Thursday, the second afternoon at Sustainable Brands’ New Metrics ’14 conference, featured a follow-up deep dive session into the topic of one of the morning’s well-received plenary presentations — how to quantify a product’s “social footprint” as a next step in assessing sustainability.
While the sustainability field has developed many ways to assess products’ environmental footprints, until now few tools have helped accurately measure the social impacts that products have on workers, local communities, suppliers, consumers and more throughout their life cycle.
This workshop expanded on the Sept. 1 release of the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment, developed by PRé Sustainability and a Roundtable of 12 leading companies in various industries: Ahold, AkzoNobel, BASF, BMW Group, DSM, L’Oréal, Marks & Spencer, Philips, RB, Steelcase, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, and a chemical company led by PRé.
The Handbook gives companies a tool to understand risks and opportunities in product development through the whole supply chain, and support better decision making.
Lindsay Clinton, Director at SustainAbility, moderated the panel of representatives from BASF, L’Oréal and Steelcase, and João Fontes, Social Footprinting Expert at PRé.
Fontes explained what sets this tool apart from others in terms of measuring social impact: “This social footprint integrates a lot of efforts and tools that companies have available at different departments. In terms of the methodology, the social footprint is life-cycle oriented, while at the same it gives the practitioner the flexibility to define the scope of the assessment.”
Charles Duclaux, Head of Corporate Responsibility Reporting and Environmental Innovation for L’Oréal, explained his company’s motivation to join the Roundtable, saying that the initiative “perfectly fit with one of our 2020 sustainability commitments to social and environmental improvements.” Participating in the Roundtable pilot also moves the cosmetics company forward in fulfilling its pledge to help customers make more informed choices with product information.
Then, Sébastien Zinck, Manager of Eco-design and Life-Cycle Assessment for Steelcase, described how his company conducted a pilot to evaluate the social impact of one component part of a chair. “We see the big potential of these metrics to make improvements on social issues, and bridge the gap between academic research and industrial needs,” he said.
Next up was BASF’s VP of Sustainability, Dirk Voeste, who spoke about his company’s upstream position in many of the products made by fellow Roundtable members, the responsibility that comes along with that, and how this tool can help make better business decisions.
“Social metrics are getting very critical for us,” he said, noting the importance of using a standardized frame for making decisions.
Fontes walked through the steps of the social footprint methodology, which is similar to a Life Cycle Analysis. The process starts with setting goals and scope, moves on to data inventory, and then to reference points as performance indicators for benchmarking and comparison. Roundtable members helped create and validate the process that also incorporates international standards for social issues.
At the end of the seven-step process, Fontes said, “you have a visual dashboard color-coded, where you can see the areas where you or one of your business partners are doing a great job, as well as the areas that need attention.”
While still a work in progress, the social impact tool has huge potential to help companies measure and improve their relationships between products and people through the entire product value chain.
The speakers said the next phase of refining the product social footprinting methodology is underway and the Roundtable for Product Social Metrics is looking for new corporate members to join and collaborate.