Sustainability refers to the capacity or ability to meet the needs of the present without damaging the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs. It has three central pillars: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability. These pillars are generally, and informally, referred to as people, profits, and the planet.
Social sustainability is often the least talked about pillar of sustainability, and often the most misunderstood one. Throughout this article, we’ll focus on how businesses can promote social sustainability within their operations to both uplift the ecosystems around them as well as to impact the relationship businesses create with stakeholders positively.
What is Social Sustainability?
Social sustainability has to do with identifying as well as managing positive and negative business impacts on people. The quality of an organization’s engagement and relationships with its customers, employees, supply chains, shareholders, and local communities is crucial in today’s business world.
Businesses, either directly or indirectly, have the capacity to shape people’s quality of life, society’s viewpoints, and lead the change towards a greener, more inclusive, and more sustainable future. This is why businesses should carefully consider the message they deliver through their actions, marketing, and communication strategies.
All businesses operate under an invisible, yet binding social contract. Such a contract is created within the company and the surrounding community the company is operating in. Basically, one cannot effectively operate or be successful without the other. Companies directly impact the people they do business with, just as people directly affect the company they decide to support, boycott, or speak out against. It’s a two-way street in which both parties are directly interdependent on one another.
The social license of businesses to operate depends significantly on their efforts at promoting social sustainability. If a company lacks on taking social development initiatives such as combating inequality, poverty, the weak rule of law, or empowering education, that can severely hamper a businesses’ growth and operations.
Actions to promote social sustainability may help companies attract and retain business partners – and even unlock brand-new markets. Doing business through a focus on social sustainability can even serve to be the source for new service lines or products.
Patagonia, for instance, focuses on promoting sustainable business practices throughout its entire supply chain, not just within theirs. That doesn’t just include using recycled materials, donating a chunk of profits, or conserving resources. Patagonia’s social sustainability focus also empowers the firm to uplift the people, vendors, and stakeholders involved throughout their operations.
Advocating for more empowering and purposeful business operations can help employee engagement and internal morale to rise while risk management, productivity, and company-community conflict may significantly improve.
Social Sustainability and Human Rights Go Hand-in-Hand
Human rights are the cornerstone of the social dimension of corporate sustainability. There is no one without the other. Some of the human rights social sustainability covers, uplifts, and defend fall under the following groups:
- People with disabilities
- Women’s empowerment
- Gender equality
- Indigenous peoples
In the eyes of this pillar of sustainability, businesses cannot separate themselves from their surrounding communities. The problem a community faces can no longer be something external to a business, but rather a motive to do things differently to find ways to help the community overcome its challenges. Social sustainability involves people-focused approaches to the impacts of businesses on the community. It covers groups of rights holders as well as the issues that affect them, such as health and education.
Although it is the government’s primary duty to protect, fulfill, respect, and progressively promote human rights, businesses can, and should also do their part. Often, especially in third-world countries, corrupt governments fail to take into account the needs of society. Just reading the headlines for countries in South and Central America, Africa, and the Middle East, we can see how politicians are benefiting themselves at the expense of the citizens they are supposed to serve.
If people wait for the governments to enact change, they might find themselves waiting forever. That’s why business is the greatest platform for change and progress. It’s through the power of business that communities can collectively thrive – especially in developing countries. Consumers know this – and they are setting companies at a higher standard because of it.
In today’s interconnected world, companies are expected to perform their due diligence to avoid harming human rights through their operations and address any adverse impacts on human rights associated with or linked to their activities.
Putting Social Sustainability into Action
It’s not only customers that are holding companies accountable for their actions – so are employees. From the employee angle, businesses should refocus on engagement and retention strategies. This includes much more responsive benefits such as flexible work schedules, better paternity and maternity benefits, learning and development opportunities, and career planning.
When it comes to the community, businesses should come up with several ways to give back. They can do this by fostering sponsorships, fundraising, scholarships, and investing in local public projects.
What about the global social scale, you ask? Well, businesses should pay more attention to how their unique supply chains are filled. For instance, are people throughout the supply chain getting fair payment for their contribution to the organization’s growth? Is child labor involved in your end product? What about the work environment; is it safe and healthy?
Public outrage over needless tragedies – such as the Bangladeshi factory collapse, where more than 1,100 people lost their lives due to the factory building collapsing after being found in terrible conditions – has caused large corporations to reconsider their work approach when outsourcing manual jobs in developing countries. The Bangladeshi factory collapse is an excellent illustration of what happens when companies place profits ahead of social sustainability practices.
The Purpose of Social Sustainability
In 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development met, discussed, and developed a set of goals that nations must work towards to address sustainability in business. The goals were derived from the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) that claimed to succeed in bringing down global poverty while admitting that there was still a lot more to do.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is a list of 17 items, which include, among other things:
- An end to hunger and poverty
- Achievement of gender equality
- Much better standards of healthcare and education, especially as it pertains to better sanitation and water quality
- Sustainability to include health of air, land, and sea
- Sustainable economic development or growth while promoting more robust economies and jobs
- Combating the overall effects of pollution, climate change, as well as several environmental factors that can significantly harm people’s lives, livelihoods, and health
The SDG also recognizes the concept that nature has specific rights: i.e., the importance of always putting people at the forefront of providing solutions to global issues via the management of the environment. It also stated that businesses have stewardship in the entire world and should promote recyclable materials and minimize packaging, which should discourage food waste.
Challenges Around Social Sustainability
The promotion of social sustainability is evident in several areas – such as energy generation, where a lot of focus is on encouraging people and businesses to opt for renewable sources of energy that do not contaminate the environment.
This is why some organizations are now sourcing their energy from sustainable sources such as hydropower, wind, and solar. Mintel, the world’s biggest marketing intelligence agency, for instance, has recently announced that they’ll be powering their workplaces throughout the world with sustainable energy sources.
However, the process of moving towards sustainable energy production for organizations is quite complex. Companies need to adjust their expectations for returns since an organization that commits wholeheartedly to sustainable energy sources may have much more modest earnings result in the short term. It’s not until a few years that investments in cleaner energy sources finally start paying off.
Steps That Businesses Can Take to Protect Human Rights
Here are some of the steps that businesses can take to lead the change towards protecting the human rights of their surrounding communities:
- Form partnerships with other businesses that share similar values and combine strengths in order to make more significant progress in social issues.
- Focus on the creation of decent jobs that allow for flexible schedules and appropiate workign conditions.
- Offering new goods and services that meet people’s basic needs.
- Promoting an inclusive workforce throughout the organization.
- Ensure strategic social investments as well as promote policies that support social sustainability.
What the sustainable future will look like is not yet clear. However, recent trends point to one thing: it’s time for businesses to embrace solutions that take care of the people, planet, and profits. It’s no longer viable for one to come at the expense of the other. It’s only when the three factors are in balance and harmony that progress can actually be made.
Social sustainability can push organizations to develop inclusive and holistic strategies that would allow businesses to immerse themselves in empathy with the needs of society, solve problems, and empower people to lead healthier lives.
At Topic Insights, we believe that business is the greatest vehicle for driving social and environmental change as well as new innovations that solve people’s and society’s mishaps. For more actionable and insightful content, we invite you to subscribe to our newsletter.