Is sustainable development about more than the environment?

I've been running a training course today, helping sustainable development specialists get some insights from the world of organisational change.  As part of this, each person identified a sustainability challenge that's real for them and their organisation right now. One of the participants was grappling with how to get people from across the organisation to look at the sustainability impacts of the services they provide.   This will entail having a much better understanding of what the social aspects of sustainable development are, and how you might measure or assess your performance on these aspects.

We came back to this question about the social aspects of sustainable development when looking at Dexter Dunphy's phases of organisational strategic engagement with sustainability.  There's a pdf of a presentation summarising this here. One of the phases in this typology is ‘efficiency’.

If your focus is on the environment, it’s clear that this is about eco-efficiency or resource-efficiency.  If your focus is the economic aspects of sustainability, then financial and labour efficiency (productivity) are easy concepts to grasp.  But what does this mean when you are thinking about the social aspects?

With wonderful serendipity, I had just been reading Jonathon Porritt’s valedictory report, published yesterday.  Jonathon recently stepped down as Chair of the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, and in this report he examines what he calls the mystery of why sustainable development hasn’t been better embedded in the various strands of government in the UK.  He blogs about it here and there's also a link to download the report.

As it happens, he provides a very useful summary of what social sustainability is and what efficiency means in that context.  He does it so well, that I’ll quote at some length here.

The two overarching ends [of sustainable development, as articulated in the UK Government’s 2005 strategy] (“Living Within Environmental Limits”, and “Achieving a Strong, Healthy and Just Society”) require very different approaches. The test of “living within environmental limits” is a strictly empirical test: define the limit (as in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for instance, or threshold limits for pollutants in the air or water), measure levels of compliance against these agreed limits, and then adapt policies accordingly.  By contrast, “achieving a strong, healthy and just society” is a predominantly normative aspiration rather than an empirical test, with very different metrics and very different value judgements as to the weight that should be attached to different aspects of “strong, healthy and just”.

At the heart of the concept of sustainable development lies the concept of “dual equities”: inter-generational equity (living today in such a way that we aren’t ruining prospects for people tomorrow), and intra-generational equity (living today in such a way that we reduce – or even eliminate – current unsupportable inequalities in wealth, opportunity and broader entitlements).

In that respect, sustainable economic development means “fair shares for all”, ensuring that people’s basic needs are properly met across the world, while securing constant improvements in the quality of people’s lives through efficient, inclusive economies. “Efficient” in that context simply means generating as much economic value as possible from the lowest possible throughput of raw materials and energy.

…Once basic needs are met, the goal is to achieve the highest quality of life for individuals and communities, within the Earth’s carrying capacity, through transparent, properly regulated markets which promote both social equity and personal prosperity.”

This idea of efficiency in the use of the Earth’s carrying capacity to give as much social well-being as possible must mean, in some situations, redistributing carrying capacity from those who have an unfairly large share of it, in order that those whose needs are not being met can better meet their own needs.  This is the case because it is not possible to ‘increase the size of the pie’ – we only have one planet.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) produces the Happy Planet Index which uses official statistics to reveal, as they put it,  “the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered” in 143 countries covering 99% of the world’s population.  (I know you want to know – the UK score is 43.3, the USA is 30.7, and Costa Rica is 76.1.)

I wonder how this approach could be used to measure performance in organisations?