Social sustainability – integrating measurements of the intangible

Your company is developing systems for gathering and using environmental data. Your insight into your products’ environmental footprints and impacts is growing. Where to look next? This article discusses getting started with product social footprinting.

In part one of this two-part series, I wrote about the complexity of sustainability data and the challenges associated with organizing, analyzing and integrating sustainability data into our day-to-day business systems. At this time, however, the majority of the data sustainability experts touch to address our sustainability programs and goals is environmental data. The sustainability field has a pretty good handle on the use and impacts of utilities, materials, transport, etc. What we may not be as familiar with are the data that help support our social sustainability objectives and the methodologies that allow us to do product social footprinting.

The challenges of Social Footprinting

Social footprinting is a relatively new field and, as can be expected, it has its challenges. The three major challenges right now are definitions, data collection, and metrics.

Getting the definition right

Social sustainability includes many topics, from human rights, labor rights, and fair wages to education, human trafficking and child labor. What makes social footprinting tricky, however, is determining baselines and tracking progress within these topics. That requires deciding what indicators to track and how to define and measure these indicators. Not all metrics for social footprinting follow a line of positive correlation, for example, more education is good, but 24 hours a day is probably not so good.

Obtaining quantitative data

Another complication with social footprinting, especially on a product level, is the lack of quantitative data to measure progress for particular topics. Many companies engage in social sustainability through community outreach, donations to charities, and encouraging volunteerism. However, while it may be straightforward to measure numbers of people contacted, dollars donated and hours volunteered, it is much more difficult, resource-intensive and expensive to measure the impact of those actions.

Redefining metrics

In order to trace the outcomes of social sustainability efforts, companies will need to carefully define or redefine the social sustainability metrics they are using – to focus on assessing impact instead of the precursors to the results. Some wisdom can be gleaned from the world of monitoring and evaluation in international development, though their tools would need to be simplified to work on a corporate level.

Several corporate initiatives are helping to define social sustainability metrics, including GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines (2011), UN Global Compact’s ten principles (2004), and ISO 26000 (2010). But social sustainability needs to undergo the same development environmental impact assessment has: from corporation level to product level. Understanding the social footprint of the corporation as a whole is a good start. To prevent blind spots in their risk assessment, though, corporations ultimately need to understand the full impact of the products they make and sell, throughout their life cycles. For example, even though a company may have strict health and safety requirements at its own manufacturing facilities, it would be at risk if one of its suppliers were engaged in child labor. Product social footprinting with life cycle thinking is an excellent way to mitigate that risk.

Understanding the full impact of your product’s life cycle

To help address this more inclusive view, PRé created the Product Social Impact Assessment methodology, in coordination with 12 multi-national companies. This practical methodology builds on existing global standards and allows organizations to assess the social impacts of products.

The methodology includes life cycle stages, in keeping with the general concept of environmental LCA, but also clearly defines stakeholder groups at each stage of the life cycle. While the handbook is still a work in progress, it has successfully tackled the issue of what to measure and how. For example, the two primary social topics of interest for workers are ‘job satisfaction and engagement’ and ‘Training and education’. The handbook gives options for measuring these topics by spelling out specific performance indicators (e.g., the percentage of employees that participate in employee surveys and a number of hours of training employees get).

But because the companies involved in developing the methodology understand the issues with practical implementation and challenges around a numerical measurement, the handbook allows for both a quantitative and a scale approach.

Start measuring the social impact of your products

If a company is just beginning to address sustainability from a social impact perspective, taking the option to start locally – with a corporate assessment – and with a less quantitative approach makes sense, especially if the alternative is not addressing social sustainability at all. Sometimes, the data are too time and resource-intensive to track down, or simply aren’t there.

As a company becomes more familiar with the metrics, data and data sources, they can choose to expand to a full life cycle approach with quantitative components. Doing full LCAs will ultimately lead to capturing unintended trade-offs and result in a more sustainable future.

This article was originally published on October 28th – 2014, by Sustainable Brands

Renée Morin

Senior Advisor

Renée Morin opened the North American office of PRé in 2011, serving as President of PRé's North American team. She lead the team to create unique life-cycle-based solutions in diverse industries, from solar energy, to chemicals. Renée worked at PRé from 2011, until 2015.

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