Background paper

Murray RiverThis paper seeks to examine and unpack concepts of ecological and social sustainability. By doing so we seek to explore issues around the adoption of the term ‘eco-social sustainability’ as a research agenda for our network, with particular reference to interdisciplinary research that links researchers in the social sciences, humanities and business studies with each other, as well as with researchers in environmental and health sciences.

The social sciences and environmental sustainability

The concept of ‘sustainability’ emerged in the 1960s in response to concern over environmental degradation resulting from poor resource management. Consequently, many definitions of sustainability are based in concepts of environmental protection and sustainable resource management. As the environment became increasingly important as a world issue, sustainability was adopted as a common political goal. In 1960, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was created to promote the development of policies that would achieve 'the highest sustainable level of growth in member and non-member countries in order to stimulate employment and increase living standards'.

In 1980, the World Conservation Strategy was released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The strategy defines the 'main agents of habitat destruction and environmental degradation as poverty, population pressure, social inequity and the terms of trade'. 'Sustainable development' was defined as the maintenance of essential ecological processes and life support systems, including those of humans.

The late 1980s saw the foundation of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED). UNCED’s report Our Common Future (1987) contains a definition of sustainable development (known as the Brundtland definition) which has current widespread influence: 'Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'

This definition of sustainable development, now commonly cited as a definition of sustainability as a whole, presupposes the necessity for development, and commonly concentrates on areas in which development is most important. The related concept of ‘sustainable community’, while appearing to focus on social aspects of community wellbeing, is in many cases simply a model for environmental sustainability on a local level.

Subsequent environmental summits (Rio 1992 to Johannesburg 2002) have furthered the international agenda of environmental protection through sustainable resource management, as has the involvement of university leaders. The Talloires Declaration was composed in 1990 at an international conference in Talloires, France, by a worldwide group of university leaders. While aspects of the social sciences, particularly education, are discussed in the declaration, the environment is the key concern. 

Our reading of the current literature on environmental sustainability is that the inclusion of the ‘social’ element is predicated on two basic assumptions:  

  1. The success of sustainable development programs is measured through the highest attainable increase in living standards measured against the lowest attainable amount of environmental degradation. Thus, social development and environmental protection can be seen as at odds with one another and must be carefully balanced.
  2. Social sciences are seen as useful disciplinary tools with which to promote the message of environmental stability.

Our network will seek to move beyond simple binary structures that present social development and environmental degradation in opposition to one another. Additionally, we do not see the role of the social sciences solely as a means to promote environmental protection measures and determine their effectiveness. We will investigate social policy and institutional structures that will enable social and environmental sustainability to be complementary and mutually supporting rather than requiring a series of ‘trade-offs’ to remain in balance.

The role of social science and humanities research within ‘environmentally sustainability development’ is best demonstrated by the ‘concentric circles’ model, commonly found in sustainability literature. The model portrays the ‘social’ and ‘economic’ spheres as dependent on the health of the environmental sphere.

concentric circles

A more recent but still widespread mode of thinking is that the three spheres of influence are best represented equally. This is described visually in the overlapping circles model.

The second of these two models is a far more appropriate one for eco-social sustainability, as it promotes the equality of all three areas and focuses on the areas of overlap, suggesting dialogue and mutual understanding rather than a hierarchical system. However, as noted in the following section, the construction of the definition of sustainability is less important than the context in which it is used.  


Social sustainability and the triple bottom line

The expression 'triple bottom line' was developed by environmentalist John Elkington in 1999 and has fast become an international commonplace for describing a mode of corporate reporting that encompasses environmental and social as well as economic concerns. The term is now also used widely in discussions of sustainability as though the two were interchangeable. Elkington’s expression crystalised the increasingly widespread view that 'we need to bear in mind that it is not possible to achieve a desired level of ecological or social or economic sustainability (separately), without achieving at least a basic level of all three forms of sustainability, simultaneously' (from the Green Innovations website). In Elkington’s own words, 'the sustainability agenda, long understood as an attempt to harmonise the traditional financial bottom line with emerging thinking about the environmental bottom line, is turning out to be much more complicated than some early business enthusiasts imagined. Increasingly, we think in terms of a "triple bottom line", focusing on economic prosperity, environmental quality, and – the element which business has tended to overlook – social justice.'

