Sustainability metrics systems are siloed into separate scales of operation, but their goals should be aligned across the scales.
By Koen Boone, Managing Director, Europe, The Sustainability Consortium
The Ecolabel Index includes 444 different sustainability labels. Thousands of other initiatives exist around the globe across levels and purposes. Can we use their combined power to create a more sustainable world? And how?
International and National Initiatives
The most overarching initiatives are probably the well-known Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and Sustainability Development Goals (SDG). Both set the sustainability goals on a global level.
While the MDG were set nearly 15 years ago and focus on social issues, the SDG are a follow up of the Rio+20 meeting and focus on environmental issues. Both sets could potentially merge into one set of indicators on the global level.
Many similar initiatives also exist at the national level. One group of indicators that have become popular over recent years are the OECD Green Growth Indicators, designed to support policy makers in combining economic growth and sustainability.
Another example on the national level is the United Nation’s Human Development Index that can be calculated for 187 countries. Some countries like the Netherlands even produce a sustainability report that not only includes sustainability performance but also links it with policy-making.
Regional and Project-Level Initiatives
Numerous indicator sets are available on the regional level as well for provinces/states, cities, neighborhoods, etc. Some of these are going into the direction of an integral policy evaluation instrument, recognizing that all policy-making has a relationship to sustainability and should be analyzed in an integral way. This development is comparable to the move from sustainability reporting to integrated reporting by companies.
However, sustainability measurement on a wide scale was first introduced at the project level. By the 1980s, methodologies such as (Social) Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) were introduced for large infrastructural projects and soon became obligatory in several countries around the world.
Company and Product Level Initiatives
Despite the origins, most initiatives – hundreds in the last 15 years – remain at the company and product levels.
On the company level, tools may support the internal management of sustainability within a company (all large consultancies have their own tools), are targeted for sustainability reporting (like the Global Reporting Initiative or SASB) or for selection of sustainable companies by investors (Dow Jones Sustainability Index).
On the product level, measurement may be targeted to consumers (organic, fair trade, GoodGuide, Product Environmental Footprint) or for Business-to-Business communication (The Sustainability Consortium).
A smaller number of initiatives also exist on other levels like the industry level (for sustainability reporting on industry level by trade or producer organizations or for comparing industries by statistical institutes) and consumer level (Global Footprint Network).
Needed: Better Alignment Between Scale Levels
While people have argued for a decrease in the number of initiatives and for more harmonization for a while now, I would like to argue instead for more alignment between these levels. The MDGs and SDGs, for example, would have much more impact if translated to the levels with strong decision power and in actionable language.
While final success can only be measured on a global scale, recent history (UNFCCC/Kyoto, WTO) has proved that decision power is very limited on this scale. Ideally, indicators on the global level should be translated into specific improvement opportunities of decision makers on all levels.
Another reason to align these different levels is so that the initiatives can learn from each other. In most cases, those implementing initiatives on the same level know of each other, meet often and profit from new insights and developments. But they hardly know anything or anybody from other levels, although nearly all the methodological issues are the same across these levels.
Bringing people together from different levels can lead to real improvements and innovations in sustainability measurement as seen by the Societal Cost Benefit Analysis, for example, which has been applied to infrastructural projects for decades but has only become popular in the business community recently (TEEB, PUMA environmental profit and loss account).
The Sustainability Consortium
This is where The Sustainability Consortium's (TSC) efforts to develop methods to measure sustainability on product levels together with its members (universities, governments, NGOs and companies) are useful.
Using a combination of product category and product level analysis, TSC identifies hotspots (sustainability bottle necks) based on quantitative scientific analysis (like Life Cycle Assessment). To measure the performance of an individual product within that product category, a combination of outcome based (e.g., kg CO2 emissions) and input/process oriented indicators (e.g., using renewable energy) are used.
The use of input/process oriented indicators not only has the advantage of making a direct connection with improvement opportunities for the companies involved but also improves the scalability and the answerability of indicators by all companies around the world. We also stimulate alignment by participating in stakeholder consultations for the SDG setting, for example, and working to make the connection between SDG and initiatives across levels.
But like previous attempts, TSC cannot work in a vacuum. Alignment and cross scaling will require a collaborative effort. And that's where we need your support.
Related: The Leaky Faucet: Using Supply Networks to Prioritize Product Sustainability Decisions
About the Author:
Dr. Koen Boone is Managing Director Europe of The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) and works at LEI part of Wageningen University and Research Centre. Koen has nearly 15 years of experience on measuring sustainability on all kinds of levels (product, company, sector). He worked together with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) on the development of GRI guidelines for sustainability reporting for the Food Processing Industry.
About The Sustainability Consortium:
The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is an organization of diverse global participants that work collaboratively to build a scientific foundation that drives innovation to improve consumer product sustainability. TSC develops transparent methodologies, tools, and strategies to drive a new generation of products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives.
The Sustainability Consortium advocates for a credible, scalable and transparent process and system. The organization boasts over 90 members from all corners of business employing over 8.5 million people and whose combined revenues total over $2.4 trillion. The Sustainability Consortium is jointly administered by Arizona State University and University of Arkansas with additional operations at Wageningen University in The Netherlands and Nanjing University in China. Learn more at www.sustainabilityconsortium.org.