Sustainability in 2017- are we at a tipping point to become mainstream?

As we are nearing the end of the year, we’d like to reflect on how sustainability initiatives have progressed in 2016. What is the state of the art in sustainability for business? And what can we look forward to in sustainability in 2017?

The number of companies that are taking sustainability seriously is still growing. And that’s good news. These companies acknowledge that they have to become more sustainable, not only to manage their reputation and risk and to increase their efficiency – including that of their supply chain – but most of all to ensure new revenue streams in the future, with sustainable products.

2016 – a year of scaling up sustainability initiatives

In the past year, we’ve seen many initiatives and concrete examples, like Adidas using plastic waste from the oceans and Patagonia’s Repair & Care Guides. On a political level, the EU has put a lot of effort into the PEFCR/OEFSR pilots to create a level playing field for measuring the impact of products. From this initiative, so-called ‘shadow PEFs’ are starting to arise, where companies are already working with the Product Environmental Footprint rules as they stand so far to get used to the process and reap the early benefits. The scale and impact of these initiatives is growing. Overall, there’s a lot of energy and drive to make the strategy and the results happen.

Don’t get hit by a boomerang, measure the impacts of your sustainability programme

However, this drive and growing impact comes with an obligation: when it comes to sustainability programs, we must not only think or feel that we’re doing the right thing, we must know for sure. This conviction is in PRé’s DNA, but unfortunately, it’s not in everybody’s. Recently, I visited a meeting evaluating government sustainability programs, and there was no upfront measurement of the environmental impact to assess whether these programs make sense or not.

That’s a serious threat to all this positive energy. If it turns out that these programs have only a limited positive impact – or even worse, a negative impact – that can hit you in the back like a boomerang. Not knowing how to measure progress can lead to situations where everyone is focusing on the same driver, like recycling in a circular economy, while in practice there are many more, and potentially more important, hotspots.

Sustainability Data Dashboard

Quality data and the need for fact-based decisions

The need for data to fuel these insights has only become bigger. Robust methods and tools are needed, more than ever, to turn data into meaningful insights. Sector initiatives, like The Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, are putting a lot of effort into providing data, tools and methods so their members use the right facts to make strategic decisions about risk, reputation, cost savings and innovation. Government initiatives like the European Commission’s PEFCR/OEFSR pilots and UNEP’s GLAD initiative to create a global LCI Database platform are also paving the way forward. These life-cycle-thinking-based approaches help companies to assess their environmental and social impact.

We have been involved in these initiatives by providing tools (such as BRE, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Platform BEE) that support companies to assess their impact, but also by developing and applying new methods to assess social impact, biodiversity, toxicity and pesticides. At the same time, we experienced first-hand how LCA can be applied to new developments, for instance by incorporating circular economy into more ‘traditional’ LCA projects for Wecycle and Wageningen University.

Sustainability needs to be carried by the users

We are proud that we can contribute to making these sustainability initiatives more fact-based. These projects also taught us not only to focus on the metrics but on the context they’re used in. It’s important to have the metrics right, but it’s really the purpose they’re used for that makes them valuable and impactful. This is a lesson worth repeating to ourselves. In the end, users will ask themselves how these metrics help them to achieve their goals.

Making sustainability more fact-based is a good and much-needed development to make the business case for sustainability. We believe that if companies invest in understanding the impact of what they do, they can use it for multiple purposes….and that many of the insights to do this are often already available. That’s why we try to activate our ecosystem of SimaPro users, consultancy clients and partners to share data and models that will help others to get started. The PEF models can have the same impact in the future, as people don’t have to start from scratch and don’t need to invest heavily in knowledge and experience.

A switch in mindset – from compliance to innovation

Once you have built the model of the life cycle or value chain for your product, service or organization, you can use it not only to report on the current status but also to create scenarios for more sustainable products and monitor the performance of your operations and supply chain. That will help to move away from an approach driven by risk and reputation management to one of eco-efficiency and value creation.

The business case for sustainability is made through insights into the current situation, performance improvement and identifying opportunities for innovation and value creation. Once we realize how we can get the facts right to make this business case, we can reap the benefits from a more sustainable approach: risk and reputation management, cost savings, but most of all generating new revenues with sustainable products and services.

Using insights from the entire life cycle opens up opportunities for new collaboration and partnerships: internally across departments, but also with suppliers and customers. Personally, I believe that extending the scope of your view and working with others is the biggest value of a more sustainable approach. Metrics can play a very important role in getting the right focus and creating momentum for these partnerships. As we’ve seen from the many examples, sustainability in business is on the brink of becoming mainstream. Let’s make it happen!

Eric Mieras

Managing Director

Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.

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