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The road to social sustainability

By Benoit Froment 

Social sustainability is the least understood and least defined of the different branches that make up sustainable development. Social sustainability is defined as the ability of a community to meet its present needs and the needs of future generations.

It has enjoyed less attention in public dialogue than economic and environmental sustainability, perhaps because it is less easy to measure. As a result of protest and public outcry, however, there has been a far greater focus in recent times on properly managing social sustainability.

A healthy ecosystem

Your business is an intrinsic part of the community in which it operates, it is part of the ecosystem of that community and needs to work in harmony with it to ensure mutual prosperity. Businesses cannot operate parasitically in their environments. There are three main steps to understanding how best to implement social sustainability in your community:

Step 1: Identify needs

Social sustainability deals primarily with the needs of people, and these needs are multifaceted, making them difficult to pinpoint and measure reliably and consistently. Social sustainability is based on four concentric and interrelated spheres of influence: employees, suppliers, customers, and the community in which a business operates.

While different groups of people have different needs, these needs are usually a combination of the following fundamentals: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. Needs can also be defined according to the existential categories of being, having, doing and interacting.

Step 2: Do no harm

Once you know what people need, how do you use this information? Perhaps it is prudent to abide by the adage, “First, do no harm.” An organisation needs to establish in which ways its operations and activities are potentially undermining the needs of its stakeholders.

For example, if your organisation is the primary employer in a small town, you need to establish how the town will be affected if something should happen to your organisation. How resilient is your business? How resilient is the town’s economy? Are you enhancing local business or putting them out of business? By not offering employees health insurance, are you externalising healthcare costs to the community? These questions need to be investigated to understand the impact your organisation has on your community.

Step 3: Make a positive difference

Once you have established the needs of the community and have neutralised any activities that could harm the community, you can work toward making a positive difference. This means meeting the needs of the community which will contribute to their independent growth and sustainability. Once you’ve made sure you’re not making things worse, it’s time to focus on making things better for each of your stakeholders.

There are no mandatory standards that govern social sustainability. However, best practice standards are derived from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles state that countries have the obligation to “respect, protect, and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms” and that business enterprises are required to comply with all applicable laws and respect human rights. In South Africa, for example, extractive industries need to submit a Social and Labour Plan to obtain and maintain an operating licence.

Asking the right questions

In tracking stakeholder participation for a specific project, there a number of questions that need to be answered:

  • How do we identify and categorise them?
  • Have we identified all the stakeholders?
  • How do we engage with them?
  • How do we make sure their opinion is taken into account?
  • How do we make sure they can raise issues?
  • Can we fix the issues raised?

For community development, the following questions need to be raised:

  • How do we involve the stakeholders?
  • How do we assess their needs?
  • How do we make sure we answer their needs?
  • How do we measure the effectiveness of a community program or project?
  • How do we make sure a community investment is sustainable?

The technology has to embed those practices by making them systematic. An effective management has to be monitored and measurable:

  • What are your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?
  • How often do you have to measure KPIs?
  • How do you measure them?
  • What is your mitigation or correction plan in case you are under-performing?

The ideal way to measure and report against this strategy is a flexible software solution, one that is capable of adapting and growing with the organisation. Social needs are in constant flux, and it is imperative that your technology can keep up.

Make it efficient through technology

The diverse needs of different population groups make systematising social management difficult to achieve without a flexible software system that can be moulded to suit a wide range of applications. Technology has the ability to overcome these barriers.

Social management cannot be effective without employing technology to streamline processes. Because there is such a wide range of activities that constitute social management, the use of non-integrated systems or manual data capturing and reporting through spreadsheets means that the organisation is subjected to unnecessary risk as it wades through the quagmire of disjointed, out of date information. Enterprise management systems should be used to systematise specific activities and facilitate their reporting.

Select the right tools for your business

There are a number of business intelligence tools on the market, like QlikView, which allow you to measure a multitude of KPIs. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) such as ESRI’s ArcGIS allow organisations to graphically monitor progress of their activities and their impacts.

There are also mobile applications allowing data collection (images, GPS location) in remote locations, in real-time and to receive notifications in the same conditions. Ideally, a large organisation would have one integrated, agile system that easily allows monitoring and reporting on the wide range of activities required to effectively manage social sustainability.


Social sustainability is difficult to define because the needs of communities are diverse. By using technology to the best advantage and implementing integrated, agile management software, you will be better able to navigate your social sustainability objectives. Effectively managing social sustainability through technology changes a cumbersome requirement into a channel for positive social change.

About the Author

Benoit Froment is Director North America for Metrix Software Solutions. He is responsible for leading the IsoMetrix operations in the US and Canada, including Sales and Marketing, Implementation and Customer Support. He is also an IsoMetrix Subject Matter Expert in Social Sustainability.