What social indicators should purpose-driven businesses be measuring?

It is important to keep a finger on the pulse of what shareholders and stakeholders expect of us. I would say that having a robust sustainability strategy that encompasses both what the company aims to do and how it aims to do it is a key starting point. As I come from the engagement perspective, rather than a technical or measurement perspective I think to deliver a set of social expectations starts with understanding what society expects of the given organisation. To do that it’s critical to be involved in dialogue with societal stakeholders, listen to what they expect and then translate that into meaningful activities. Dialogue is essential as is having an external perspective on what you plan to do. As an example, Bayer has recently established an external Sustainability Council that will advise on its activities. The Sustainability Council will help Bayer further develop the sustainability elements of its business strategy and provide guidance on the contribution that Bayer can make with its research and development. It will independently examine the progress made by Bayer in the implementation of its sustainability targets.


A1: Acknowledging that the SDGs set a baseline of what all global players should be working towards, for the actual formation of social expectations I would argue that these should have industry specificity to them in order to be the most meaningful and actually bring about necessary systematic change. Rather than falling prey to the minimum viable criteria that might be consistent across all companies and what the result of a ‘common set of core social expectations’ would yield, I think industry specific standards should narrow in on the various economic, social, and environmental influences that they hold, and use those refined standards to enact the greatest amount of societal change. There should be an open, inclusive, and transparent process to determine the perceived and actual influences that a company and a specific project might bring, so that affected populations have the opportunity to present their concerns. More generally speaking, I would like to see the concept of “do no harm” or “leave no trace” brought in across these expectations – for some companies this might translate into being carbon neutral or achieving zero emissions, for others it might be about replacing or offering equal (or better) alternatives for anything displaced, and for others yet it might be more about an employment or community engagement strategy that elevates rather than exploits. (An earlier response from @cliffprior provides a number of resources available to companies to evaluate the social footprint of a project.) It’s also critical that a company not prioritize one area (e.g. environment) at the expense of another (e.g. social), so these core expectations should be diverse. A company that makes a positive socioeconomic and environmental impact in some spaces through its value chain (e.g. a health focused grocery store) but at the expense of labor exploitation (through incarcerated workers, for example) should not be celebrated. One good deed does not erase something egregious.

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I think that each company should find a way to deliver social impact that is unique, meaningful and authentically connected to the company’s purpose. Otherwise, there is a risk that the social/environmental activities are executed as passive compliance instead of being something integral to the organization.

Thus, commonalities should be created in the selection of areas where the social impact is needed (e.g. gender equality, access to education) instead of how it is delivered. The SDGs should be used as the framework that provides a common set of core social needs that all companies should fulfill.

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Hi all. I’m Aiden Choles, a co-founder and director of DBK Advisory in Johannesburg, South Africa. We’ve been focused on helping client articulate their total value narrative through mapping their activities to the SDGs.

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A1: First, let’s shed the label of “social” and focus on inequalities. Second, we already have a set of core expectations for all companies in the form of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and they provide the most coherent approach to tackling inequalities. This has implications for what indicators businesses should be using.

  1. The term “Social” is not defined anywhere and too easily invites a focus on philanthropy, social investment or the positive social effects of products or services, without reference to how they are sourced, produced and delivered. It also obscures the fact that we are talking about people. In contrast, inequality provides a laser sharp focus on the most vulnerable in society, and on whether business is being done in ways that are creating and sustaining - or reducing - inequalities. Political discourse at the national and international level has gone some way to giving the question of inequality prominence. And COVID-19, the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter have reinforced this call to action. Now is the moment for the responsible business community to embrace the inequality orientation to our work.
  2. The UNGPs provide the framework for action. In most instances, risks of severe impacts on people (human rights risks) result from or compound inequalities. So, respecting the human rights of workers, communities, consumers is intrinsic and indispensable to addressing inequality. And this is not about compliance nor just about ‘doing no harm’. It is about changing business practices so that the people most vulnerable to harm in company operations and value chains are lifted into lives of greater dignity and opportunity, reducing the inequalities they currently suffer. In other words, respect is itself, transformative. Further, because the UNGPs also speak to the responsibilities of investors as well as the duties of states to protect human rights, so they have within them the ingredients to drive systems change.

