The other sustainability

When we talk about sustainability, most of us tend to think of the environment first.  What’s the cost to the planet of the choices we […]

When we talk about sustainability, most of us tend to think of the environment first.  What’s the cost to the planet of the choices we make as individuals, as businesses, as governments?  That’s hardly surprising given the high profile environmental sustainability has had over the last decade and more in politics, media and everyday conversation.

But there is another area of sustainability that is coming into sharp relief for all businesses, just as they’ve started addressing their environmental impact, and that’s people.   Businesses will increasingly be accused of being ‘unsustainable’ because of the negative impacts they have on people throughout their value chain, and leaving gaps in this other sustainability will pose new threats to brand reputation.

‘People sustainability’ raises the question of which people in the value chain a business should be held responsible for.   And it’s not that simple.

Are you as a business responsible for your staff?  Of course, and that responsibility is enshrined in employment law and protected by unions in most countries.  What about temps?  Are they your responsibility or your staffing agency’s?  People who work for your suppliers?   Companies found using sweat shops and child labour in their supply chain get a very public, very damaging dressing down, as Primark, Gap and most famously Nike have found to their cost (although there have been some positive changes as a result).

Where does it stop?  Are you responsible for the people supplying your suppliers?  How far down the chain does your responsibility travel?

And whose rules apply?  When does child labour start?  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under 18, but in many counties the legal employment age is much younger – 10 in Sri Lanka for example or 13 in Thailand.  And of course even that’s not quite as it may seem, given it’s legal in the UK, for example, to employ children from the age of 13 for jobs like delivering newspapers.  So the type of work is important, as well as the age of the child.

Are your ‘people sustainability’ duties breached when you comply with Saudi law, for example, and seek approval from a women’s husband or male guardian before employing her?  What does this do for your global reputation?

It’s all very complicated, but then so are environmental impacts and businesses (many businesses) set out to address these, not least because it threatens their reputation not to.  The Ruggie Principles set out guidance for businesses in ‘people sustainability’, but we’re a long way from consensus.  This report to the UN Secretary General says that States should protect human rights, businesses should respect these, and seek effective remedies when they are breached.   But it’s very difficult to legislate for all situations and the principles have been criticised by some, Human Rights Watch for one, for being weak.

Businesses need to understand where their vulnerabilities are and tackle them if they want to stay on the right side of not only regulation but of reputation too.  It’s not easy, but if their reputation is important, then it’s important to address this other sustainability.