this on Max-Neef's model with his gracious permission. These questions are not exhaustive but should spark good conversation.


Do No Harm

  • Who isn’t earning a living wage (employees and your suppliers' employees)?

  • Who in our organization or supply chain doesn’t have access to food, water, shelter and basic healthcare?

  • Who is marginalized or disadvantaged?
Make a Positive Difference

  • Who in our communities (where we operate or where we serve) are living on the edge?

  • What can we do to increase the wealth, well-being and resilience of our employees and the community?

  • How can we improve the health and well-being of stakeholders?

  • How can we rein in the income gap such that it promotes a sense of equality, fairness and social harmony?


Do No Harm

  • Who is working in unsafe working conditions? (Include jobs requiring repetitive motion or long periods of sitting.)

  • Do our benefits adequately protect our employees and is everyone covered?

  • Is there a way to change our business model so employees don’t have to work at night (which is associated with health problems and accidents)?

  • When was the last time we did a chemical inventory and how can we find safer substitutions for chemicals of concern while ensuring all our material safety data sheets are up to date?

  • Have we chosen our interiors with indoor air quality in mind?
Make a Positive Difference

  • What dangers face our stakeholders outside of work (eg, crime, domestic abuse, environmental hazards, access to health care)? How might we address these issues through our business?

  • What can we do to improve the safety of our employees, customers, suppliers and the public?


Do No Harm

  • Who may be feeling ignored, unloved or unappreciated?

  • Where are we missing a sense of caring and mutual support in our organization and work teams?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How can we better demonstrate our respect and caring for all stakeholders?

  • How do we enhance the ability of our employees to interact with the customers (which can enhance feedback and personalize our service)?


Do No Harm

  • Who is missing critical information that would help them engage in the business?

  • Who is not being intellectually stimulated?

  • Who is not being given access to opportunities to develop their potential?

  • Do any of our interactions with stakeholders (eg, advertising, sales and service, lobbying, shareholder meetings) undermine their dignity or diminish their views?
Make a Positive Difference

  • What perspectives are not yet represented in our decision-making?

  • How can we bring in a wider set of voices?

  • How might our marketing and advertising build people and communities up, addressing real human needs?


Do No Harm

  • Who doesn’t have influence over major decisions that affect them?

  • Are there places where our standardized work processes treat people like machines?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How empowered is our workforce? Can we apply democratic practices (see WorldBlu for best practices).

  • Could we change our form of ownership so employees would be owners?

  • How can we increase the engagement of our stakeholders, even those who may disagree with us?


Do No Harm

  • Who has too much or not enough work (ie, a lack of appropriate work-life balance)?

  • Could some jobs be shared or completed via telework?

  • Are employees or managers working 24-7? Do we encourage people to take time to rejuvenate themselves (eg, unplug while at home or on vacation)?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How do we cut down on commute or travel times?

  • Can we offer sabbaticals, volunteer vacations, or study tours to encourage employees to develop their talents?

  • How can we enhance the availability of personal time and work flexibility for family issues (eg, adoptions, elder care, doctors visits, sick children)?


Do No Harm

  • Who has few outlets for creativity or control over how they work?

  • In what ways have we become complaisant where instead we should be innovating?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How can we increase opportunities for people to express themselves in creative ways and foster innovation?Where can we use the design process more to improve our organization?

  • How can we invent more systemic solutions with our stakeholders?

  • How do we support the need for art, music and other creative pursuits in schools?


Do No Harm

  • Who may feel marginalized, excluded or disenfranchised?

  • How well does the diversity in our organization and board match the customers and communities we intend to serve?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How do we ensure we are making decisions based on the greater good, not just our own interests, so doing good or being sustainable becomes part of our self-image?

  • How do we move up the three levels of sustainability until our organization sees its mission as solving significant social/environmental problems.


Do No Harm

  • Is there any forced labor or oppression embedded in any part of our supply chain?

  • Where do we have undue influence over others (eg, via lobbying, being the biggest employer in town, or the primary customer for a supplier)?

  • Who may feel stuck in their job or be afraid to speak their truth (eg, due to lack of opportunities, poor management or entrenched biases)?
Make a Positive Difference

  • How can we give employees more control over their work life: how work is done, who they work with, when they work?

  • Who in our communities may feel oppressed and can we be an advocate for their empowerment?
Image credit: Flickr/Bruce Guenter

Adapted from an article called "Confused by Social Responsibility” written by Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard, published by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.

Darcy Hitchcock is the author of a number of award-winning business books including The Business Guide to Sustainability (now in its third edition). In her latest book, GREAT WORK: 12 Principles for your Work Life and Life’s Work, Darcy shares what she has learned about finding a calling, making a difference and leading organizations. It’s available in print and also three e-books: "Finding Your GREAT WORK," "Designing Organizations for GREAT WORK" and :Leading Others to GREAT WORK."

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