Line Dybdal, Sanni N. Breining

August 18, 2020

What is social sustainability?

To narrow-in on a trending term, this article explores what social sustainability is essentially about. Two Ramboll experts weigh-in and point to several domains of social sustainability.

Hot summer day in the city. School children are having fun playing in the city fountains after school.
By Martin Christiansen
Fancy a hot cup of coffee to accompany a good read?
Then you might think about Fair Trade coffee. And realise that consumers have taken an interest in socially sustainable products for longer than we might think. Or let’s take the fashion industry improving worker’s rights after a fair share of sweat shop scandals; that was long before the industry cared to use sustainable cotton or figured out how to use old fish nets to produce sports apparel.
Old or new trend?
Pinpointing social sustainability is as straight forward as a megacity roundabout. Detours and confusion are part of the ride. While ‘newish’ and trending upwards in some domains and industries, the notion of social sustainability has seemingly had a home among urban planners and architects for decades.
- It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.
So wrote William H. Whyte in the book The Social Life of Public Spaces published 30 years ago.
However, social sustainability is far more than creating places for people – and sometimes failing in the attempt to do so. But what exactly is social sustainability and why should we care?
A way to measure progress
Since 1989, a growing number of corporate leaders, politicians, NGO’s, consultants and many more have worked with the triple bottom-line approach, aspiring to balance all three dimensions of sustainability when launching initiatives, reporting on progress or developing new strategies and politics.
Yet, the social, economic and environmental dimension of sustainability derived from the Brundtland report are much less harmonious than the classic and perfectly balanced venn-diagram tricks us into believing.
Perhaps more like three siblings; if the economy is the dominant, well-respected older brother or sister, the environment would be the fascinating, outspoken younger sibling leaving social a bit squeezed and overlooked between the two.
This might be about to change. It is becoming more and more evident that sustainability is not only green. It is not only about renewable energy, responsible consumption, re-use, climate neutrality and so on. Important as it is.
Line Dybdal, one of Ramboll’s experts in social sustainability, explains that something happened five years ago, when The United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals with the motto ‘Leave no-one behind’:
- By this, the UN forefronted goals and targets related to e.g. personal health and well-being, education, gender equality, and reduced inequalities in peaceful and just societies. On top, speaking to and listening to City Mayors for instance, it’s clear that rising social tension and a somewhat broken social contract is causing as much headache as climate changes, rapid urbanisation or changes in demography that put a strain on public funding.
Social is key to realise truly sustainable solutions
So, in essence, a society cannot develop sustainably if it is not also socially sustainable. But what then constitutes social sustainability?
In Line Dybdal’s own words, she refers to social sustainability as a commitment to creating safe, healthy and inclusive institutions, communities and societies, which enable and empower all citizens to reach their full potential – without compromising living and future generations.
- It’s about designing and executing policies, strategies and changes, which fosters equal opportunities for all, no matter of gender, ethnicity, religion, political observance, sexual orientation or disabilities and strengthens the social contract by building trust in our institutions, social cohesion and mutual respect, she says.
Enabling human’s full potential
Social sustainability is everywhere. It might be in primary schools or further education, in health care, in housing and urban planning or at workplaces.
- In a reactive manner, social sustainability is about not causing any harm to people and about not creating further inequalities. In a more proactive manner, social sustainability is about taking initiative to actively reducing and overcoming existing inequalities allowing everyone to rise to their full potential as an individual in a relational world, Line Dybdal explains.
An umbrella discourse
This is the practitioner’s point-of-view. Some scholars call social sustainability an umbrella discourse. The umbrella spans over concepts such as social equity and justice, social cohesion, social capital, social exclusion, quality of life, and urban liveability. Perhaps alluding to the conceptual messiness, some scholars even regard social sustainability as a concept in chaos. Herein lies part of the problem. What is not easily understood, is not easily managed. Executives know this all too well.
For corporations, understanding their business’ impact on the financials is everyday practice. It shows in topline, bottom line and any economic indicator in between. With the help of e.g. sustainability consulting experts, a company’s environmental impact is becoming increasingly clear. And hence tracked and managed.
This is still not the case with social sustainability as equity, diversity, fair labor practices, social safety, work-life-balance and many more themes are not easily quantifiable.
But it can be done – at least from a societal point-of-view.
Allocating the right resources
In a social returns perspective, Ph.D Sanni Breining from Ramboll argues that it is a basic economic condition that societies are subject to scarce resources. Therefore, societies must repeatedly decide how to allocate the resources most efficiently which is also the case when investing in social sustainability, she explains:
- For that reason, it is important to monitor whether the interventions we launch provide us with the returns we expect. And I’m not just talking about financial return but - equally important - about social returns. I want to really stress that.
Ph.D. Sanni Breining works in Ramboll Management Consulting as a socio-economist. A profession which - in essence - is all about putting numbers to a social intervention. For instance, what is the return on capital from investing upfront in vulnerable youth by providing them with better education or employment support.
- By insisting on this ‘social returns perspective’, we make sure that we invest our resources in activities that create long-term societal impact, first and foremost benefitting people and thereby the economy in general terms. In my view, that is sustainable thinking.
Agreeing on a common approach
In environmental sustainability, the playing field is agreed upon. Some radical voices may dispute man-made global warming and climate actions may come in many forms; but 1.5 degrees is 1.5 degrees and 1 tonne of CO2 is 1 tonne no matter if you are in Berlin, Bogota or Brisbane.
Some common tools are naturally available, for instance the BREEAM and DGNB certification schemes both encompass social and so does S-LCA, the so-called Social Life Cycle Assessment.
Yet, it becomes apparent that when seeking more information about social sustainability, the source of information is vital to determine if we are talking about social sustainability as a people-first approach to urban design, a social systems view on complex interactions in a society or perhaps a ‘social democratic lens’ with equal opportunities for all. Or a fourth, fifth and sixth perspective.
Regardless of viewpoints, social sustainability seems to gain in awareness as the overall pursuit of more sustainable societies continues. The question is if a more uniform approach to social sustainability will foster or fade this development. Time will tell.
Further reading
Explore our section on Liveable Places, see Ramboll’s approach to sustainability and CR or read more about our services within Social & Economic Impacts or Sustainability Consulting.

Want to know more?

  • Line Dybdal

    Country Market Director in Denmark for Ramboll Management Consulting

    +45 51 61 78 54

  • Sanni N. Breining

    Director Sustainable Economics

    +45 51 61 24 01