So, what does that imply for what we measure?

a. We should measure the degree to which companies are wired to address their most serious impacts on the most vulnerable. We should focus indicators on a small number of high-value business practices and behaviours that signal this such as: indicators of engagement with affected stakeholders; evidence of effective processes to identify the company’s most salient risks to people; evidence of setting criteria-based targets related to those risks; indicators of rights-respecting culture; and evidence that a company is engaged in tackling systemic issues associated with its operating context or business model.

b. We should focus on indicators and metrics that tell us about a company’s progress in tackling inequalities. One focus should be on whether the company is contributing to equality of income and opportunity, across their value chains not just in their own operations. There are lots of good metrics we can already use and on some issues, we need more work. But areas to target could include: The nature of contracts and benefits across the workforce; pay gaps including executive to median worker, gender and racial; health and safety; freedom of association; and living wage. Another focus should be on whether a company is supporting the political, institutional and societal structures designed to protect against inequalities. Here, we might look into tax policies; support of civic space; lobbying that impacts rights protections etc.


Honestly, I’d prefer to answer this less as a set and more as a general rule: regenerate at least as much as you extract, ideally more than you extract.

Unfortunately, most companies really isolate their negative impact from their positive impact. But they go hand-in-hand. Having a great nutrition program, for example, does not make up for economic exploitation. Using wind energy in your factories doesn’t compensate for deforestation. And so on.

At a minimum, the expectation should be to net neutral impact when assessing materiality—with a very critical lens on the full spectrum of economically, environmentally and socially related externalities related to corporate function (and please keep in mind, economic and environmental outcomes are inherently social). This is essentially the “first do no harm” principle. In a perfect world, the expectation would be doing more good than harm.

I can certainly elaborate on specific indicators or indicator topics. But without a unifying philosophy behind it, the specifics truly don’t mean as much.


Good to be here Katie!


My name is Mark Hauser. I’m a consultant at Innate Motion, a business humanising company, working with businesses and brands to enable more pro-planet / pro-social choices and behaviours.

Fully agree on the need for it to be company specfic and expertise specific to make impact…

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Sorry I’m late to my own party,

I’m Dan Neale and I lead the social transformation work within the World Benchmarking Alliance. We’re developing an approach to assess the 2,000 most influential companies against a core set of social-expectations to support our public benchmarks.

We have just launched a draft methodology for consultation -
Our draft has 15 core social topics that reflect societal expectations for responsible business conduct. They currently cover the following:

  1. Commitment to respect human rights
  2. Human rights due diligence
  3. Access to remedy
  4. Governance of human rights issues (board oversight)
  5. Freedom of association and collective bargaining
  6. Forced labour
  7. Child labour
  8. Discrimination
  9. Gender equality and women’s empowerment
  10. Health and safety
  11. Living wages and social protection
  12. Personal data protection
  13. Corporate taxation
  14. Anti-corruption
  15. Lobbying and corporate political influence

They need to be grounded in international norms, like UNGPs & ILO Core Labour Standards, aligned with accepted reporting frameworks like GRI, applicable to companies in many sectors and be ‘acceptable’ to most stakeholders.


Fully agree! I would worry that, if not linked back to the specific company purpose and footprint, any project would be watered down and fail to achieve the actual transformation the global community needs at this time.

Hello, I am a faculty director of First Peoples Worldwide here at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We just lead the effort to force the Washington Rdskns to change their name! I am quite biased when it comes to the question given our work with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Hence, in answer to the question, I would the requirements that companies create disclosures inclusive of social risks so that investors can have a clear understanding of the total risks inherent in a development project. When projects, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), occur on and near indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, these risk analyses must account for indigenous and human rights under applicable international standards; the minimum standards set by most governments as to indigenous peoples are not adequate and must be supplemented through independent and culturally responsive evaluation.


