Measuring Social Sustainability

By Frazier Benya, National Academy of Engineering

Defining social sustainability is an area of particular interest to those who attended the first network meeting and to others working on sustainability. So, in an effort to figure out what definitions already exist, I wondered about what tools exist to measure sustainability and how they assess and define the social aspects.

There are certainly a few tools already out there that assist in or do measure sustainability. Supply chain management is one such tool that can be used to examine the sustainability of a business’ whole supply chain from sourcing materials to procuring them, from manufacturing products to getting them to customers, and also includes the coordination and interaction between the various groups involved. Figuring out how social sustainability fits into and can be evaluated in supply chain management is not a simple task, however there is some attention being paid to this. Margot Hutchins from the University of California at Berkeley details in an article the current efforts to develop metrics for social sustainability in production. In addition, a fall 2013 class at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad is being taught by Arne Wangel is exploring this issue with an emphasis on social and labor conditions with supply companies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For those interested, his syllabus is available online and includes the readings for the class.

Another tool is life cycle assessment. While it is designed to measure environmental impact associated with a product, the methodology and procedures for doing the assessment are being adapted to assess social aspects. In 2009 the United Nations Environment Program published a report on Guideline for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products, and since then other scholars have been exploring this further: Arcese, et. al. “Social Life Cycle Assessment as a Management Tool: Methodology for Application to Tourism,” Sustainability 5, no. 8 (2013); and Benoit and Vickery-Niederman, Social Sustainability Assessment Literature Review, Sustainability Consortium White Paper #102, December (2010)

Another place where sustainability is being assessed is the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. This Index is based on a multi-criteria evaluation of companies’ practices on all three pillars of sustainability and is specific to the different industries. The assessment gives a score out of 100 to each company and the possible points are divided up, based on the industry, between the 3 pillars of sustainability. So for instance, electric utilities have 35% for economic aspects, 35% for environmental aspects, and 30% for social aspects; while pharmaceutical companies have 40% for economic aspects, 10% for environmental aspects, and 50% for social aspects. While the company that does the assessment for the index, RobecoSAM, does not list out all the criteria for social sustainability in each of the industry categories, it does give some examples in their report on Measuring Intangibles. These include bioethics (Industry Specific (IS)), corporate citizenship and philanthropy, financial inclusion/capacity building (IS), human capital development, labor practice indicators, occupational health & safety (IS), social reporting, stakeholder engagement (IS), and talent attraction & retention. Their assessment also evaluates companies based on media information and stakeholder commentaries on the company over the year of the assessment. Overall, the assessment is designed to evaluate sustainability criteria that will have an impact on a company’s financial performance. The information provided by companies is verified for accuracy and each year the assessment criteria and questions are reviewed to see if changes are necessary. It certainly would be interesting to know more about how the company identifies best practices in the social sustainable criteria they use.

The other place where social sustainability is being reported on is in corporate sustainability reports. However, as Marc Gunther points out in a recent article for the online magazine Ensia, corporate sustainability reports are not straight forward and companies are motivated to point out only what they want to share. He lists tips for reading these reports, suggesting that you should (1) pay attention to what is left out; (2) focus on the actions that have the greatest impact for that company; (3) think about the overall context of sustainability efforts: look for absolute numbers, compare year by year, compare to previous goals; (4) read more than one report in an industry to compare them; (5) and check what the media have to say about the companies activities. Despite their downfalls, corporate sustainability reports do provide an interesting window in to how companies understand and interpret social sustainability.

Those are just a few sustainability assessment tools and how they address social aspects, but what others are there? What about LEED building standards, might it include evaluation of the social aspects? Let us know if you know of others tools, the network would love to hear from you!

Those interested in assessment metrics should also consider joining our assessment project described here.

Photograph by Michael Foley, World Bank. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license