Social Sustainability Can Be Implemented into a Business in Many Ways
It can be implemented through social programs that are outside of a business's normal operations, or it can be baked into the company's structure, either through one of the new state registration-types or through third-party certification, such as B Labs' Certified B Corporation®. But whichever way it is done, it indicates a desire to address social issues.
Businesses can implement social sustainability simply by creating programs. This can accomplish a variety of goals—social, environmental, or both—that are outside the company's usual business-model. These programs are often characterized as "corporate social responsibility," or they can be more specific and target the U.N.'s formal list of "sustainable development goals," but regardless, they all have the goal of contributing to the greater good, rather than just generating profit.
An illustration proposing the elements of social responsibility/sustainability.
“Corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is the umbrella term for company actions motivated by the desire to help and give back. Simply put, these are sustainability programs that companies think up and execute as they see fit. Thus, on the one hand, CSRs don't come with clear guidance for determining the validity or true impact of the programs derived under this concept, on the other hand, the idea is obviously to accomplish good. From initiatives that aim to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint or improve work conditions for employees, to simple goods- or financial aid-based activities, CSRs enable organizations to help in a multitude of ways. Put another way, CSRs give businesses an outlet for addressing some of the world's most pressing issues. Some examples can be found in the largest and most profitable corporations operating today. For instance, Johnson & Johnson has a CSR program to secure 35% of their energy usage from renewable sources. In terms of social and economic justice, Spotify offers 24 weeks of parental leave, and Netflix offers up to 52 weeks. And when it comes to diversity, Starbucks has pledged to hire 25,000 veterans and 10,000 refugees by 2022. Yet, CSRs represent a somewhat vague overall construct, and whether programs that are characterized as CSRs are in fact addressing the most urgent sustainability issues can be unclear. Thus, to bring accountability to the CSR movement, the United Nations in 2015 issued a specific list of CSR-oriented targets called "sustainable development goals" (SDGs). These are 17 goals, including ending poverty, reducing inequality, and providing clean water and sanitation for everyone, and according to Corporate Knights, a prominent sustainable business publication, SDGs have “quickly become a common language.” In an article by Dave Klar titled “50+ Real World Examples of Private Sector SDG Leadership,” the publication says that SDGs are causing “sustainability leadership in the private sector [to evolve] from sustainability reporting to targeted responsible action.” In other words, SDGs are focusing companies on the most urgent sustainability issues. And there are countless examples. For instance, GROSCHE, a coffee and tea producer, is working to provide clean water where it is unavailable. Similarly, Goldcorp, a gold producer, is replacing its diesel vehicles with electric vehicles that are both better for the environment and safer for its workers. There are an almost infinite number of examples of companies addressing sustainability through solar-based, wind-based, food, health and well-being, and responsible consumption SDG-based efforts. Based on the UN’s vast reach and research, SDGs offer any company a wide range of social sustainability causes to take up. Between them and CSRs more broadly, executives seem to have all the options they need to try and make a positive impact.
The other way businesses can go about helping with social sustainability is by implementing it at the entity level. Whether by becoming a Benefit Corporation and/or a Certified B Corporation®, or one of the other options available (e.g., social enterprise structures), social sustainability can be baked into the very structure of a company. Using one of these measures makes it especially clear to customers that social sustainability is part of the company's purpose.
A conservation and trails crew organized by Cream City Conservation Corps, a social enterprise, collects firewood for sugar maple harvesting at Neighborhood House Nature Center in Neosha, Wisconsin.
"Social enterprise" is the term that describes a company that is implementing sustainability at the entity level. There are many things a company can do in order for it to be identified as a social enterprise, but what they all have in common is a focus on sustainability—either environmental, social, or both. In the same grain of purpose and profit being inseparable, social enterprises seek to maximize profits while also maximizing social benefit, usually by using profits generated to fund socially responsible endeavors.
