As companies move to address the climate crisis with carbon neutrality commitments and other sustainability goals, climate change discussions still tend to focus more on carbon emissions than social implications.

Yet the success of an inclusive green economy will depend on addressing human equality alongside climate action, reskilling the global workforce to prepare for fast-changing business operations, and upskilling millions of others to perform the job functions that an inclusive green transition could create within the next decade.

As companies grapple with social issues such as fair labor practices, racial and gender inclusivity, ethical behavior, and global poverty, sustainability has expanded to encompass far more than chasing net-zero emissions and cutting down on paper use. 

That’s according to Robert Richardson, Human Experience Strategy Advisor at SAP, who focuses on topics such as social sustainability and social responsibility in speaking with SAP customers about steps their companies can take toward maximizing positive social impact. 

Ahead of a Nov. 29 town hall (free and open to non-members; register here) in which he will discuss social responsibility alongside Gitte Winther Bruhn, Global Head of Social Sustainability Solutions for SAP, Richardson reflected on how SAP defines social responsibility, why businesses should address the subject, and what's in it for them. 

A Great Responsibility

“Social responsibility is the idea that, within our businesses, we should all be responsible with resources, including human resources, and that we should care for one another and focus on issues like diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, childhood adversity, reductions in child or slave labor, and human rights,” Richardson explained. 

Social sustainability takes issues like these into account while taking the long view to ensure society can meet such needs without compromising future generations. As Richardson likes to say, “Climate sustainability gets a well-deserved share of the attention. But we also need to ensure that this planet is one we want to live on after we are done saving it.” 

For instance, as tools like artificial intelligence become mainstream, businesses need to make strategic decisions around ethical hiring (and firing) practices. Embedding “fairness” within business operations is paramount to social responsibility, Richardson added. Social sustainability is related to this concept and focuses on making decisions that benefit businesses’ long-term strategies while contributing to a healthier, more equitable planet. 

As Richardson puts it, “Organizations are rightfully concerned with ensuring profitability. That's fair. Without profit, businesses fail, and the people inside them experience real hardship. But we all eventually turn over in an organization. Wouldn’t it be nice if the next generation of employees had the same opportunities we did?”

Achieving sustainability goals requires expertise, he adds, from data analysis focused on emissions and energy use to hardware expertise focused on installing energy-monitoring modules. Companies must design jobs with the right requirements in mind, whether those jobs require deep sustainability specialization or involve some core sustainable competencies, in order to attract and develop talent. 

With green job growth contributing to the existent technology skills gap, companies emphasizing social sustainability through good job design as well as public sustainable commitments and achievements, give themselves a competitive advantage and better position themselves with talent that can help meet their business and sustainability goals.

"It Pays to Listen"

Social responsibility and social sustainability are growing topics of interest at many SAP customer companies, according to Richardson. The reason for that, Richardson states, is that both topics are increasingly important to employees, candidates, investors, and customers.

“All these individuals are pushing organizations toward sustainability,” he says. “It has become a business imperative.” In other words, social sustainability and responsibility are no longer simply areas that matter to those companies seeking to make a positive social impact. They matter as well to companies seeking a profitable competitive edge.

“I would love to see every employer focus on sustainability simply because they believe it is the right thing to do,” Richardson says. “But the fact of the matter is that many companies are focusing on this because it’s the profitable thing to do. When employees, customers, and investors all insist they want to see sustainable products and business practices, it pays to listen.”

According to a recent Harvard Business Review report, job candidates are actually willing to take lower salaries in order to make an impact in areas they care about. Since the pandemic transformed the way that millions work worldwide, more jobseekers are increasingly researching not only how much they’d get paid but what their purpose would be at a given company. 

Beyond attracting and retaining employees, companies that pursue sustainability initiatives often see their brand reputation positively impacted, with consumer demand for their products rising accordingly. 

In pursuing sustainability in business practices, many companies are discovering costs and supply chain savings, using their resources more efficiently, and even uncovering new lines of business around sustainability innovations. In addition to benefitting the planet and society, Richardson concludes, “social sustainability makes good business sense.”

For more from Richardson, sign up to attend his Social Responsibility Town Hall with Gitte Winther Bruhn, Global Head of Social Sustainability Solutions, SAP (Nov. 29, 10:00am–11:00am CST; register here). 

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