How understanding your products’ social footprints helps your business create value

Many global standards and guidance documents exist that allow companies to investigate impacts at an organizational level. Although these initiatives have many benefits, they provide limited guidance for companies to assess the social impacts of products in a more comprehensive and harmonized way.

Recent significant advances in both sustainability assessment and societal awareness have resulted in businesses placing growing importance on full product value chain transparency.  This relates to the need to investigate social impacts throughout products’ values chains and make them visible. Understanding and addressing social impacts has become an increasingly important value driver for frontrunner companies in the sustainability arena.

The limitations of corporate-level social indicators

Many companies use knowledge of social indicators at corporate level to drive change, raise awareness of social issues and assess operational risk. One good example is BIC, a company that implemented corporate social responsibility programs investing in communities and encouraging development of employees through training. However, sustainability metrics at corporate level do not allow companies to benchmark their own products or to differentiate products that provide more value for society. Increasingly, customers want to purchase the most sustainable and responsible products they can. There is a growing societal recognition that a company is not just defined by the operational elements that make up manufacturing, logistics, offices, etc., but also by the products it sells.  In other words, people do not buy companies, they buy products and brands.  As the majority of sustainability impact occurs outside of the operational boundaries of a company, a fact exacerbated by the trend to outsource,  there is a need to assess and manage social performance at a product level, from cradle to grave and including the entire supply chain.

Business benefits of product social impact assessment

The added value of conducting social impact assessment at product level lies in numerous scenarios, from unveiling risks and improving communications to steering product development and social investment.

  • Reducing risk: Reducing risk and associated costs (value protection) is only possible once sufficient information is available about the full product value chain. Supply chain managers need to know where the product’s social impact hotspots are before they can take action. Product social footprinting gives supply chain teams the necessary social metrics to assess potential risks associated with workers and local communities.
  • Improving product development: Likewise, information about the full product value chain is required for developing new and innovative products. Businesses want to create value by including sustainability benefits, not only for consumers, but also for workers and local communities associated with the value chain of the product.  Product social footprinting can provide product development teams with insight into the social metrics of the product, which social needs the product can meet, and how potential spinoff impacts affect the value chain of the product.
  • Improving communication: Consumers and investors expect that companies are responsible, accountable for their activities, and transparent about their performance on environmental and social metrics. This growing trend is fuelled by greater social connectivity and access to information. Consequentially, it is affecting what companies expect from their stakeholders, and vice versa, urging companies to invest in external communication to increase transparency. A good example is Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles, mapping the company’s social and environmental responsibility on a corporate level.  Product social footprinting provides the detailed figures and information companies need to support B2B and B2C communications and deeply align their sustainability stories with their key value chain hotspots and points of excellence.

Social footprinting at the product level can be incorporated into the company’s own innovation process to facilitate the improved social performance of new products. For decision making, it can help unveil risks and point out areas that require attention to protect reputation. Likewise, social footprinting can help points of excellence in the value chain become visible, providing the sustainability, marketing and sales teams with more robust and credible communication that is based on the social impacts that really matter for each product.

João Fontes


João Fontes joined the Consultancy team in 2008, focusing on social sustainability. He co-initiated the Roundtable for Product Social Metrics. João worked at PRé from 2008 to 2016.

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