What is your company’s social footprint? Companies are adept at tabulating their carbon footprint, and many organizations are now scrambling to determine their water footprint as a result of the earth’s growing water scarcity crisis. But as human rights expert Christine Bader reminded me last week on Twitter after my recent article on sustainability and business: What about human rights? Or social impact? Or the effects a company’s operations and supply chain have on local communities? Choose your favorite moniker: social footprint, social impact, human rights, etc. Regardless, companies who ignore the social footprint do so at the risk of alienating their stakeholders.
In fairness the challenges of identifying an organization’s “social footprint” are many--the first step is the acknowledgment there is an effect on people and communities in the first place. And in a business climate where data and figures are the language of corporations, measuring that social impact is a pesky task considering we are talking about qualitative, not quantitative data.
As far as social footprint disclosure and measurement go, no guideline really exists except the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). GRI’s reporting framework provides a rigorous exercise to assess a company’s social footprint as much as it does for environmental and governance disclosures. Assuming a company’s stakeholders decide an organization’s social footprint (i.e. social performance) is material, GRI sets the standard. Labor, human rights and impacts on local communities are all tucked into GRI’s reporting guidelines. In the end, a social footprint assessment is about transparency, especially in this age of social media where nothing stays secret.
So what are the sectors and companies to watch when we gauge how the social footprint of various companies across the world? The following examples give companies a clue of how they can mitigate their effects on society, people and communities.
Shell is one energy firm investing in local communities, especially in Nigeria, a country with which the company has a very complicated relationship. In 2011, the company invested $78 million in community programs in this western African country, including a network of health centers that offer much needed HIV/AIDS and malaria treatment.
Another energy company, ExxonMobil, takes a business approach towards community building with a focus on diverting business to women- and minority-owned businesses. The world’s largest energy company also runs aggressive worker safety and health programs. And if you are gay, Chevron is one of the best companies to build a career: Human Rights Campaign has long given the San Ramon-based company a 100 percent mark on its Corporate Equality Index. Chevron has also joined the fight against AIDS in Africa.
One leader in addressing a company’s social footprint within the apparel industry is Timberland. From funding water projects and child day care for employees in India to teaching life skills and organizing summer camps for workers’ children in China, the New-England based firm has launched a bevy of programs to improve the quality of life for its employees and their communities.
Other ingredients are posing headaches for companies, too: witness the shift to sustainable palm oil. Palm oil is in countless food products and is a major feedstock for biofuels. The resulting deforestation from palm plantations is devastating to wildlife and humans alike, especially indigenous communities and child laborers. The companies shifting to sustainable palm oil are creating a domino effect, from Starbucks to Unilever to Avon.
The process involved with learning your company’s social footprint is a complicated one; nevertheless, your firm’s stakeholders will demand a more thorough accounting of the impact on society if they have not done so already.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. Most recently he explored children’s health issues in India with the International Reporting Project. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Leon Kaye]
Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.