No sustainability without social justice (or vice versa!)

By Beate Sjåfjell, 10 July 2020.

Image may contain: Glasses, Face, Hair, Eyebrow, Forehead.
Beate Sjåfjell is Professor at the Department of Private Law, University of Oslo

Sustainability is not a question of either environmental protection or social justice, but of resolving the relationship between the two, so that they are mutually supportive. It is about achieving social justice while staying within the limits of our planet. Drawing on the work of Leach, Raworth and Rockström, sustainability can accordingly be defined as securing the social foundation for humanity, now and in the future, within planetary boundaries. It is about achieving a safe and just space for humanity.

Social justice and human rights

While planetary boundaries is a science-based environmental ceiling, the basis for envisaging the social foundation was originally the political consensus contained in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The minimum requirement is that of ensuring the realisation of basic human rights.  However, we cannot stop there. The science basis for the concept of planetary boundaries must continuously evolve in the light of new understandings of what is ‘safe’. In a similar way, attempts at defining and pursuing the social foundation must be rigorously interrogated in the light of what is ‘just’. This cannot be exhaustively defined by the SDGs, nor by a minimalistic approach to human rights.

Efforts to secure the social foundation should therefore go to what is arguably also the roots of human rights: to ‘human dignity’, as intrinsic to a just space for humanity. This entails advancing human welfare, rather than, as the criticism brought forward by, amongst others, Samuel Moyn: settling for a weak minimum human rights standard.  Social justice is accordingly about a range of interconnected issues.

No straightforward path to sustainability

There are tensions inherent in global society’s goal of sustainability, amongst them the risk that the most marginalised groups will not be sufficiently included in participatory processes, notably excluding indigenous peoples.  Further, the continual undermining of the economic bases for our societies, the increasing inequality between and within countries, and the rise of populism and the risk of societal instability that this entails.  Some of the most disturbing trends in major industrialised countries reflect such a lack of social stability, and business has a role in this. 

The social inequality within and across countries is fundamental to the turbulence of the complex social-ecological systems of which business too is an element. The economic basis of our societies is crucial to securing the social foundation. This underlines that a ‘safe and just’ social foundation for humanity within planetary boundaries is not something that is here now, which we (merely) need to protect. It is something that we must transition towards, with appropriate policy measures informed by interconnected complexities of the social-ecological systems.

Leaving no-one behind

As an intrinsic element of the transition must be included participatory aspects of the social foundation, of workers, regardless of their labour law status, and of affected communities, including indigenous peoples, women, children and migrant workers, and ensuring that all affected are fully involved. And yet, as Jukka Mähönen has emphasised, we must avoid merely replacing the ‘shareholder’ in shareholder primacy with ‘stakeholder’.  While involving affected communities, trade unions, and civil society is crucial, a mere canvassing of ‘stakeholder interests’ and giving priority to the ones that make themselves heard the most is insufficient. The backdrop must always be the interconnected complexities within the relevant social-ecological systems, the vulnerability of the often unrepresented groups (whether invisible workers deep in global value chains, indigenous communities, or even future generations), and the aim of the safe and just space for humanity, now and in the future, within planetary boundaries.

Reforming business is key to sustainability

Key to the transition to sustainability is changing the way business operates. We need to move beyond the silos of ‘economy’, ‘environment’, ‘human rights’, including the silo of ‘business and human rights’. In my article in the journal Business and Human Rights, I aim to show how the business and human rights problem is just one element of the broader corporate sustainability crisis. And I outline a proposal for how to integrate sustainability into business decision-making.

The comprehensive reform that is needed will require political courage and the support of a number of actors. I strongly believe that this kind of transformative change now is possible. After decades of putting the economy and financial returns first, the Covid19 pandemic underlines how interconnected we are; all of humanity and the nature we depend on. Comprehensive reform is necessary to achieve a safe and just space for humanity.


Tags: Social Justice and Sustainability
Published July 10, 2020 3:04 PM - Last modified Aug. 28, 2022 11:53 AM