How to Use Sustainability Metrics to Drive Business Performance, Innovation and Stakeholder Satisfaction

by | Aug 11, 2010

Environmental metrics were not much of an issue when I started as a young environmental coordinator at a Utah coal mine 30 years ago. The few environmental metrics I used were mainly driven by regulatory-agency permits, inspections and audits. How many spills occurred this month? How many fines did we get this quarter? Did we exceed waste water discharge requirements? Our entire environmental compliance philosophy was driven by permit limits, rules and regulations. My company was actually more concerned about environmental pollution and managing impacts of operations on the environment than most companies in a large western state at that time. But there was a major disconnect between environmental performance and business performance. Environmental protection was seen by management as a cost “sink,” and not as an integral part of conducting business. Metrics weren’t designed to optimize our environmental performance or to understand the long-term impacts of our decisions on either our business or the environment. All decisions were made within a limited point of view.

Like the mining company I worked for, and like most businesses today, it’s clear that the ship has turned. Companies are looking strategically at how environmental performance can have a direct impact on the bottom line of an organization. Some are even taking a top-line approach to business success by accounting for social, natural and financial capital. Drivers such as globalization of markets, customer and shareholder preferences, regulatory pressures and business process re-engineering can claim a role in this sea change of decision-making. This approach has fundamentally changed the way companies operate, design, manufacture, and distribute products.

Why Measure Anyway?

Well, the two old axioms state that “you are what you measure” and “what gets measured gets managed.” Without a way to establish an internal benchmark for continual improvement, it becomes harder to innovate, advance and proactively respond to stakeholder expectations. Key advantages to monitor and measure environmental and organizational performance include:

  • Setting Effective and Value-Added Priorities
  • Benchmarking to Continuously Improve
  • Encouragement of Bottom Up, Organization-wide Innovation
  • Reinforcing Personal and Organizational Accountability
  • Strengthening Strategic Planning and Goal-Setting Processes
  • Improved Internal and External Communication

Metrics can do one of two things: They can tell you what you should do, or they can tell you what you should have done. If you use them to tell you what to do, you’ll be using them to measure your successes. But if you use them to tell you what you should have done, you’ll be using them to measure your failures. So clearly it’s the first approach, not the latter, that forward-thinking companies should focus on.

The Advent of Verification and Triple Bottom Line Focused Metrics

In the not too distant past, as I noted above, environmental performance was primarily based upon a company’s compliance with local, state or federal permits and environmental regulations. With the advent of the ISO 14001-2004 Standard and Specification and its companion guidelines over the past 15 years, companies are taking a broader look at the ways they measure environmental performance. In addition, the ISO 14031 Guidelines on Environmental Performance Evaluation provide for establishment of measurable and verifiable environmental performance indicators (EPIs) appropriate to any public or private enterprise.

Many of the potential benefits from linking environmental and economic performance depend on the ability to integrate environmental management practices into the normal course of a company’s operations. The ability to quantify environmental performance in a meaningful way is critical to the effectiveness of this integration.
Adding to the mix of the benchmarks for environmental indicators are the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) , Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBSCD). Each of these measurements and reporting frameworks provide for reporting on the sustainability-economic, environmental, and social – dimensions of an organizations activities, products, and services.

What to Measure and How to Frame the Message

Do your performance metrics have you tied up in knots? Once organizations decide they have to do more measuring, then the key question becomes: What do we measure and how do we measure it? A few tips:

1. Measure things that add value to organizational decisions. Measuring for the sake of measuring is a waste of time.

2. Think about ways to measure things differently that your competitors. Novel and unique metrics are just as important to differentiating you as your products.

3. Measure at a minimum the same way others around the world were measuring, as this assures that globally focused metrics are harmonized.

4. If you are a large company with multiple department, divisions or sites, the metrics of the individual parts must be able to be “rolled up” in a way that addresses the entire organization but still meets site or department specific needs.

When establishing appropriate measures (whether they are social, environmental, operational or financial), consider that metrics must be:

  • Representative
  • Understandable
  • Relevant
  • Comparative
  • Quantifiable
  • Time-based and Normalized
  • Unbiased and Validated
  • Transferable

Also, make sure that the metrics address the needs of all internal and external stakeholders – in other words, your employees, customers, local community, government and shareholders.

Finally, good metrics if applied properly will foster innovation and growth. Focus on continuous improvement as the primary driver for monitoring and measuring performance. If metrics don’t add value, they will not support continuous improvement and eventually will not be used.

Many of today’s environmental metrics evolved from the end-of-pipe command-and-control regulatory approach that has been implemented in a piecemeal fashion over the past 30 years since I joined the environmental profession. Why let regulatory agencies drive the key performance metrics that in turn drive business performance? While compliance is a key benchmark for environmental performance, don’t stop there.
In this highly competitive, quickly changing and unstable business climate, organizational success requires agility. Success also depends on having the correct set of metrics in place to gauge progress in meeting short and long-term business objectives. Measuring performance with a sustainability lens is just one of the new responsibilities that companies can quickly embrace to nimbly drive organizational value.

Dave Meyer serves is VP of Sustainable Economic and Environmental Development Solutions (SEEDS Global Alliance (Northwest Operations). His principal focus has been to help public and private organizations achieve environmental sustainability program excellence, leverage regulatory compliance risks, optimize organizational effectiveness, and create upstream value in highly competitive markets. You can also follow Dave on Twitter @DRMeyer1.

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