Operating a sustainable and socially responsible business helps avoid all kinds of legal entanglements, including encouraging new legislation and government oversight. But, more than that, consumers, especially Gen Z consumers, consider the responsiveness and support for their values coming from the companies whose product they purchase. Younger consumers are even willing to pay more for products when companies support their values while sustainable and socially responsible businesses encourage first-time buyers to give the brand a try.
What is sustainable and socially responsible management?
Decades ago, sustainable and socially responsible businesses didn’t face a strategic competitive advantage in the marketplace as customers made purchase decisions based primarily on price and value. Those days lead to wasted natural resources, the extinction of many animal and plant species, poor working conditions for employees, products causing harm to consumers, and a host of other negative corporate actions. The backlash against these irresponsible corporate behaviors led to the passage of legislation such as child labor laws, the minimum wage law, consumer protection legislation, and more. Possibly more onerous for corporations were newly formed governmental agencies designed to curb the worst of their behaviors such as OSHA (occupational, safety, and health agency to protect workers), FCC (the federal communications commission to police advertising), EPA (the environmental protection agency that governs pollution of all types), and a host of other regulations and agencies to attempt some control over adverse consequences from bad actors.
The net result of these laws and regulations creates costs for organizations that must prepare compliance reports and set up systems to ensure compliance. A much better option involves self-regulation. You only have to listen to a few minutes of Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing regarding Facebook misinformation in front of Congress to understand the dangers involved in flouting a company’s responsibility to the public. This self-regulation is often less onerous and less costly while reflecting a better understanding o how the market works in a particular industry. As yet, the efforts by Facebook and other social media platforms failed to adequately reflect constraint, and regulating social media is one of the very few proposals in a deeply divided US Congress to receive bipartisan support.
Before we go deeper into discussing how to implement sustainability and socially responsible business practices, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
According to the UN Commission on Environment and Development:
sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
Thus, rather than reflecting a simple concept, sustainability refers to actions that leave the earth in a good place for the long-term survival of the planet and its inhabitants. Hence, climate change is a major consideration when considering sustainability. By broadening the issue of climate change, we consider issues such as the reduced burning of fossil fuels, pollution of the planet, cutting plants that help replenish the atmosphere and clean the water of pollutants, protecting species of plants and animals from extinction, and much more.
Socially responsible management
A related concept of socially responsible management is often conceived as CSR (corporate social responsibility). According to the UN again, this time the UN Industrial Development Organization:
is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders. CSR is generally understood as being the way through which a company achieves a balance of economic, environmental and social imperatives (“Triple-Bottom-Line- Approach”), while at the same time addressing the expectations of shareholders and stakeholders.
Often, the concepts of sustainability is looped into CSR, as you can see in the image below.
Let’s delve into a few aspects of CSR to build a better understanding of sustainability and socially responsible management actually happen within an organization.
Building sustainability and socially responsible management
An obvious place to start in building a sustainable and socially responsible organization is by reflecting that commitment in your mission, values, and goals. Then, transmitting this commitment as part of the onboarding process with new employees as well as continuous training backed up by ongoing metrics that evaluate the triple bottom line ensures you adhere to this commitment. Allocating resources to your commitment is also necessary if you plan to achieve your mission, value, and goals. Simply paying lip service to your mission without training and resources can hurt your reputation more than not setting up a mission that appeals to consumers.
Taking responsibility begins at home with the way you treat your employees. For instance, maintaining your OHS protocol and procedures is critical in order to raise awareness of potential hazards; demonstrating your commitment to employee safety. Signage needs to be inspected regularly, including critical elements such as the stop do not enter sign, emergency exit signs, and warnings about wearing protective equipment. You must also demonstrate a commitment to a diverse workforce through recruiting and promotion activities, as well as protecting workers from discrimination and harassment based on gender or sexual orientation. Failure to adhere to these commitments might not only damage your reputation but place you in legal jeopardy. Plus, you improve employee performance when you treat employees with respect and fairness.
You must also take responsibility for the safety of your product in the marketplace. For instance, the tobacco industry proactively increased the addictiveness of their products for decades; resulting in fines and legislation making it harder for them to attract new customers (many would argue this is a good thing but it’s a bad thing for the industry). The new fines imposed on makers of opiates for misrepresenting the addictiveness of their products also show the dangers of not taking responsibility for your products and the harm they might cause.
Taking responsibility also includes unintended consequences of your corporate actions. For instance, cows are one of the major sources of methane that contributes to global warming. Each year, the average cow belches 22 pounds of methane into the environment and that methane is 28% more damaging to the environment than the carbon dioxide spewed by cars, according to UC Davis researchers. Now, it’s easy to throw up your hands and deny responsibility for the natural actions of your herd but a more responsible approach is to find economically viable solutions, such as changing the feed given to cows.
Communicating with your market
Since the major benefit of acting with integrity by ensuring sustainable and socially responsible management is to gain support from stakeholders, such as consumers and investors, communicating your commitment to them is where you see your greatest rewards. You must do more than include a little statement about your commitment as an afterthought on your website. If you truly make a commitment to sustainable and socially responsible management, you must live that commitment and share your actions with stakeholders.
The first step in communicating your commitment to stakeholders is to understand what matters to them. It is totally impossible to act in a way that meets the values of every member of the marketplace, so focus on those values strongly held by your target audience for both consumers and investors then embrace what’s important to them. Don’t attempt to be the least controversial business as then you don’t provide any evidence of strongly held values to your stakeholders.
Create a story around your business that demonstrates your commitment to sustainable and socially responsible management. To work, the story must be credible and interesting. Share that story with stakeholders across channels including the media and social media. Listen for feedback on these platforms and engage your stakeholders in your story.
Vast benefits accrue to organizations that embody the values of their stakeholders. I hope you gained some appreciation of this and learned something new about implementing a plan for sustainable and socially responsible management.
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