Despite its inclusion in the triple bottom line, the role played by the social aspect is rarely equal to the economic and environmental concerns. The Global Reporting Initiative (established in 1997) has reported 'in contrast to GRI Environmental indicators … reporting on social performance occurs infrequently and inconsistently across organisations'. The same tendency is also noted by the developers of the Western Australian Council of Social Services Model of Social Sustainability, who note that, '[w]hile there has been considerable work done in relation to the environmental and economic spheres, the social has tended to fall off the sustainability agenda'.

Much of the work done on developing indicators of sustainability has been done by consultancy firms (such as Elkington’s own company SustainAbility), who serve large companies by helping them to arrive at indicator systems for their tripartite corporate reporting. Social sustainability is far more difficult to quantify that economic growth or environmental impact and consequently it is the most neglected element of triple bottom line reporting. Further, all-purpose indicators of social sustainability are too general to be useful, and specific indicators need to be developed for particular companies, meaning that their usefulness to academic discourse in particular contexts of social sustainability is questionable.

While the recognition that companies with a sound environmental reputation had a market advantage has been well documented (hence the initial appeal of SustainAbility to companies such as Shell), studies on the effect of the ethical and social reputation of a company on its performance are a comparatively recent development, and consequently there has been little opportunity for the success of social sustainability projects to be documented. A report by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) stated that whilst the FTSE 100 firms 'are making progress in reporting on the social impacts of their activities? … most have yet to demonstrate real performance improvements on key social issues'.

It is tempting to think of the ‘triple bottom line’ as being another expression of the ‘overlapping circles model’ described above, in which all aspects of the bottom line are of equal importance. However, in practice, its use primarily within a business context often means it is simply a reorganisation of the concentric circles model that treats the economic concern of a company as the base line.  The social sciences are seen to play a supporting role in this agenda, just as they are in environmentally based definitions of sustainable development.

The great stumbling block when defining sustainability in any context is that

the context in which the definitions are applied is more important than their wording.  Regardless of inclusive definitions that call for interdisciplinary input and a cohesive view of the interrelation of nature, society and the economy, the basic agenda of those who are performing the research, or profiting from its implementation, will quickly determine the real meaning of the work of any organisation in the field of sustainability. In Phillip Sutton’s words,  '[s]ustainability is not "about" the integration of ecological, social and economic issues, nor is it "about" widespread consultation nor is it "about" improving quality of life. It's about maintaining or sustaining something. To understand the concept … you need to identify the focus of … concern'. (from the Green Innovations site)


Only recently has there been any attempt to define ‘society’ as the focus of concern in sustainability research and development. As interdisciplinary and integrated models of thought have become more commonplace, the social element has been positioned within other models of sustainability that have either the environment or the economy as their main concern. This has resulted in a paucity of genuine research into what sustains and promotes an equitable and just society. 

The focus of concern of our network will be on institutions and policies that support socially sustainable regions. Social sustainability must first be defined as distinct from environmental or economic sustainability for it to develop its own models of best practice. Once this process of definition has been achieved, parameters can be established to measure the effect of equitable social policies and institutions on environmental outcomes. This will result in a truly interdisciplinary model of eco-sustainability.

(Our model of eco-social sustainability, including our focus on regions, is described further in the position paper.)

Sustainability as a National Research Priority in Australia

Within Australia, the recognition of sustainability as a priority eventuated in the National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) in 1992. The national strategy includes five key principles of ecologically sustainable development:

  • integrating economic and environmental goals in policies and activities
  • ensuring that environmental assets are properly valued
  • providing for equity within and between generations
  • dealing cautiously with risk and irreversibility
  • recognising the global dimension.

More recently (in December 2002), the Australian federal government has adopted 'an environmentally sustainable Australia' as one of four national research priorities. These priorities were developed after a consultative process in which large public meetings were held, and over 180 groups or individuals made written submissions according to a set framework (which has also been subject to consultation and review). Not surprisingly, sustainability was widely suggested as a research priority in both the meetings and in the written submissions. In many cases, this entailed environmental sustainability without much reference to social factors.

