There are several factors that make measuring social sustainability challenging:
- It is relatively new and lacks standardization or widely adopted methods.
- It is quite unique to each situation, demanding effort to customize the approach used.
- It can be costly as data required is rarely already available and often complicated to capture.
The Measurement Approach
The social measurement capacity needed depends greatly on the circumstances. An organization that has a strong interest in how they affect stakeholders, internally and externally, is likely to find greater value in a deeper social measurement capacity. In that case, the adoption of a more robust and recognized measurement system that can measure overall performance and the impact of projects is likely more suitable. In other cases, it may suffice to internally develop qualitative or more basic quantitative measures of social performance and impact.1
Quantifying Qualitative Data
Looking at an example will help to illuminate how qualitative data can be used to generate a quantitative measure of impact. Accurately measuring the impact of more equitable wages, for example, can be very complicated and resource intensive. Even if a numerical value is somehow developed, it isn’t certain decision makers would trust it, given the measurement technique applied isn’t likely widely used or accepted.
For a source of impact like pay equity, or otherwise, rather than attempting to produce a hard number, quantifying a qualitative measure can serve as a useful alternative. Producing an rating (e.g. high = 3, moderate = 2, low = 1, none = 0), is one technique that can be used to measure expected impact in relative terms. That way, impact generated can be assigned a relative value that isn’t as easily questioned.
Consider the implementation of a building technology that will nearly eliminate fluctuations in office temperature, which employees have been frequently complaining about. When comparing this project against the integration of a motion sensor into the lighting system, we can predict that the motion sensor would have no effect on the quality of working conditions (earning a score of 0), while the temperature regulation technology is likely to contribute modestly to the comfort of employees (earning a score of 1 or perhaps 2). All other project considerations being equal, if employees are made uncomfortable by fluctuating temperatures, the regulation system is the stronger project option based on the ratings produced.
While simple solutions, like producing relative ratings, may not be overly detailed or accurate, they provide a means for given weight to social sources of impact in the absence of a trusted and more sophisticated measurement approach.
1. Corporate Impact: Measuring and Managing your Social Footprint (2010) by Adrian Henriques provides an approach to identifying, understanding, measuring and accounting for corporate social impact.