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Measuring the Social Footprint of Products — Why Bother?
May 9, 2014
For over 20 years, PRé has been the metrics solutions partner for first-movers in a variety of industries aiming to create business value from sustainable products. Perhaps best known for their pioneering SimaPRO LCA software, PRé has recently shifted its focus to examine the social impacts of products. We spoke with Renée Morin, president of PRé North America, to find out more about the company’s new direction and what it has learned so far.
Sustainable Brands: Can you briefly explain the history of social metrics in sustainability?
Renée Morin: We’ve been measuring environmental metrics of various sorts for decades now — from point source emissions and toxics releases monitored for regulatory reasons, to carbon dioxide emissions reported in most cases on a volunteer basis (especially in the US). While not always 100 percent straightforward, measuring environmental metrics is more tangible and generally results in a linear relationship: More of X is worse for the environment.
Social issues, however, while always a concern for most companies, are difficult to grasp and often sensitive, and therefore not always broadcast externally. Social issues are not as easy to measure (often qualitative data as opposed to quantitative), and standardized metrics have lagged behind those of the environmental field. There are several global standards for which social impacts should be measured (GRI v4, UNEP SETAC Guidelines for Social LCA of Products), but none at a product level, except the UNEP SETAC Guidelines for Social LCA of Products — and no global standards address “how to measure.” All together, they can be overly complex and confusing for a company who wants a clear-cut answer to “How do we measure the social impacts associated with our products?”
SB: What motivated PRé to begin focusing on the social aspects of sustainability?
RM: PRé has been around for 20+ years and has primarily focused on measuring the environmental impacts of products and supply chains. However, we have been listening to our network and are in tune with the larger trends. We all know that without addressing the social aspects of sustainability, our three-legged stool isn’t going to stand up very well, and getting a handle on social impacts is paramount to a company’s long-term success. Innovation is also a key factor; we want our clients to outperform and differentiate by expanding the scope of their sustainability assessments with new metrics. Ultimately, we wanted to help companies who have been asking, “What should we be measuring? And just as importantly, how should we be measuring it?”
SB: What are the motivations for businesses to understand and implement social footprinting?
RM: I believe the primary drivers for businesses are both internal and external.
Internally, drivers include finding new improvement opportunities and measuring achievements, which can benefit reporting and communication, but also supplier selection. From this perspective, social footprinting is like carbon footprinting: Companies don’t have to report externally but still want to measure their footprint to get an understanding of where they are doing well and where they can improve.
Externally, we are in a world of increased transparency, awareness and sustainably-minded stakeholders. Companies want to understand where there might be risks related to product social responsibility in their supply chain so they can address these issues before they hit (social) media (think the backlash against H&M and Apple when issues regarding labor practices in their supply chains came to light).
Measuring the social footprint of their products can help companies identify not only improvement opportunities, but also new differentiation factors, which results in value creation and positively affects brand reputation.
Above all, companies want to demonstrate that they take social sustainability seriously, and acknowledge that their products also have social impacts that go beyond creating job opportunities and ensuring fair working conditions. By measuring these impacts, companies can make the right choices to steer the improvement of their product sustainability in the right direction.
SB: Along with twelve frontrunner companies, PRé has started a Roundtable to tackle the challenges of measuring social impacts of products — can you tell us more about the group?
RM: First of all, I’d like to emphasize that this is not just a PRé initiative. The impetus for the Roundtable was a recognition of the lack of a comprehensive, consistent methodology for businesses to measure the social impacts of products. In addition to PRé, there are 12 industry partners that have united their strengths and seek alignment and harmonization for the implementation of product social metrics. The members are sustainability experts from: Ahold, BASF, BMW Group, DSM, Goodyear, Philips, Reckitt Benckiser, AkzoNobel, Corbion, L’Oréal, Marks & Spencer and Steelcase.
Ultimately, for every member of the Roundtable it’s important to include product social footprinting as one of the pillars of a comprehensive sustainability assessment, as it demonstrates the role companies have in society and enables them to be transparent about the benefits of their products.
SB: At SB ’14 next month, you’re speaking on a panel that examines the types of supply chain risks that companies can avoid through social footprinting. You’re also a judge for this year’s SB Innovation Open for the second time — what kinds of qualities are you looking for in this year’s crop of semi-finalists?
RM: Well, of course, innovation! When you see a contestant really pushing forward into an arena or business model that we haven’t thought of before, and at the same time disrupting the status quo, that is really exciting. Of course, all this has to happen while fully addressing the triple bottom line. And I think that is part of the biggest challenge. Many times one of the three is missing or almost absent, and then we have to evaluate — is this truly an innovative sustainable solution? When everything syncs up, though, that is usually when we know we have the winner.