5 Tips for “The Softer Side of Sustainability”

Social/ stakeholder issues are one of the three classic categories for Sustainability.  Companies are expected to publish “triple bottom line” sustainability reports, disclosing their performance economic, environmental, and social/ stakeholder issues.   The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI, at is a globally-recognized framework for Sustainability reporting.

Companies have a head start on economic issues because they already do financial reporting.  Many environmental parameters align with regulatory requirements, or other intuitive concepts (air emissions, water use).  Social/ stakeholder issues, however, are more problematic.

The GRI provides four broad categories for social/ stakeholder issues:  product responsibility, labor practices, human rights screening, and society.  There are numerous suggested parameters within each, including:  description of compliance programs; education programs for workforce and/or their families; screening programs for suppliers’ programs to ensure human rights; and programs that measure community impact.  GRI suggests at least 40 performance indicators – and these are by no means a comprehensive list.

Is it possible to tackle these “soft issues” and get value out of it as well?  Yes – if you begin with the five tips below.

  1. Focus.    Focus on a few issues and do them well.  Companies often do social/ stakeholder projects on an ad hoc basis.  Employees propose ideas based on their pet causes, and the squeaky wheel gets the go-ahead.   There may not even be a formal process to give a go-ahead; “feel-good” projects seem to arise and continue, taking on a life of their own.   This is inefficient, ineffective, and costly.
  2. Enhance your brand.  As you consider what your organization will do, select issues that align with your organization’s mission and brand.    For example, employees at Acme, an IT service provider, can take a day off to clean the banks of a waterway.  This will yield bags of trash and a good photo op.  The staff could also establish an IT literacy program for an under-performing school, or at a local library, or at a battered women’s shelter.  Each provides benefits, but the latter could be used strategically to establish credibility with business partners and customers.
  3. Identify meaningful metrics.   Performance indicators for social/ stakeholder issues are notoriously difficult to establish.  So are goals – how do you know if you succeeded?   You can get ideas from Sustainability reports of companies in your industry sector.  Perhaps even better, you could get ideas from reading Sustainability reports in your customers’ industry sectors.  However, you need not be constrained to any of these – you can create your own.   Also, think about how you implement the program and what the performance indicators really tell you.   Suppose Acme reported 100 contact hours last year in their IT outreach program at the local library.  This could be 50 Acme employees at one two-hour session.  Or, it could be the commitment to send an employee to the library for two hours one day per week, to be available for after-school homework, stay-at-home mothers, or the local community on an ongoing basis.  If a small group of employees rotate “library duty”, recognize this as a legitimate contribution to the company’s brand – they are at work, not on holiday.
  4. Take the long view on benefits.      Installing low-energy lighting begins saving energy and money immediately.  Payroll injected into a community produces benefits the day the checks are cashed.  Social issues often take longer to show benefits – if they provide them at all.  What’s more, the benefits may accrue outside the organization.  Acme’s help duty at the library could yield a new employee – in five years.  Or an opportunity to bid on a project.  Employees might field questions that give them an idea for a new project.  The “return on social/ stakeholder investment” cannot be predicted at the outset – the benefit, the metric, or the amount.  So you must be alert for benefits, in whatever form they might take.
  5. Ask for something.    Social/ stakeholder efforts and reporting are often one-way, “feel-good” projects.  Organizations may be reluctant to ask a party (often disadvantaged in some way) for something in return, or they may not know what to ask for.  The photo op is easy.  Ask for recommendations you can put on your website.  Like you on Facebook and recommend your company on Linked In.  Ask for introductions to organizations that provide grant funding.  Acme could ask for a room at the library to be named (with signage) in their honor.   Or let them think of what they could do for you.  They could surprise you with an innovative answer, or respond with a comment that gives you an idea for a new product.   The most meaningful gifts back are likely to come from the longer-term relationships; there has been time for the other stakeholders to make an investment, too.

These tips are not so different from how you run your business – and that’s the point.  Applying business principles to Sustainability – even the toughest part of it – can be done.  It can be easier with some experience, thought, creativity, and a genuine commitment to the well-being of your organization’s stakeholders.

Category : Innovation

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About the Author: Douglas Hileman

Douglas Hileman helps clients achieve value from sustainability as it applies to their business.  He helps clients with strategies, program improvements, performance metrics, business processes, training, and auditing.  He has worked for glo…

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  1. JanetG

    August 7, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    I am researching this topic to develop a position for our 2014 planning. What a treasure trove of information on the topic. Great contributor.

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