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School partners with community to promote sustainable development

When you see the word “sustainability” you most likely think of environmental preservation and eco-friendly phrases such as “reduce, reuse and recycle” and “building green.” But did you know that it also applies to living wages, accessible health care and affordable housing? At UNC’s School of Social Work, students and faculty have long understood the value of building social equity. Now, they are helping to educate others.

The School has joined the Foundation for a Sustainable Community and its umbrella partner, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, to create a joint venture to help influence research, policy and practices in sustainable development. The collaboration, known as the Institute for Sustainable Development, brings together businesses, educational experts and private investors to promote the importance of investing in resources that advance the triple bottom line: environmental stewardship, social equity and economic prosperity.

“You can’t do one without the other,” said Gary Nelson, a School professor and an institute founding member. “Unless you invest in all three, you’re going to come up short.”
The institute’s partners include other heavy-hitters, such as UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives, the Duke Center for International Development, the Fenwick Foundation and North Carolina Central University. They, along with the School of Social Work, are using their resources and expertise to foster sustainable development and business practices that meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the next.

Long-term, that means communities that are healthier and safer, economically viable and more desirable places to live, Nelson said. The institute encourages these efforts through networking events, seminars and workshops that connect students and faculty to businesses and groups involved in sustainable activities.

A snapshot survey for measuring a community’s sustainability attitudes and practices has been developed. The assessment encourages businesses to take a closer look at what they are doing to preserve water, air quality and fossil fuel. But the survey also examines a community’s social responsibilities, evaluating, for example, whether businesses offer employees a living wage, paid leave for volunteer work and opportunities for professional advancement.

“If we don’t make investments in social equity, we will not be able to compete successfully in a global economy,” Nelson said.

Graduate students from Nelson’s sustainable development class discussed the survey during a meeting last year with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for a Sustainable Community. Businesses that invest in the environment and economy can also invest in their employees and community through the practice of  “reciprocal equity,” said Lisa Stifler, a UNC law and social work graduate student who co-authored the survey report.

“Reciprocal equity asks, ‘How do you invest in your employees? How do your employees invest in you? How do you invest in the community and how does the community invest in you?’”
Results from a pilot snapshot survey, which included Chapel Hill, Lancaster, Pa. and Cleveland, Ohio, were recently released. Nearly 800 businesses and organizations participated in the assessment.
“There are some findings that are interesting, the general finding being that businesses are interested in doing the right thing but are often at a loss of how to do it while keeping a positive bottom line,” Nelson said. “They also see going green as a potential marketing position to improve their bottom line while doing the right thing by the
environment and their employees.
Some of the survey results included:

Most participating businesses said they had a responsibility to protect the environment and more than 60 percent of those in Lancaster and Chapel Hill and 51 percent in Cleveland said they had “specific strategies or goals regarding environmental stewardship and protection.”
Most companies agreed that “increasing profits and reducing costs” had influenced their decisions to examine their environmental impact, although in Chapel Hill, most said they were more concerned about “local environmental issues.”
Chapel Hill businesses got higher marks for recycling and water usage. About 58 percent of the participating businesses in the city said they recycled “everything we possibly can” and nearly 65 percent made “special efforts to reduce water use.”
More than 55 percent of all participating businesses agreed that being known as a “green” company offers some competitive advantage.

By Susan White