S is not an ethical choice


Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position.

Sustainability is a broad concept involving the environment, society, and governance. To date, strategies concerning energy transition solutions have been widely discussed, but the importance of the social side of sustainability is still unclear. The S in Social (part of ESG) does not just stand for ethical choices, it also means actually improving the quality of life, and increasing inclusion and equality.

How to quantify S

Unlike the E for the environment, it is difficult to quantify S and G. While the parameters for analyzing E are CO2 emissions, incorporated energy, water consumption, and waste management, defining parameters for the purpose of quantifying S and G is a complex process and still widely debated. However, the literature points to a way of defining how we parameterize the S in ESG, highlighting the need to develop urban environments that promote mental wellbeing so the whole community benefits. Moreover, according to the European Commission, about 90% of our time is spent in enclosed spaces for work, study, and leisure, so an analysis of architectural guidelines should be the first step in measuring S.

By studying target users, it is possible to establish and evaluate specific architectural, environmental, and communication requirements when defining spaces and services. Designing settings that promote pro-social behavior among people living in a community can lead to increased trust and a sense of ownership. Engineering, architecture, and technical physics during the design process all work with quantifiable parameters, so by systemizing these parameters it is possible to quantify how space responds to social needs.

There are two main reasons explaining the need to start from built space to quantify S: the first is the real-estate value of buildings, which increases as social quality indicators increase. The second concerns the importance of the built environment as a manifestation of social trends.

The benefits of S

In the architectural world, in most cases design is geared to the standard human being, thus excluding the specific needs and ambitions of those who do not meet this standard. In contrast, human-centered design is the main means of improving people’s health and well-being and increasing companies’ business opportunities. This type of design takes into account the target group that will use and experience the settings in question, aiming to optimize the environmental, perceptual, and communication quality of the space. The literature has studied and analyzed in detail the benefits of this design approach showing that in workplaces with indoor conditions that guarantee comfort, a 25% increase in productivity and a 70% reduction in absences due to health problems are noted, with a consequent increase in profits.

The indoor environment has been shown to have a direct effect on students’ learning abilities, which is greater in subjects with disabilities. In fact, twice as many students with disabilities drop out of school compared to other students.

Improving indoor environmental conditions and developing inclusive solutions in retail spaces and hotels significantly broadens the target market, increasing customer loyalty, and brand awareness. Human-centered design is the first concrete step to creating spaces that guarantee social quality and quality of life while also reinforcing a sense of belonging to a community. Spaces and services designed with human diversity and variety in mind can reduce inequality deriving from differences in inabilities and skills, socio-cultural background, gender and age, increasing business opportunities.

The effect of S on G and E

Many studies, including the one involved in the Drawdown Project, make it very clear that ensuring inclusion and defending human rights is one of the most powerful means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Providing a sound education for all or creating an accessible environment increases the effectiveness of climate plans at all levels: from small businesses to international operators. For example, inclusive spaces (i.e. easily accessible and reachable)are required to ensure respect for all people and also to make it easy to enforce net-zero mobility. The relationship between the letters forming the aforementioned taxonomy can be explained by means of examples that can help us understand how environmental, social, and governance factors can be implemented at the same time. A micro example is the micro-filtered water dispenser, one of the simplest and best-known means of reducing or eliminating the use of single-use plastic. This has many positive implications: firstly, some fossil fuel by-products are eliminated and the use of plastic is reduced along with emissions from transporting water. So, by providing this service, it is possible to encourage people to move around the office, creating meeting places and ensuring financial savings for staff. Ultimately, from a governance perspective, the service is optimized and so the supply chain is eliminated, optimizing the overall cost of having water available when needed.

The relationship between the environment, social quality, and governance is also evident in the decision to use devices to monitor indoor environmental conditions and collect feedback from occupants. People spend most of their time in workplaces or other enclosed spaces, so their health and well-being are strongly influenced by indoor conditions. The decision made by certain companies to ask and collect feedback from workers on their perception of comfort highlights the willingness of governance to keep informed in order to improve spaces for their occupants. This decision to monitor indoor conditions ensures control of acoustic, lighting, thermal comfort, and air quality, helps reduce building-related illnesses (Sick Building Syndrome), and raises the quality of social relations. The study of occupant comfort also provides the chance to optimize energy consumption in relation to actual needs, thereby reducing environmental impact. Another very significant example concerns one of the biggest emission areas for the services sector: transport/commuting emissions. All large buildings require careful planning as regards the means of transport people use to get there. Minimizing the use of private vehicles is an opportunity to strengthen social and governance factors and at the same time is a necessary means of reducingCO2 emissions. Allowing people to choose to use zero-carbon means of transport, such as bicycles, and providing them with a safe space to park them, also has a notable impact on the social and governance side of matters.

These three aspects are interrelated, so measures cannot be developed that enhance one while overlooking the other two. So far, experts have paid great attention to implementing environmental strategies, but social and governance aspects must be factored in to get good results in environmental terms. The challenge is to set new guidelines for raising social quality and, at the same time, develop the same strategy to define guidelines for governance for the purposes of boosting sustainability based on these three important pillars.

At the moment, there is a clear understanding of forms of environmental impact and the countermeasures to be taken, but not so much clarity as regards social aspects, although the latter has started to be included in some public calls. This is already the case, for example, in Reinventing Cities, the calls for urban regeneration made by C40 Cities, the network of international cities active on climate issues. These guidelines have begun to call for social spaces, shared or communal services, and the assessment of the interaction between people with special emphasis on spaces such as student accommodation or social housing.

Until now, the social side of most projects was viewed as the need to create an environment with no architectural barriers or encourage a sense of belonging to a community. In actual fact, social quality has a much broader meaning and much greater potential to be explored.

This article was written by Silvia Fasano, Inclusive Design consultant, Giovanni Mori, ESG consultant, and Ashwanth Ramkumar, Neuroscience consultant, Lombardini22.