Why Sustainability Practitioners Need to Embrace Big Data


by | Nov 3, 2015

oconnell-christinaThe outcome of the 2012 presidential election in the United States, which saw President Barack Obama fight to win a second term against the Republican Mitt Romney, was uncertain. Obama’s record-breaking fundraising was no guarantee of success in the face of challenging domestic issues such as how the US would respond to the economic downturn or the future of the Affordable Care Act.

But one man did call the result correctly. In fact, the American statistician and writer Nate Silver – who started his career analyzing and forecasting the performance and career development of major league baseball players – correctly predicted the winner in all US states.

How? Well, Silver is a self-professed data geek. He has built systems that give him access to all the data he needs to make the most accurate predictions – whether in forecasting election results or estimating how many home runs a specific player is likely to make in a year. And crucially, he understands how to read that data.

As famous as Silver has become as something of a data journalist, he’s not alone in being able to understand data and use it for positive results. With advances in connectivity and the power of technology to gather data, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. According to IBM, by 2020 there will be 43 trillion gigabytes of data — 300 times more information available to use than there was in 2005..

Corporate sustainability managers are beginning to realize the benefits such information can have in supporting their environmental and social impact reduction efforts. Typically, the biggest impact a company can have on the planet sits outside its sphere of influence, along its supply chain. It is not uncommon for more than 80 percent of a company’s total end-to-end carbon impact to be found within the operations of its suppliers – and for its direct operational impacts to account for as little as 5 percent in many instances.

For these big businesses, their supply chain is large and complex, made up of tens of thousands of suppliers across the world spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Understanding who those suppliers are and what impact they are having on the planet is crucially important if the company is to reduce its overall impact.

But it’s not easy. In fact, without the right data and information on those suppliers, it’s very difficult indeed.

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