The Third Component of Sustainability

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Sustainability is about more than environmental impact. The concept and practice of sustainability, in fact, is three-pronged (or three-pillared, or a three-legged stool, and on and on). 

Certainly, sustainability is environmental and economic, especially in the packaging value chain. These two pillars must be considered in every aspect of the industry, from raw material extraction and production, through package conversion and creation, to after-use recovery and solid waste scenarios.

But there’s an oft-forgotten third dimension, and it’s just as critical as environmental or economical considerations: let’s talk about social sustainability. 

Put simply, social sustainability is about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people.

Let’s put it in terms common to our industry. For example, on the plastics side of the equation, most sustainability actions can be taken on the post-use side by enhancing recycling, reducing litter, and prevent ocean waste. On paper side, actions toward sustainability differ. Feedstock - or the raw material used to make products - is naturally occurring, like the trees in a forest. That forest is a habitat and home, not to mention a complex ecosystem. People live and work near that forest - and it is that component, the people in the equation, that defines social sustainability. That forest directly impacts everyone’s quality of life, standard of living and family well-being. A company’s ability to make choices that not only mitigate and minimize harm but also give back to the community is the definition of social sustainability, and why this third pillar is so essential. 

“We can no longer ignore the human side of our global supply chains,” wrote Paul Rice, President & CEO of Fair Trade USA, in his Fast Company piece on the subject. “Now is the time for all of us to recognize and embrace social sustainability–much in the same way we’ve focused on environmental sustainability for the past 20 years–as a mission-critical way of doing business.”

Social sustainability varies by industry. For some, it means investing in the livelihoods of farm and factory laborers, ending worker exploitation, and ensuring that there is ethical sourcing behind the things we buy. The United Nations promotes its own social sustainability model, which covers the human rights of specific groups: labour, women's empowerment and gender equality, children, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, as well as people-centered approaches to business impacts on poverty. Social sustainability means choosing a world where farmers and workers are able to fight poverty through better trading practices, work in safe conditions, and have access to adequate schooling, health care, and housing. 

That’s just it: we need to choose people. Choose people over profits, communities over cost efficacy. 

If you’re thinking, “great, but how?” simply read on. 

Social sustainability has never been easier to practice, writes Rice. There is no lack of information, and no shortage of partners who can help you develop, implement and audit a business model that gets it right, says Rice. Organizations like the Fair Labor Association (FLA) conduct studies and investigations to identify areas for improvement and implement plans for change. Thanks to FLA, big-name companies like Apple have reduced working hours, protected pay, and improved working conditions for factory workers across the world. 

Another example: the Equitable Food Initiative, the brainchild of United Farm Workers, Oxfam America, Costco, and others. One of the Initiative’s first projects helped California strawberry growers commit to training their workers and paying them higher wages as an incentive to practice a higher standard of food safety.

The U.N. defines the first step toward corporate social responsibility as respecting rights, but offers additional steps businesses can take beyond that: 

  • Contribute in other ways to improve the lives of the people they affect, such as by creating decent jobs, goods and services that help meet basic needs, and more inclusive value chains.
  • Make strategic social investments and promote public policies that support social sustainability.
  • Partner with other businesses, pooling strengths to make a greater positive impact.

The quality of a company’s relationships and engagement with its stakeholders is critical. Companies affect what happens to employees, workers in the value chain, customers and local communities, and it is important to manage impacts proactively. 

This may sound like a lot of thought, effort, and change, but the payoff for a socially sustainable business is excellent. Actions to achieve social sustainability can help unlock new markets, retain and attract business partners, or be the source for innovation for new product or service lines. Other perks include rising internal morale and employee engagement as well as improvements to productivity, risk management and company-community conflict. Socially sustainable businesses tend to see better employee retention by about 20%, and these employees are about 47% more likely to be more engaged promoters of the companies they work for. Simply put, ignoring social sustainability is a liability–to both your brand and product quality–that businesses can no longer afford.

Think of social sustainability as a risk-mitigation tactic: When you provide safer working conditions, living wages, and job security, you create a more secure supply chain. Investing in social sustainability can transform a liability into an asset. 

Another benefit so social sustainability? The market loves it. Conscious consumers–people who are informed and engaged, and who care about the environmental and social impact of the products they buy- are on the rise. Conscious consumers are willing to spend a little bit more to know that the items they purchase are sweatshop-free, help the lives of the workers who made them, and build stronger communities.

For proof (or ideas!), look no further than this year’s leading sustainability initiatives - all of which came from household names.

General Electric’s GE Foundation contributed $88 million to community and educational programs in 2016 and are focusing on health care access for communities around the world.

Professional consulting firm Deloitte makes an effort to encourage its employees to donate time to pro bono work.

At the Walt Disney Company, time is money. The company’s VoluntEARS program encourages employees to donate time, which has totaled to 2.9 million hours of service since 2012 with a goal of reaching five million hours of employee community service by 2020.

3M’s 3MGives program focuses on community and the environment, plus educational initiatives that help boost student interest in science and technology - and donated $67 million in 2016.

Other companies give physical goods. Zappos works with charitable organizations to donate goods such as shoes, books, and school supplies, and TOMS started with the promise of donating one pair of shoes for every pair purchased, but has since expanded to programs supporting a wide range of services for people in need.

Still others aim toward social sustainability by reducing practices already in place. Virgin Atlantic’s Change is in the Air sustainability initiative has reduced total aircraft carbon emissions by 22% and partnered with LanzaTech to develop low carbon fuels for the future. Levi Strauss & Co.’s trademarked campaign, Water<Less, significantly reduces water use in manufacturing, by up to 96% for some styles. Since launching the process in 2011, the company has saved more than one billion liters of water. By 2020, the company expects to manufacture 80% of its products through this process, up from 25% today. 

Bosch’s Bosch eXchange program remanufactures used car components, generating 23,000 metric tons less CO₂ annually compared to new production. Similarly, IKEA Foundation’s Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign funded a solar farm to bring renewable power to Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. This is the world’s first solar plant built in a refugee setting and will save $1.5 million, as well as reduce CO₂ emissions by 2,370 tons annually.

Your daily coffee habit is also supporting refugees: Starbucks plans to hire 10,000 refugees across 75 countries in the next five years (plus 25,000 veterans by 2025). 

In the packaging world, Apple rules the social sustainability game. The company encourage its IT partners to take full advantage of renewable energy, Apple packaging is now manufactured with 99% recycled paper products.

Clearly there’s no shortage of ideas or excitement at play when it comes to integrating social sustainability into your company culture. Encourage your company to invest in social sustainability - alongside environmental and economic sustainability, your business will be well on its way to a holistic approach to sustainability. 



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