However, there were a variety of submissions that called either for an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability (such as that of the Group of Eight) or discussed social factors in sustainability as desirable research agendas in their own right. Calls for an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability (including a broad definition of this term) came from both social science and natural science organisations. The University of South Australia's submission recommended sustainability as a national research priority, working with the following definition of the term:

Sustainability – including sustainable environments, sustainable societies and sustainable economies. This priority would mean attention inter alia to issues relating to water use, renewable energy, democratic citizenship, social justice, equity, impact of globalised economies on work and triple bottom line approaches. (UniSA has now adopted this definition as part of its own academic profile over the next 12 years). 

The University of New England's Centre for Sustainable Farming Systems proposed 'sustainable population hubs across Australia supported by sustainable mosaic ecosystems', and noted that an interdisciplinary approach involving both physical and social sciences was required. Of particular importance is the observation of the UQ Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, which recommended 'enabling a sustainable environment', and noted the following about of the role of the social sciences in this agenda:

Rather than 'adding social science in' to science, engineering and technology research, what is suggested here is social science research that complements scientific research but stands out as a focus of inquiry in its own right.

The ARC proceeded with a definition of this priority area that highlighted the importance of the physical and technological aspects of environmental sustainability: 'Transforming the way we use our land, water, mineral and energy resources through a better understanding of environmental systems and using new technologies'. The subheadings of the goal in DEETYA’s first version priorities are all based on the environment and sustainable resource use.

Aware that this definition and its subheadings (and those of the other priorities) gave 'greater prominence … to science and technology than the social sciences and humanities', the government engaged in consultation with social science and humanities leaders, including a conference in March 2003, in order to asses how the priorities might be re-evaluated in order to include more scope for those disciplines.

Many Australian social science and humanities scholars have viewed the sustainability priority as the one that is most applicable to their own work, if it could be re-evaluated in order to include social and cultural as well as environmental elements. For example, the National Academy of the Humanities, in their response to the priorities, noted:

What constitutes environmental sustainability is ultimately a social and political question as much as a scientific one. In fact, moving towards an environmentally sustainable Australia will depend not only on our knowledge of ecosystems and resources but even more on our ability to initiate, advocate and absorb radical shifts in desired lifestyles, values and technology … We believe that the existing priority goals need to be re-drafted to acknowledge the fundamental human origins of environmental problems. (The Humanities and Australia’s National Research Priorities, p. 7).

The main result of this consultative process has been a series of 'editorial enhancements' to the priorities, including the introduction of four new goals as subsets of the original priorities in order to make more obvious the role of the social sciences within each. These were released in a public statement on 28 November 2003: 'The national research priorities and their associated priority goals'. The main change to the sustainability priority has been the inclusion of 'Responding to climate change and variability' as a sub-heading, promoting the role of the social sciences in studying the effects that climate change has had and will have and proposing beneficial adaptation strategies.

Conclusion: our network’s position within the National Research Priorities

The major contribution of our network will be to the 'Environmentally sustainable Australia' priority. Our work also will fit into several of the sub-goals in this category:

  • water, a critical resource
  • overcoming soil loss, salinity and acidity
  • sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity
  • responding to climate change and variability.

An Environmentally Sustainable Australia will require socially sustainable cities and rural areas. We seek to contribute to the development of models for best practice in social sustainability, and study the correspondence between increased social stability and equity and increased environmental awareness. We welcome the increased relevance of the social sciences to this priority, in particular the addition of the particular focus on climate change, but continue to call for recognition of the social causes of degradation, in addition to the need for socially appropriate responses to it. As noted, a model that attempts to 'add in' social sciences into a model ultimately predicated by the physical sciences will not lead to the true interdisciplinary solutions that sustainability clearly requires.

Our work also closely relates to the priority 'Promoting and maintaining good health'. Our emphasis in regard to this priority will be on environmental health, and the link between environment and lifestyle. Our major contribution to this priority will be to the new goal of 'Strengthening Australia’s economic and social fabric', which we welcome as it is central to our theme and mission.

Areas of study and research

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