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sustainability

May 4, 2021

Social Sustainability and the Aging Workforce

When the topic of sustainability comes up, the focus is often on the impact of people on the environment. You may think about living in harmony with nature and taking good care of the space around you. 

Environmental sustainability is of the utmost importance, and businesses need to ensure their practices protect the biosphere. However, there is also a need to focus on social sustainability – an equally important practice that doesn’t get as much attention. 

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of social sustainability, which can be linked to the primary focus of the team at WiseForce: responding to the aging workforce across the globe. 

The two topics may seem disparate, but as you’ll soon see, they are closely intertwined and will become even more so in the future.

What is Social Sustainability?

Social sustainability refers to identifying and managing the impact that your business has on people. It’s about operating in a way that protects people and benefits society. 

According to the United Nations Global Compact, companies have a direct and indirect impact on what happens to not just employees but workers, individuals in the value chain, and members of the local community. 

In previous articles, we’ve talked about the challenges mature workers face in the workforce and how businesses can benefit from creating a workplace that engages and motivates 50-plus employees. There’s a similar relationship at play with the broader issue of social sustainability.

The UN Global Compact said that a business’ operations and development can be hampered by factors such as inequality and poverty. In contrast, achieving social sustainability can:

  • Boost engagement and morale among employees
  • Increase productivity
  • Lead to the creation of new products and services
  • Help businesses to break into new markets
  • Assist in attracting and retaining strong business partners

For many businesses, there is just one bottom line: the financial one. However, more consideration should perhaps be given to the triple bottom line model. Created by John Elkington in the 1990s, this accounting framework encompasses social, environmental, and financial sustainability. All three components work together to determine how well a corporation performs.

Why is Social Sustainability So Important?

You may already be seeing that social sustainability makes good business sense. Workers who are paid fairly and treated well are more likely to be healthy and productive. Healthy, productive workers generate more profits for the organizations that employ them. In addition, customers are more likely to patronize a company that demonstrates socially sustainable practices. 

Modern consumers are aware of what is happening in the world. They want to know how the products they buy and use affect the environment and the individual. 

If you are transparent about how and where you source your materials and how you develop your workforce, you’ll reap the benefits. Ethical companies can get consumers to spend a bit more since customers will know they’re helping others.

What the Research Shows

One survey conducted for Futerra in 2018 found that out of 1,000 consumers in the United States and the United Kingdom, 96% felt that buying ethically, donating, and recycling could make a difference in the world. Moreover, 88% of them wanted brands to help them be more ethical and environmentally friendly. 

This is important

Many companies practice some form of corporate social responsibility in which they donate to a cause, volunteer in the community, or try to reduce their carbon footprint. 

However, consumers want brands to do more than promote their own actions. They want you to help them make a difference. This may involve making ethical products more affordable, ensuring your labeling is clear and complete or avoiding plastic and non-recyclable materials wherever possible. 

Social Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility as Brand Protection

Notably, a lack of sustainability is actually a risk to your company’s brand. Today’s employees want more than just a paycheck from their employers. 

In a 2017 study conducted by Glassdoor, 75% of employees between the ages of 18 and 34 said they expected their employer to take a position on major issues affecting the U.S., such as immigration, climate change, and equal rights. 

In addition, 84% of workers said companies should have a say in laws, regulations, or executive orders that could affect either the employer’s business or the lives of the employees. The data suggests that companies may be better able to attract top talent if they pay attention to these factors.

Furthermore, one report by Forbes said 53% of the workers who responded to a survey by nonprofit Net Impact said having a job that makes an impact was either very important or essential to their happiness. That percentage increased to 72% among students on the cusp of entering the workforce. 

Meanwhile, 58% of workers disclosed that they would accept a 15% cut in pay if they could work for a company with shared values. As many as 45% said they would take that reduction in pay to take on a role that makes a social or environmental impact.

For companies that are already committed to social responsibility, this is great news. But it’s also a wake-up call for other businesses. 

Companies that don’t take their social responsibilities and sustainability efforts seriously will have a weaker brand in the marketplace. They won’t only have to worry about attracting customers; they could also find it difficult to attract and retain top talent.

Considerations When Outsourcing

Even if your organization treats its workers well, both your reputation and your product could suffer if you outsource certain functions to entities with poor practices. 

If consumers and the media find out that workers or local communities are being disadvantaged somewhere in the supply chain or value chain, it could have significant repercussions for your business. 

Unsafe working conditions, unreasonably low wages, worker exploitation, and discrimination based on race, gender, age, or other factors could also be harmful to your brand. In contrast, a commitment to sound employment practices and sustainable supply chain management can take your organization to new levels.

Worker exploitation often comes to the fore when there are dramatic global accidents or incidents. You may recall the 2013 collapse of a building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories. Perhaps you’re currently following the farmers’ protests in India, or you’ve become enraged by the treatment of migrant workers in Germany

These are the types of situations that come to public attention. However, something as “simple” as forcing mature workers to retire or focusing recruitment efforts on younger employees demonstrates poor social sustainability.

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A Case for Creating a Sustainable Workforce

Now that we’ve covered the basics of social sustainability, you may be wondering how you can go about practicing it in your company. 

One aspect of your response will have to be workforce sustainability. This concept is perhaps best understood based on a definition presented by Ellen Kossek, Monique Valcour, and Pamela Lirio in “The Sustainable Workforce: Organizational Strategies for Promoting Work-Life Balance and Wellbeing.”

In their chapter in the book “Work and Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide,” the three researchers describe a sustainable workforce as one in which the work environment is caring and supportive of employer wellbeing. 

