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Leveraging Sustainability, Social Value Creation for Improved Business Results

When reading the daily headlines, it is not uncommon to find news about a company behaving badly. Check today’s top stories and there is probably an investigation, an executive gaffe or a serious disaster which has both business and societal costs. Increasingly, companies are being perceived as a major cause of our social, environmental and economic issues. Big banks, big oil, big mining, big insurers – companies in these industries are perceived to be prospering at the expense of others. The legitimacy of business is being called into question. This is compounded by increased industry oversight into business and management practices, both driven by regulation and expectation.

Communities increasingly expect companies to do the right thing – to act responsibly and keep societal well-being in mind. Consumers expect businesses to provide safe working conditions, respect the environment and support social development. Research shows people are more likely to engage with a brand or a company if it is doing something good for society.

We live in an era of new transparency and visibility. Now, consumers can turn to social media to provide feedback on a product or service. What’s more, a company’s integrity can be jeopardized by a Facebook post or tweet; consumers are eager to express their anger and dissatisfaction when companies are perceived to not be acting responsibly or in their best interest.

This poses an opportunity and a challenge for the business community. How should businesses be working with society, looking beyond profit, and focus on generating value for people and the planet?

Creating Shared Value

The ideal of building responsible business practices has been around for a long time. In 1962, Milton Friedman declared there was only one social responsibility of business – to meet shareholder expectations and profits. Businesses could pursue practices with a social good angle in mind, as long as they generated profit. Later, in 1984, Edward Freeman introduced his corporate management theory, which asserted that other stakeholder interests – like communities and employees – should be valued just as much as shareholder interests when considering best business practices.

In 2011, the Harvard Business Review published a thought leadership article by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer that introduced the concept of “shared value,” which is “creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do, but at the center.”

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3 thoughts on “Leveraging Sustainability, Social Value Creation for Improved Business Results

  1. I agree with most of what is conceptualized here and the language used. However, the overriding notion of “social value” is only a partial picture and conveys a highly anthropocentric perspective. Social value is only one element/outcome of what we are trying to accomplish as Sustainability professionals. Environmental value, that is the value, health and well-being of natural capital/ecosystems, is every bit as important as social value, and not just to serve human needs. Environmental values, in addition to social values and economic values, are hugely important to the concept of shared values,especially in the context of commercial enterprise. Collectively they can and do create meaningful “value” in the business sense for companies. Language is important, let’s make sure we’re not focusing on any one thing at the neglect or expense of others. We should be thinking systems and thinking holistically, and writing and talking that way.

  2. Thanks for this. However I will like to highlight that while the term ‘social value’ may have been ‘coined’ in the 1980s, it was already articulated and practiced in many places in Asia. As early as the 1870s industrialists like Jamshedji Tata in India, articulated his business purpose. He states “In a free enterprise the community is not just a stakeholder, it is the very purpose of its existence”. Hope this adds value to the content you are creating on this subject

  3. Thank you both for your comments. @Jeff Wilson, yes, I fully agree that social value should be just one element of a corporate sustainability strategy. Indeed, the social dimension of sustainable development must be intrinsically linked to environmental and economic dimensions in order to be effective. The reason I focused on social value in particular, is that it is particularly challenging for companies, and often relegated to a specific individual or department, rather than being considered holistically. Indeed, economic value can be created through targeted, measurable initiatives, while companies are experiencing increasing levels of success in managing environmental value through proper planning and innovative engineering. Social value, however, requires a strong grasp of sociological and anthropological intricacies of the communities in which a company operates, as well as a comprehensive engagement strategy to obtain and maintain stakeholder support. For this reason, I believe it is helpful for companies to understand the importance and value of social development, then consider how to optimize outcomes through a comprehensive, integrated sustainability management system.

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