The Pillars of Sustainability: Why Social Sustainability is Just as Important as Environmental

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Businesses must prioritise social sustainability like ethical supply chains, community support, and employee development alongside environmental goals to be truly sustainable and resilient.

By Sheryl Moore, Global Director of Sustainability, Converge Technology Solutions Corp.

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, the pursuit of profit is no longer the sole factor in determining success.

Today, customers are more conscious about social, economic, and environmental issues. Leaders are now tasked with ensuring their business delivers value – not only to customers and the economy – but to society as a whole. According to research by Sprout Social, 66% of consumers who want brands to take a stand on social issues believe it is because brands and businesses can make real and lasting change. And we’re seeing this trend increasingly infiltrate the B2B space too. According to Amazon Business’ State Of Business Procurement report, 89% of B2B buyers would be more likely to make purchases from sellers that can be easily identified as sustainably certified.

When it comes to sustainability, we sometimes only ever hear about environmental sustainability. Our ongoing responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions, or ambition as a country to achieve net zero. With the UK government now hoping to achieve Net Zero by 2050, many organisations have shifted their focus solely towards the likes of sustainable procurement, carbon offsetting, and waste reduction.

However, in reality, sustainability is about so much more than just environmental initiatives. Today, sustainable development and practises fall under the three pillars commonly referred to as ESG –Environmental, Social and Governance.

The social side of sustainability is by no means a new concept. The idea of social sustainability began to build momentum in 2012 through the UK government’s introduction of the Public Service (Social Value) Act. Since then, it has become a critical component of any successful ESG strategy, and something organisations are investing more time and resources into.

Essentially, social sustainability is about looking and planning for changes in business to help cement its future. Alongside a commitment to being environmentally conscious, social sustainability involves the development of ethical supply chains, supporting the local community, the retention and development of colleagues as well as providing learning opportunities and equality for all. There is a human cost to doing business, and if a business is socially sustainable, it can unlock the door to new markets, better employee engagement, new business partners and much more.

Of course, the drive to achieve net zero is still an important objective for organisations across the globe. However, there needs to be an equal amount of focus on creating resilient communities, too. According to the UN Global Compact, social sustainability should form part of an organisation’s overarching strategy, due to its direct impact on the quality of relationships with stakeholders such as shareholders, customers, and suppliers.

The first steps in establishing social sustainability

The first step any business can take to embrace social sustainability, and embed it into their ethos, is to focus on their own workforce. Recent years have seen buzzwords such as ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘the great resignation’ circulate like wildfire, so if a business wants to be seen as a force for good, they must first cultivate a culture where employee wellbeing is a core pillar of their philosophy. This can be achieved through a variety of initiatives, such as partnering with educational institutions to deliver training and development, or providing work experience and enterprise schemes to help nurture future generations.

In addition, improving the sustainability of the supply chain can make a significant social impact, upholding high standards when it comes to issues such as fair-trade suppliers and social equity. Now more than ever, businesses must ensure their procurement is ethically sound, and by investing in measures to achieve this, it can bring improved supplier relations and quality for customers. Socially responsible companies can benefit from a positive reputation in the market as a result, leading to increased business and higher demand.

Tracking and maximising impact

It’s important that businesses can monitor and track the impact of their social sustainability efforts in order to establish what is working and what areas need further investment.

Unlike profits or reducing CO2 emissions, tracking the impact of social sustainability initiatives can be difficult as they often take a range of issues and metrics into consideration. Social value calculators, which capture and measure social value, can deliver great value here. For example, the metrics could focus on the number of hours employees spent on environmental training, or how many work experience and apprenticeship programs were deployed to education institutions. And through these social value calculator tools, business leaders can effectively see the monetary value of each and every social sustainability activity – ensuring that they are aligned with the objectives and budgets they set out for the year.

We all have a role to play to making the future more sustainable and businesses have a collective responsibility to lead by example. To be truly sustainable, organisations cannot solely focus on environmentally conscious decisions, they must also ensure they are focused on social sustainability. By doing so, they not only help create a more sustainable world, but they also future-proof their organisation for the challenges ahead, creating a workplace that the talent pool of the future can be proud to work in.


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