For Kossek, Valcour and Lirio, in a sustainable workforce, workers aren’t burdened with an unmanageable workload. Their talent and skills aren’t overused, and they aren’t simply used to help their employer achieve a particular economic outcome. If they are ill or experiencing some type of crisis, they are given the time and resources they need to get better.

According to these authors, the sustainable management of human resources enables workers to perform their jobs while creating, innovating, and flourishing. Sustainable HR practices lead to positive work relationships, organizational cohesion, increased knowledge sharing, and improved business performance.

To build a sustainable workforce, you need to attract and retain the workers who have the skills to meet the current and future business requirements of your organization. Despite the harmful stereotypes that surround 50-plus employees, the truth is that they are highly productive and dedicated. Hiring, training, and retaining them can improve a business’ financial performance while also advancing social sustainability efforts. 

This dovetails into the issue of sustainable development and healthy aging. Providing opportunities for mature employees can assist countries in fulfilling Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Working Towards the Protection of Older Workers

It’s no secret that people are living longer. 

Global life expectancy stood at 64.2 years in 1990 and increased to 72.6 in 2019. By 2050, it is projected that it will reach 77.1 years. Living longer is inarguably a positive development, especially if people are aging healthily. However, it has implications for sustainable development that must be addressed at all levels of society, including the workplace.

Many people who are over the age of 50 want to continue working for several more years. 

Some need the money to provide for themselves and their families, while others want the satisfaction that comes with making a worthwhile contribution. As far as social sustainability goes, our primary concern is with the treatment of mature employees.

The World Health Organization lists a number of actions that can support Goal 8 by preventing older people from falling victim to poverty. These include:

  • Instituting flexible retirement policies
  • Retraining and retooling older workers and otherwise helping them to remain in the workforce longer
  • Changing employer attitudes toward older workers’ value and contribution
  • Offering social assistance within homes and communities for poor older people and those who don’t have family support
  • Giving assistance to families that care for older relatives
  • Ensuring equitable access to and utilization of health and long-term care services that are designed to meet the needs of older people
  • Establishing taxpayer-funded minimum pensions
  • Providing alternative forms of social security and pension for informal workers 

Company Responsibilities

While some of these steps need to be taken by governments, some are well within the realm of employers. 

Indeed, while human rights issues fall at the feet of national authorities, businesses also have to do their part to ensure the wellbeing of individuals who are directly and indirectly linked to them. If there are socially unsustainable practices associated with your organization, you need to root them out.

Notably, the UN Global Compact, which we referred to earlier has suggested some steps which businesses can take in addition to respecting the rights of individuals. These include:

  • Partnering with other companies to make a more significant positive impact
  • Creating more inclusive value chains and decent jobs that improve the lives of people in their sphere 
  • Producing goods and services that meet basic needs
  • Promoting public policies that aid social sustainability and making sound social investments

Types of Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR can take several forms. 

When embarking on a CSR program, it helps to engage both employees and leaders, so you get the greatest amount of buy-in possible. 

Don’t hesitate to ask people about which causes or populations are most important to them. You also need to make sure that your efforts are sincere. People will research your business before they apply for a job or accept a post, so you need to show that you’re authentic. 

You also need to be consistent in your work if you want to meet the goals of your program. Here are some common types of CSR.

Philanthropy

This is the type of CSR with which most people are familiar. It typically involves donating funds to charities in an effort to assist in the welfare of others. There are several ways in which this can be done. In many cases, companies match the donations their employees make to a particular cause. 

Volunteerism

Businesses don’t always donate money. Sometimes, they ask their employees to volunteer their time to non-profit organizations. Companies may allow employees to use part of the workday to volunteer or provide grants to the non-profits at which their workers volunteer. This type of arrangement offers benefits for everyone involved. The non-profits get help, which they don’t have to pay for, the employees engage in meaningful work, and the company is seen to be doing its part.

Ethical Labor Practices

This is an important aspect of being socially responsible. It can include paying a living wage, ensuring employees get equal pay for equal work, and ensuring there is no discrimination against potential or existing employees. Offering paid parental leave, and tuition reimbursement are also considered ethical practices. Companies that demonstrate ethical labor practices are more likely to get the best employees.

Environmental Responsibility

Individuals and businesses alike are prioritizing reducing greenhouse gases and pollution and increasing recycling. Today’s consumers are especially focused on going green, and they want companies to do whatever they can to help the planet. If your company shows that it is taking active steps to help the environment, it will increase your corporate standing.

Economic Responsibility

This involves striking a balance between financial, philanthropic, and environmental practices. A company engaging in this type of CSR seeks to generate profits and grow the business by helping the community and society. Economic responsibility includes investing in the communities in which you operate and fulfilling your tax obligations. Being economically responsible benefits your company, your employers, and the economy at large.

Building a Socially Sustainable, Multigenerational Workforce

Social sustainability corporate social responsibility must be taken seriously by organizations. By making genuine attempts to do what’s best for people and the environment, you can improve the image of your company and build strong relationships with customers and employees. 

Fortunately, it is easier than ever to build a socially sustainable business. There’s lots of information available and a number of organizations that can help you. For businesses concerned about age-related issues, WiseForce can offer the necessary expertise in this area. The aging workforce presents challenges but it also offers several opportunities for business growth. 

Multigenerational workforces can be more productive than those made up of primarily younger workers, and there’s a lot to be gained from bringing people of varying ages together.

We have a variety of tools and strategies that can be used to engage and motivate 50-plus employees, so they work longer and help your organization to achieve its goals.

Contact us today to ask about our Age Management Readiness Questionnaire, Corporate Awareness Sessions and Age Management Workshops for Managers. We’ll work with you to attract and retain mature talent and support multigenerational collaboration at all levels. Improve your treatment of older workers and do your part to assist a growing demographic with our help.