For Good Measure: Business and Social Sustainability

Feb 2, 2012 11:30 AM ET

For Good Measure: Business and Social Sustainability

The following is an excerpt from the AccountAbility CR Intelligence Briefing -- a monthly report prepared for AccountAbility Members.  Learn more about the benefits of membership.

The Trend

Social impact measurement is a key component of the evolving idea and practice of “social sustainability” which, more and more, is taking center stage. Far more than “sustainability reporting”, social sustainability is viewed as a strategic business response that’s directly tied to capacity building at the local level, competitiveness in the marketplace, and commitments to environmental, social, and governance ethics throughout the world.

The relatively new and evolving practice of social sustainability involves the alignment of community needs and preferences – including environmental concerns – with corporate goals and strategy, both upstream through supply chains and downstream through to end users. Placing community at its core, social sustainability features a constant multi-party feedback loop that informs both corporate and stakeholder decisions. Therefore, social sustainability is an ongoing process of monitoring and assessment aimed at the broader impact of business activity on social and environmental ecosystems, rather than specific outcomes that have modest meaning.

Its ascendance on the CSR / sustainability agenda is driven by three interrelated forces:

  1. The maturation of corporate social responsibility and the wider acceptance of the business role in promoting community well-being.  

  2. The need for benchmarks and measures to determine impact as distinct from intentions or outcomes.    

  3. The critical importance of community engagement to assure that corporate sustainability commitments are germane to local realities, needs, and aspirations.

While it may be new, there’s a “back to the future” quality to social sustainability rooted in the experience of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, when urban riots led to community development efforts in which business was a key partner. Motivated not so much by philanthropy as recognition of the need to manage social risk, business – particularly insurance companies, who faced massive losses and were forced to charge higher premiums; they’re similarly motivated by catastrophic weather unleashed by climate change – stepped up to the plate and worked with neighborhood leaders, churches, universities, nonprofit groups, and government to help improve the quality of urban life.

Decades later, while reviews of these policy initiatives and approaches remain mixed – at stake then, as now, is who holds power, and how is it wielded – the ideas, values, and experience serve as a backdrop to current efforts to achieve similar goals: advance social justice, eliminate poverty, and open up opportunity for those denied it.

So what’s the difference between then and now? Why should social sustainability be considered an emerging trend, and why is that important?