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TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges #2: Ecological Sustainability and the Urgency for TSI today

October 25 2017

By Edina Vadovics, member of the TRANSIT Advisory Board 

We tend to put the environment last because we think the first thing we have to do is eliminate poverty. But you can't reduce poverty in a vacuum. You are doing it in an environment.

-Wangari Maathai

The quote from Wangari Maathai very nicely introduces this short piece of writing. It suggests that in our work in or with social innovation initiatives, we need to connect environmental and social sustainability, and, in some cases, we may even need to give preference to tackling environmental issues, so that we are then able to deal with social ones as well. Although this may sound self-evident, I would like to challenge everyone to really think about it and ask: is it really happening as much as we assume it does?

Furthermore, is it happening within the framework of "strong and just sustainability"? To provide a brief definition for this without turning this blog into an academic paper, by "strong" I refer to respect for and living (or aiming to live) within ecological limits and planetary boundaries, and by "just" to providing equal access to resources and benefits as well as ensuring equitable burden sharing for both present and future generations.

If we take the definition of strong and just sustainability, we will see that social innovation (SI) does not automatically connect the environmental and social aspects. And we indeed found this in a research project called CONVERGE (FP7) that we completed a few years ago. Our international team of researchers mapped sustainability initiatives in a coordinate system where the horizontal axis represented the ecological aspect, and the vertical the social. As it can be seen in the figure, selected examples of SI  connect the two aspects to varying degrees, but there is plenty of room for development for all of them (to read about the details of this research, please visit here).

Thus, the argument I am presenting here is that social innovation becomes transformative if it explicitly addresses both the ecological and social aspects of sustainability, and helps move towards a state that is within ecological limits in a just and equitable way.

This can also be shown using the language of "doughnut economics" as developed by Kate Raworth. The doughnut represents the safe and just space for humanity with the outer boundary of the doughnut representing ecological limits and planetary boundaries, and the inner boundary standing for social limits, or minimum social standards. And transformative social innovation or examples of transformative social innovation should already be situated within the doughnut, or should have a clearly defined aim of wanting to get there.

And the challenge of being in the doughnut or getting there should not be underestimated. To illustrate the challenge, let us take the example of climate change, which represents one of the important and critical planetary boundaries today, a boundary that is widely known and studies. I've selected it as it is a very well defined and elaborated boundary with fairly clear indicators to guide our work.

One of these indicators is the carbon footprint. In the figure below you can see the average per capita carbon footprints of European countries. On the one hand, you can observe great variation from Luxemburg and Estonia having rather large per capita annual carbon footprint and Romania and Latvia having much smaller ones. On the other hand, if the sustainable carbon footprint [1] is projected on the figure, it becomes very clear that even the smallest average national footprint in Europe is two to three times larger than what would currently be sustainable.

It is interesting and important to note that, obviously, there is variation in the size of the carbon footprint within countries as well. For example, in Hungary the poorest percentiles of the population have a carbon footprint that is below the ecologically sustainable carbon footprint [2]. At the same time, in the UK even the poorest segments of society have carbon footprints that are larger than what would be ecologically sustainable [3]. So, the challenge of staying within the doughnut is indeed rather formidable.

At this point you may be interested to find out how some SI initiatives are doing from this aspect. A well-known ecovillage initiative, Findhorn in Scotland, commissioned a study of their carbon footprint in 2015 [4]. They learnt that it is about the same as the UK average, so it is well above the sustainable carbon footprint. As a result, they are now making renewed efforts to lower their footprint as well as find ways of compensating for its size.

And now, let's see some examples of SI initiatives that successfully combine the ecological and social aspects in their work. First, a bio-briquettes initiative from Hungary.

Making bio-briquettes | Source: Real Pearl Foundation, HU

The initiative is organized in Northern Hungary, one of the poorest regions of the country where communities suffer from fuel poverty as well. This means that during the cold winter months they are forced to cut down trees in the forests surrounding their villages and/or burn household waste - often plastic or rubber - in order to keep warm. So, the solution one of the NGOs  working in the region came up with is to involve members of these communities in making bio-briquettes from local agricultural waste, waste that was dumped illegally prior to the project. This way, apart from alleviating fuel poverty, improving the health and well-being of people, they also manage to provide clean fuel and thereby prevent the burning of household waste, save local forests from being cut down and utilize a local raw material so far wasted. In other words, the initiative innovatively and successfully combined the social and ecological aspect of sustainability in how it tackled a complex challenge. [5]

Then, let's turn to an inspiring example from Southern India: SCAD Kitchen Gardens and Fruit Tree Afforestation. SCAD (Social Change and Development) operates in Tamil Nadu, where a great part of the population lives on less than $1 a day, which means that the basic needs of people are not met, for example, they do not get enough nutrients.

Produce from the kitchen garden | Planting fruit trees | Source: SCAD

In addition, the impacts of climate change, most importantly desertification, can clearly be felt. So SCAD started a programme in which they involve local communities in planting fruit trees. Among other beneficial effects, trees have the potential to satisfy basic needs such as food, fuel, fodder, medicine and provide income as well as safeguarde ecosystems from harmful effects (e.g. improve the soil and its water retention, provide shade). In addition, SCAD also teaches villagers to establish organic kitchen gardens which help provide nutrients as well as create income generation opportunities. Again, the initiative improves social sustainability in a way that respects the environment, including ecological limits. [6]

So, to summarize, the argument I'm presenting here is that social innovation initiatives become truly transformative if they combine the ecological and social aspect of sustainability in their approach and work, and they do so in the framework of strong and just sustainability. In other words, the new ways of doing, organizing, knowing, and framing represented in a SI initiative that challenge, alter and/or replace dominant institutions occur with the explicit aim of staying within ecological limits in a just and equitable way, or, 'staying in the doughnut'.

Edina Vadovics, GreenDependent Institute /
Member of the TRANSIT International Advisory Board

Read more about the TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges blog series!


[1] Data for the sustainable carbon footprint can be found in the following sources:
Le Quéré, C. et al. (2014), 'Global Carbon Budget 2013', Earth System Science Data, 6: 235-263. Available from:

[2] Source: Csutora, M., Tabi, A., Vetőné Mózner, Zs. (2011) A magyar háztartások ökológiai lábnyomának vizsgálata. In Csutora, M. (Eds), Az ökológiai lábnyom ökonómiája, Budapest: AULA, 28-39.

[3] Source: Gough, I. (2013) Carbon Mitigation Policies, Distributional Dilemmas and Social Policies, Journal of Social Policies 42. 2. 191- 213.

[4] See: and
Tinsley, S. and George, H. (2006) Ecological Footprint of the Findhorn Foundation and Community. Sustainable Development Research Centre, p. 61. Available from:

[5] To find out more about the biomass briquette initiative in Hungary please visit

[6] You can find out more about the Kitchen Garden and Fruit Tree Afforestation initiative in Tamil Nadu in:
Vadovics, E., Milton, S. and the CONVERGE Project Consortium (2012) Case Studies(‘initiatives’) Illustrating Contraction and Convergence. Equity within Limits in Theory and Practice. pp. 140. CONVERGE Deliverable 33. GreenDependent Institute. Available from:;

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