Social sustainability

Social sustainability is broadly concerned with a venture’s impact on people. This can be split into aspects of internal social sustainability – the treatment of employees – and external social sustainability with regards to the society in which the venture is embedded. External social sustainability also captures supply chain issues, but these will be discussed in an own section, yet to come.

Sustainable treatment of employees

Ecopreneurs do not see their staff as just another resource that needs optimising, but as an integral part of their social mission. This is reflected in the working conditions in ecopreneurial venutres, the efforts made to increase employee well-being and by providing work opportunities for disadvantages people.

Creating fair and enjoyable work conditions

Ecopreneurs appreciate that it’s important to create the best possible working conditions for their staff. They regard it inappropriate to strive for ecologic improvements by sacrificing the people in and around their venture. This poses a challenge for small ventures with limited financial resources and those that are on the intersection to the third sector. The following practices are found to contribute to this:

Develop staff according to their interest

Which skills does the venture need? Who would enjoy and benefit from acquiring them? Ecopreneurs aim at identifying the employee’s interests and aspirations and developing their skills accordingly. People excel at doing what they enjoy. This improves performance and job satisfaction.

Paying the real living wage or above. Ecopreneurs were found to forgo profits to increase wages. In cases where this is not possible, ecopreneurs find non-monetary reward systems. Can the employees benefit from any of the activities in the venture? E.g. a harvest share on a farm.

Adequate pay and non-monetary reward systems

Fostering employee well-being

In addition to creating fair working conditions, ecopreneurs actively engage in fostering their employee’s well-being. Here their practices are concerned with avoiding overworking staff, creating a community feeling and supporting mental health. Actions found in the research are:

Avoid excessive unpaid hours

Start-ups and third sector organisations alike are prone to expecting unpaid overtime from their staff. Ecopreneurs aim to keep these to a minimum.

Avoid staff working alone

Being alone on site or working extended periods in isolation can diminish staffs’ mental health and should be avoided. Ecopreneurs aim to appreciate this in their work rotas.

Mental health support

Create an open culture around mental health that appreciates struggles people might have. Actively try to fight stigma and shame, so employees feel supported and able to seek help when needed.

Work opportunities for disadvantaged people

Another way of increasing the social impact found in ecopreneurial ventures is offering work opportunities for disadvantaged people. This might require training or hiring people to provide support for those with support needs. The work opportunities can be paid and unpaid like volunteering positions. This helps with upskilling, which helps the beneficiaries to enhance employability and reenter the job market. Beneficiaries of these activities can be for example:

  • Long-term unemployed
  • People struggling with mental health issues
  • Former addicts

Providing the work opportunity can give a meaningful activity to the beneficiaries. In places where volunteering is offered, it also provides the venture with unpaid labour, which strengthens its economic sustainability. Ecopreneurs are mindful though, not to exploit these opportunities, which links back to non-monetary reward systems.

Sharing with society

To address their external social sustainability, ecopreneurs are found to share (insights, resources, success, etc.) with the community in which they operate. The idea of sharing with the community, as opposed to giving back to the community, assumes that giving back means the ecopreneur has taken too much in the first place.

“The idea of sharing with the community, assumes that giving back means the ecopreneur has taken too much in the first place.”

The idea is that instead of amassing big fortunes and then returning parts through philanthropic engagement, ecopreneurs are conscious of distributing the created value fairly as they go along.

Fostering social interaction

Fostering social interaction aims at bringing together consumers from various social backgrounds, creating community engagement, and increasing awareness and acceptance for sustainability issues. This is achieved through:

Creating spaces for interaction

Turning spaces where consumers interact with the business into spaces to social interaction and inclusion. E.g. running a café in the store, where people can mix and being mindful of setting prices that don’t exclude lower social classes from sustainable consumption.

Unused space can be used to facilitate community group meetings and social projects. This helps the groups follow their purpose and also creates awareness for the ecopreneurial venture’s mission.

Opening up underutilised space

Co-producing with the local community

Inviting the local community to engage in the venture’s activities and co-producing with them allows to draw vulnerable people into a supporting community and tackles problems of loneliness. Further it educates the community and shapes the human-ecologic relationship.

This social exchange can strengthen the local community and resilience of a region. Further tackling issues of loneliness and providing work opportunities can improve the lives of the most disadvantaged people in a community.

© Niels Robert Schneider 2020