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Why the 'decent work' agenda is reshaping sustainability goals

Companies like Marks&Spencer, Unilever and Nestle are leading the push to address issues like safety, fair wages, diversity and other persistent societal challenges.

This is the final part of a six-part series revealing findings from SustainAbility’s recent report, "Targeting Value," with a focus on how the landscape of sustainability goals around the decent work agenda is evolving.

The "Decent Work" agenda is not new. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has been promoting decent work standards since 1919, and we have come a long way since. The workplace today is safer and fairer, and employment has lifted millions out of extreme poverty and created a sizeable middle class in developing economies.

Here's the definition the ILO uses:

Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.

Yet, the fact that Sustainable Development Goal 8 calls out "Decent Work and Economic Growth" as an area of focus is a helpful reminder of how much progress is still to be made on persistent issues, including unemployment, social mobility, and gender and wage inequalities.

At the same time, new norms, challenges and opportunities keep emerging. Companies increasingly need to act in response to new regulation and civil society expectations. Employee well-being, living wages, the gender pay gap and human rights are only a few of the complex social challenges companies are expected to tackle.

Evidence suggests that the complexity and sensitivity of social issues can leave companies unsure where to start and reluctant to set goals.
 As part of the "Targeting Value" research, we examined how corporate sustainability goals are addressing the evolving decent work agenda and its complex issues. To understand the landscape of goals that drive positive impact we examined the approaches of known leaders on the agenda and created a database of goals from the top 65 Fortune 500 companies from the energy, finance and food sectors.  

We found that companies generally have some goals around decent work and labor standards that align with the ILO and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agendas; however, the scope of issues addressed varies. The majority of companies in our sample have set goals that focus on:

  • Health and Safety — such as reduction of employee and contractor injuries and implementation of best practice or prevention culture.
  • Diversity — including gender equality, such as targets to achieve specific percentages of female employees at senior levels of company management or in the talent pool.
  • Employee Development, Training and Skills — that promote investments in existing and future talent through education and mentoring programs.

To some extent, the goals seem to reflect sector-specific priorities; for example, the energy sector heavily features health and safety goals.

Differences also reveal a range of maturity regarding not only goal-setting but also approaches towards specific decent work sub-issues. For example, while many companies have been working towards health and safety and diversity for a number of years, they may be relatively new to managing human rights or mental well-being.

Anecdotal evidence and our broader research into goals also suggest that the complexity and sensitivity of social issues can leave companies unsure where to start and reluctant to set goals.

However, we are seeing first examples of companies setting goals and targets on complex and emerging social issues including living wages, the gender pay gap, inclusion, the future of work and human rights.

For example, Marks & Spencer’s Plan A 2025 (PDF) has set a goal on the future of work and disruption due to technological advancement: "By 2020, we'll complete collaborative research into the likely employment impacts of next-generation technologies. We'll then provide an annual update on our actions to prepare our people for the future, whether they work for M&S or other employers."

Nestlé's "Gender Balance" commitment goes beyond traditional diversity goals (percentage of female employees at board level) and recognizes the need for "creating the enabling conditions in our work environment to achieve annual increases in the percentage of women managers and senior leaders." Nestlé launched a new diversity and inclusion framework, including unconscious bias training to support delivery against this ambition.

The nature of these goals reflects that companies do not fully know yet the answer to a particular challenge, but they commit themselves publicly to working towards a solution. They undertake or commission research and collaborate with NGOs and other experts to develop an understanding of root causes and define step-by-step responses.

Companies that do not fully know yet the answer to a particular challenge are committing themselves publicly to working towards a solution.
For example, Unilever worked closely with the Fair Wage Network to develop the company's approach to a living wage. In another example, Mercer is convening a Responsible Employer Forum which aims to raise industry awareness on fair wage issues and share best practice on how multinational organizations can implement fairness in workplace initiatives.

This way of working brings to life what experts refer to as social theory of change or context-based methodology. Traditionally, non-profits have applied this approach to demonstrate their impact on particular social challenges, for example, how an education program is driving social mobility. SustainAbility's "Targeting Value" report identifies a theory of change as one of the best practice attributes in corporate goal setting, and other social issues experts advocate the methodology as the equivalent to the science-based approach for environmental goals. Other strategies that should continue to be leveraged going forward include:

  • The ILO and the SDGs provide internationally respected frameworks, indicators, insights and recommendations that can help companies develop their understanding of social issues, set appropriate and meaningful goals and roll out action plans.
  • Partnerships with experts and NGOs, as well as industry collaboration at the global and local level will help companies develop meaningful interventions and targets that will drive impact.  

With rapidly changing norms and emerging regulation around decent work issues that enhance corporate accountability not only towards employees but increasingly also suppliers, we expect more companies will be publicly committing to the agenda and setting goals on complex social issues. Long-term success will depend, in part, on effective multi-stakeholder collaboration, wider uptake and evolution of current best practice and courage to address difficult questions to which we don't yet have the answers.

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