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Social sustainability and your company

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Last editedMay 20222 min read

Social sustainability is a measure of how a form of behaviour (a way of doing business) affects people. It is just as important as environmental sustainability. In fact, the two concepts often feed into each other. Here are five tips on how to achieve social sustainability in business.

1. Define goals and how to measure them

Social sustainability in business is a huge topic. Its vastness can make it seem very intimidating, especially for SMBs with limited resources. The way to make it manageable (literally and figuratively) is to focus on certain aspects of it. Very small businesses may focus on just one aspect of it. Larger ones may look at more.

Once you’ve decided what your areas of focus will be, you need to set yourself one or more goals in relation to them. Again, small companies should usually set fewer and lower goals. Larger ones can have more and/or more challenging goals. Once you’ve defined your goals, you need to determine how you’re going to measure progress towards them.

2. Stay close to home

These days, even the smallest businesses can have a global impact even if they don’t realise this. For example, any business that produces real-world products almost certainly uses some raw materials that were produced overseas. Any business creating digital products almost certainly uses digital services hosted overseas.

That said, realistically, smaller companies will have less reach than larger ones. This means they will generally have the most impact if they stay close to home. What that means in practice is that smaller companies should usually start by looking at their own employees, customers and/or direct suppliers.

If you haven’t already formulated and documented your processes for dealing with these groups, then start by doing so. If you do already have documented processes, then check they reflect what’s actually happening.

Once you’re happy that your documented processes are accurate, analyse them to see if they reflect socially sustainable business practices. If they don’t, or at least not completely, then see what changes could be made to address this.

3. Start with low-hanging fruit

When assessing what changes you could make, prioritise small, relatively simple changes. Give top priority to changes that will quickly benefit your business. Never let yourself feel pressured into rushing through larger changes. Remember that larger, sustainable changes are usually the sum of multiple, smaller changes.

Implementing smaller changes will allow you to make an impact more quickly. They will also help you get used to the process of making changes. This can serve as useful practice for larger changes further down the line.

4. Make one change at a time

Changes almost inevitably cause some level of disruption. This means that the process of change needs to be managed, sometimes very carefully. The basis of all change management is to make one change at a time. That way you can be reasonably confident that any unusual behaviour is due to that change.

Given that changes often have unintended and hence unexpected consequences, you’ll need a plan for managing these. Backing out the change should usually stay on the cards if at all possible. Ideally, however, it should be a last resort rather than a first step. You made the change for a reason, so if possible you want to make it work rather than reverse it.

5. Communicate effectively

Remember that communication is a two-way process. You should communicate your progress towards social sustainability in business with key stakeholders. These would typically include employees and customers as well as suppliers and shareholders.

At the same time, it’s also important to listen to feedback from your direct stakeholders and wider sources. This can give you valuable insight into what’s working and what’s not. It also allows you to learn from other people’s experiences and lets them learn from yours.

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