Organizations can contribute to social sustainability by developing businesses with the dual motive of making money and contributing to social change. Social enterprises, as they are called, deal with an environmental or social problem through a “market driven approach,” the Social Enterprise Alliance says. Through their product, employment opportunities, philanthropic work or other business practices, these organizations address a problem while also seeking to make profit. As the idea of a social enterprise has generated more and more buzz over the years, the definition of the term social enterprises keeps evolving. An article on B the Change noted that at its core, an organization should commit to a social or environmental cause to be a social enterprise. Once it does, there are a few ways it can go about it -- through its business activity, fundamental/legal paperwork, a side-project or philanthropy. While there is no consensus on the definition of the term social enterprise, as the article said, that has paved the way for the term to be flexible, consisting of a myriad of business models, including those like public benefit corporations, Certified B Corps, etc. In its generous definition, social enterprises, today, also include nonprofits with a revenue-generating model like Girl Scouts of America. In a more traditional sense, for-profit organizations, like Goodwill, which emphasize on making profit by fulfilling a social mission, make the cut for a social enterprise. Apart from being a one-stop-shop for used personal and household products, Goodwill, since its inception, has provided employment opportunities to people for whom jobs are scarcely available. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance, in 2014, Goodwill created employment and job training opportunities for more than two million people while earning a revenue of $4.6 billion. Businesses that are driven by a profit-making primary activity and address social problems through their business practices, like helping out their employees, community, etc. are also a part of the social enterprise bubble. Companies like benefit corporations, which are legally registered with their states as such, and Certified B Corps, which are certified by the nonprofit B Lab U.S. and Canada, fall into this category. Then there are businesses which contribute to sustainability through their donations. Warby Parker, an online retailer for prescription glasses and sunglasses, has a “Buy A Pair, Give A Pair'' program. The program donates a pair of glasses for each pair bought. Addressing lack of access to eye-care and glasses across the world is one of its core missions. Although social enterprises already consist of different types of business models, there is no tapping this category. There are various types of organizational models: cooperatives, awareness brands, etc. that contribute to social sustainability in different ways, overlapping with already established structures in some ways and unique in some others. The overarching objective of any organization with a social purpose is to do good and help alleviate a social problem. As corporate conscience continues to develop and customers continue to demand more accountability from organizations, the space for different types of social enterprises, seems as it is going to continue to expand.
Another way is through the B Corporation certification process. As legally verified and publicly accountable businesses, a Certified B Corporation® (or B Corps as those of us in the movement like to refer to them as) must prove their sustainability record to maintain their status. B Corps can make a huge impact globally. And because they are audited by a third party and have to show continued improvements over time in order to maintain their status, they can't just make empty promises.
A short, 30-second video by B Labs explains the substance behind the B Corporation certification.
B Corporations, commonly referred to as just "B Corps," are businesses that have been certified by the non-profit company B Labs based on exacting standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. This certification causes B Corps to become legally bound to balance purpose and profit by considering the impact of business decisions on all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers, the environment, and community. To become certified, companies must conduct a comprehensive review of their sustainability profile using a template provided by B Labs known as the "B Impact Assessment." According to B Labs, this assessment is "designed to help measure and manage [a] company's positive impact on [its] workers, community, customers and environment." Companies must also take a further step of incorporating "specific mission-aligned language" into their governing documents, such as the articles of incorporation. Once certified, B Corps must re-certify every 3 years by updating their assessment, providing additional documentation to verify their answers, and achieving at least 80 out of 200 available assessment points. Additionally, to maintain the credibility of the B Corp seal, 10 percent of re-certifying B Corps are audited in the form of an in-depth site review. B Corps have proliferated since the first 82 were certified in 2007 There are now over 3,500 in over 70 countries. One example of a B Corp making a positive impact is Cora, which provides eco-friendly feminine hygiene products, increases access to feminine products in developing countries, advocates for female education, and speaks against taxing these types of products as non-essential goods. Since the company’s inception, Cora has donated over a million sanitary products to women in Kenya and India. It also has donated over 100,000 feminine products to women living below the poverty line in the United States. Evolution Marketing, a Wisconsin-based company focused on sustainability, marketing, and communications consulting, is another B Corp. In 2019, Evolution Marketing donated 2% of its sales to environmental non-profits, and another 0.5% of sales to Wisconsin-based, socially-oriented non-profits. Additionally, members of the staff donated 238 hours of time/services to Wisconsin-based non-profits and their environmental and social programming. The company also submits to additional third-party verification, such as a yearly certification by the non-profit organization 1% For the Planet. Other B Corps range from huge household names such as Danone North America and Ben & Jerry’s to local Wisconsin product makers such as Rebel Green, Zyn, Just Coffee Cooperative, and Tribe 9 Foods, demonstrating that this business model is both achievable and scalable. B Corps are arguably the business model of the future—one that modernizes the sustainability movement by getting private businesses to tackle important social issues.
There's no doubt that a plethora of options are available to businesses that want to demonstrate their commitment to social sustainability. Whether through programs or by more comprehensively baking it into their structure, companies can pick from a multitude of choices for showing that they value people and their communities.
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