The Art of Measuring Sustainability
"A Sunday afternoon on the Island Grande Jatte” is a wonderful painting by the French artist Seurat. The lucky ones will be able to admire it at the Art Institute of Chicago and feel the warmth of an 1880s summer day on this island in the Seine River.
The painting was made with a technique called Pointillism (or Divisionism), in which many distinct dots of pure color come together to create an image. The magic of it is that if you stand too close you won’t be able to tell what it is, only when you stand back do the dots blend into different shades of color and become detailed images.
Measuring sustainability requires a similar process
To set your goals and understand what should be measured you first need to evaluate your major impacts, which can be identified by looking at the whole. Once this is done, you can step closer and develop your metrics.
But why is it important to measure sustainability?
As sustainability gains importance in business, companies are also reshaping their definition of value, which is not only associated with profit anymore. A qualitative sustainability assessment alone doesn’t allow you to go further than mere observation. A quantitative approach makes it possible to set specific goals, and can represent an efficient tool for innovation. Measures give value, and in the world of business, value gets dignity and attention. More importantly, metrics make it possible to rationalize decision-making and make logical, consistent choices.
In the art of selecting metrics, these are not simple dots, but they follow a systems perspective to better translate complexity into useful tools: for the company to set goals and to innovate, for suppliers to better understand requirements, for investors and customers to make comparisons and choices.
Even though many would agree it is important to measure, metrics can also scare employees, especially if they are seen as a judgment of one’s work. To become an everyday tool for improvement they should be chosen by those using them. Metrics should be adopted and integrated into employees’ daily functions in a way that allows them to feel responsible and above all in charge of the change — not scrutinized because of it.
Measuring doesn’t mean improving, but it’s a great start. You get to read a lot about big companies who develop their own metrics, advanced methods to measure sustainability. Yet is estimated that about 97 percent of worldwide companies are SMEs (in Europe 90 percent of businesses are microenterprises with less than 10 employees). These companies should not be afraid to start with few metrics. As long as they are carefully selected, they contain the essence of continuous improvement, and they are relevant. The following step is taking action and producing change.
Considering the whole supply chain is a big responsibility. You would certainly look amazing if your metrics showed very low impacts, but if you just consider your operations and the most significant impacts happen to be upstream or downstream, what you are doing is called externalizing impacts and cost. It is not an easy process, and SMEs will have more difficulty getting data from suppliers than a large company, but if suppliers see the benefits as well, it can be a win-win situation.
A metric, which is a measure, is a value expressing a relationship between one quantity and another taken as reference point, called a unity of measurement. Reaching consensus on a unity of measurement makes it possible for people to make agreements and comparisons. The “second” is the unity of measurement for time, and even though every one of us can have a different perception of it (think of what the expression “just a second” means to your partner, your mum, your best friend), you would agree it is extremely useful.
We are now overwhelmed by the number of metrics available, and they will probably keep on increasing. The big challenge for the future will be trying to harmonize sustainability metrics, focusing on a number of them and allowing agreement among stakeholders with different priorities and cultures. It’s a complex process, but sustainability has a very democratic nature, because it is inclusive and respectful, which makes the outcome uncertain. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” I believe that business sustainability has a similar nature. One possibility could be the development of international standards to set a yardstick, the same basis for comparison worldwide.
Once the metrics are up and running, be careful not to get stuck so close that that only see them, like the dots of pure color. Let’s remember to step back a bit, to be able to capture the wholeness of the picture, now knowing what it is made of.
Environmental communicator and sustainability paths expert at 2B Srl
Beatrice Bortolozzo is a co-founder of 2B Srl (SimaPro partner in Italy). She specializes in sustainability paths, Social-LCA, Life Cycle Thinking and sustainability communication. She loves innovative thinking, sustainably creative experiences and has a passion for books, studying foreign languages, and cycling in the countryside.