Social sustainability is about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people. The quality of a company’s relationships and engagement with its stakeholders is critical. Directly or indirectly, companies affect what happens to employees, workers in the value chain, customers and local communities, and it is important to manage impacts proactively.
Businesses’ social license to operate depends greatly on their social sustainability efforts. In addition, a lack of social development, including poverty, inequality and weak rule of law, can hamper business operations and growth.
At the same time, actions to achieve social sustainability may unlock new markets, help retain and attract business partners, or be the source for innovation for new product or service lines. Internal morale and employee engagement may rise, while productivity, risk management and company-community conflict improve.
The first six of the UN Global Compact’s principles focus on this social dimension of corporate sustainability, of which human rights is the cornerstone. Our work on social sustainability also 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. As well as covering groups of rights holders, social sustainability encompasses issues that affecting them, for example, education and health.
While it is the primary duty of governments to protect, respect, fulfil and progressively realize human rights, businesses can, and should, do their part. At a minimum, we expect businesses to undertake due diligence to avoid harming human rights and to address any adverse impacts on human rights that may be related to their activities.
As a complement, not as a substitute for respecting rights, businesses can also take additional steps:
- 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.