Generally, Environmental, Social and Governance considerations that have formed the basis of investors and corporates Sustainability criteria and assessment are no longer enough.

The SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement provide a useful frame to try and balance social needs – and expectations against economic and environmental ones and serve as a useful bridge; however we also need to begin to place more weight back on social aspects than has been the case in recent years.

Corporates have done an increasingly good job raising awareness of social and climate issues, but we are beyond the point of just talking about it and we need to see real action to back it all up. More is needed especially on the social front and this should not be a topic only raised in challenging times, but something imbedded into corporate culture and corporate responsibilities on a continuous basis.

Think of ‘ESG +’ from an investor’s point of view, where corporates take well defined stands on social issues affecting their businesses, employees and their communities – more clearly aligning social responsibility with business sustainability.

And ideally these core expectations would need to part of a package of activities by businesses against which they are both measured and held accountable on the one hand, but rewarded and incentivized to invest and grow the business on the other. This could be something as simple as having 20% of bonuses or remuneration linked to Social Targets of KPIs that are relevant and relate to the ground realities of where the corporate operates or invests in.

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A1: At Avon, we’ve been supporting women for 130 years. Our purpose is “for women” – building a better world for women, their families and communities is at the heart of everything we do.

Frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals are a good start to setting out how we can contribute to creating a better world for all.

Any set of core social expectations should recognise that corporate responsibility is an integral part of everything we do as a business, not just an add-on. This is also something that many consumers want to see – that a business is about people and the planet, as well as profit.

Ultimately any common set of core expectations must be about togetherness – companies working together to increase our social impact. For example, Avon’s recent Isolated Not Alone campaign to raise awareness of the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic brought together the whole Natura &Co group – Natura, The Body Shop and Aesop as well as Avon. We could increase our reach and impact through promoting the campaign in our different networks. Together we can do more!


I think the lens you use to choose the expectations is crucial and it needs to be able to take into account the total value that a company adds to the world (more than just financial) and that it should also capture/articulate their intent to be a good/better player in their value chains and geographies. To this end I think the SDGs are the most useful as a framework - they cut across all levels of business and are paired to the world’s needs, especially the social elements. Then, using the Stockholm Resilience Institute’s categorisation of the SDGs, we can see that biospheric SDGs are the base upon which economic and social SDGs are built on.


Our view is that respect for human rights is critical to achieving the SDGs. Companies are uses to taking a whole picture approach for the “planet part” of Sustainable Development. They know that when they reduce their environmental footprint – the negative impacts on the environment – they make a positive contribution to preserving our planet and everything that depends on it. Many companies also find additional opportunities to make contributions by providing “green” products, services and investments that support progress in our world.

But when it comes to the “People Parts” we seem to cast aside this logic. Business leaders interested in contributing to the SDGs often jump straight to innovations that can both make money and contribute to society. While it is important that they do so, they often miss something critical: they forget to think about risks to people connected to their business. This is the message behind Shift’s work on Human Rights and Sustainable Development and a set of case studies we published with the WBCSD to demonstrate what we mean: The Human Rights Opportunity.


Fully agree @Leonora. I think that each company should find a way to deliver social impact that is unique, meaningful and authentically connected to the company’s purpose. Otherwise, there is a risk that the social/environmental activities are executed as passive compliance instead of being something integral to the organization.


I think companies need to ensure that they are clear and concise about where they “make a difference to the world”. It doesn’t have to be about lofty goals, or PhD-worthy treatises in how they hit the SDG’s but a simple clear statement about what they do to make a difference (and therefore why they merit their existence!)


Given that this is a fast changing, arguably converging space, any views on the best definition and or framework for defining social benefits? Such as wellbeing, inequality, flourishing, human rights etc and should we all be usting UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) or Social and Human Capital Protocol or something else?


At GRI, we launched the revision of our Human Rights Standards and Universal Standards to increase alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD’s guidelines and tools on responsible business conduct. We also realized that human rights topics are often overlooked by companies which is why it needs to be stressed.