Business First: People Always
By Joe Carpenter, Director of Sustainability
During my time in the U.S. Army, we had a saying: “Mission First, People Always.” This, at least as I took it, means the success of a mission is important, but the effect of operations on people is always weighted more heavily. I find it interesting that given this maxim, the Army has an acceptable loss ratio of our soldiers to the enemy’s (for war planning purposes). I suppose that is just the reason – to counterbalance such a calculated outlook regarding the expendability of human life in war.
I can’t say that I’m a historian on the development of workers’ rights when it comes to business, but I do know that the labor movement has achieved important gains, improving rights over time while aiming to reduce injury and death in the workplace. People in the U.S. have also fought hard to see that the products they buy from other countries meet similar standards. I think back to the 1980s & 90s when companies were navigating sweatshop and child labor issues due to their manufacturing in other countries, to the present day where these issues are certainly not gone, but far more readily addressed.
For the most part, businesses, like the U.S. Army, recognize the value and integral nature of their employees to the success of the business.
What is Social Sustainability?
The social pillar of sustainability generally revolves around the equitable treatment of workers (both those at the company and in the company’s value chain); relationship with communities; and the way a company is governed (management & leadership). While first and foremost employees should be treated with dignity and respect for the simple fact that they are human, businesses can consider their workers a form of “social capital”. Akin to environmental capital, social capital recognizes people, community, and society as providing a tangible asset that companies draw on to produce products or services. If companies don’t take care of that resource appropriately, it will no longer sustain their needs.
So, how do social factors affect your company? Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions to get you thinking:
- What skills do your workers need to have in order to be effective? How and where are these skills developed? Do you have a formal employee performance evaluation system?
- Can you name the most pressing challenges of your local community? What interaction do you have with the local community?
- How diverse is your team? Do you pay your employees a livable wage for your geographic area?
- How are you governing your organization? Are you providing both management and leadership?
Like I’ve asked before regarding environmental aspects of sustainability: do you know your flow? This requires an understanding of how your employees bring value to you and the business, and how you bring value to your employees, their lives, and their careers. All of these considerations can feel overwhelming and will certainly take time to answer, not to mention if you decide to take any action. When you do though, you may find areas of opportunity to solve problems or just improve on the good work your organization may already be doing.
Conscious Company Magazine recently published an article about a business owner who reshaped his business after he adjusted the way he interacted with and treated his employees. The article drives home some of these reasons why the social pillar of sustainability is important, and the magazine is a useful reference for other perspectives in this arena.
What can your business do?
There are a few things I suggest that you do if you are interested in exploring this topic further:
- Go to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) website, download and review the social components – 400 series. As you review the suggested metrics to track, think about how it applies to your business. It is recommended that you read up on the GRI, its mission, and how the entire report relates to a business.
- Next, get your leadership team together (including human resources) to discuss what you learned from reviewing the GRI metrics, potential impacts, and relevance of each to the business – making sure to write things down. Then, go into deeper research to verify assumptions and better understand the effects it may have on your business – including fiscal impacts.
- Finally, if it makes sense for your business decide on a plan of action that addresses the relevant social issues of your business. Make sure to prioritize, assess the impact of any changes made, and adjust what you are doing accordingly. Start small and don’t feel like you have to do everything at once!
Remember, sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It is a holistic approach aimed to help your organization gain better situational awareness of what affects you and how you affect others. So, I ask again, how does social sustainability affect your company?