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Importance of social work in environmental sustainability

When most people think of social work, they think of professionals working within healthcare, the Department of Human Services, or other human service agencies. They think of one-on-one care or groups to help individuals cope with death or substance use. However, there is a whole different sector of social work many people are unaware of.

“Macro” social work is concerned with funding, policy analysis, advocacy, prevention, and policy implications. This specific social work field heavily emphasizes the idea that prevention is the ultimate way to achieve social work’s mission.

So how does environmental sustainability fit into this? Well, a more fitting question would be 'how does it not?' Our planet is not doing well, considering the immense amount of toxins we contribute to the ecosystem. Civilizations are draining our planet of its natural resources with little regard for future generations. Social work is tied into this issue because of one simple fact: vulnerable populations are experiencing the effects of climate change at an alarmingly higher rate when compared to their counterparts (Schmitz, Matyók, Sloan & James, 2012).

Social work’s code of ethics calls its members to fight for social justice, act with the mindset that each individual has dignity and worth, address social problems, and help those in need (NASW, 2021). These values must be upheld and carried out, especially in circumstances in which vulnerable populations are experiencing the most extreme effects of climate change. These populations encounter many barriers including a lack of knowledge regarding the systems and issues with transportation when getting to or from natural disaster assistance centers.

Low-income communities are less likely to live in weather resistant houses and this leads to a higher chance of not only storm damage but also becoming homeless after a disaster. As portrayed in the documentary Trouble the Water, following Hurricane Katrina, funds were directed to tourist area reconstruction before low-income neighborhoods were relieved. Here in Iowa, low income communities are less likely to have the level of nitrate removal capacity that other cities have to ensure safe drinking water (Environmental Working Group, 2021).

Climate change will ultimately affect us all, but it will not affect us all equally. These inequalities will only further complicate the cycle of poverty, especially as natural disasters become more and more common.

As social workers, we are called to educate, advocate, and act on policies geared toward limiting these gaps and supporting our vulnerable populations. By doing this, social workers will uphold the ethical principles of social justice, dignity and worth of a person, and service.



National Association of Social Workers (NASW). NASW - National Association of Social Workers. (2021). Retrieved July 14, 2022, from

Schechinger, A. (2021, June 23). In Midwest Farm states, nitrate pollution of tap water is more likely in lower-income communities. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from

Schmitz, C. L., Matyók, T., Sloan, L., & James, C. D. (2012). The Relationship Between Social Work and Environmental Sustainability: Implications for Interdisciplinary Practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21(3),278-286. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00855.x,.


About the Author

Elisa Senno is serving as a summer member at Clear Creek Amana in the Sustainable Schools branch. She recently graduated with a Masters in Social Work and hopes to eventually work in the field of environmental justice with a focus on ocean conservation.

Elisa was excited for the opportunity to join Green Iowa to prepare herself for her dream job. As discussed in this post, this niche field may not be as well-known as other aspects of social work, so it is important to highlight this connection.


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