2017 Annual Letter
A decade! A lot has changed in our ten years of global collaborations to create innovative and science-based approaches to measuring sustainability. Three major lessons stand out and they have fundamentally altered what we believe are the most effective changes needed to address time-critical sustainability challenges.
It is hard to imagine that today’s mainstream acceptance of rigorously measuring the impacts of sustainability efforts was considered marginal when we started a decade ago. We have always held that if we cannot measure it we cannot manage it for results. Now, we are beginning to also get acceptance for the idea of applying standardized and consistent metrics; a key benefit where our innovation stands out.
Our Learning Partnerships – that now include 55 institutions – recognize that we have to work on common metrics if we are to have any accountability or transparency. For many, COSA serves as the lynchpin for increasing the effectiveness of programs and quickly learning about what works and what does not. And that relates to the first lesson: We all need to have simpler ways to demonstrate or manage our sustainability.
So, we are actively advancing simpler optimized metrics with groups as diverse as The Sustainability Consortium that convenes more than a hundred of the world’s biggest retailers and brands. And the InterAmerican Development Bank, whose SAFE Platform provides funding to innovative sustainability projects for major organizations from Grameen Foundation and Catholic Relief Services to Starbucks and Keurig. Understanding the basics is vital if we are to get a critical mass moving in the right direction. We simply cannot wait for science to confirm with absolute certainty since we can already start moving in the right direction at low cost. Every development project or investment should consider to simply measure what matters first.
The second lesson, learned initially in a multi-country engagement a few years ago with Mars, the extraordinary agri-food giant, is that good data alone just doesn’t matter. We need to be able to assimilate and interpret that data so that it can be integrated as actionable for managers to use on a regular basis. We can even help to understand the return on investment (ROI). When we take the time to think through what information really makes a difference in their work, then it has true value.
Modern managers recognize that sustainability knowledge needs to move in real time – just like data moves in the world of business. When a project or company gets rapid feedback on its efforts, only then can they improve. We like these efficiency ideas applied to something as vital as sustainability and they are a fundamental feature of COSA’s work.
The third lesson is that sustainability metrics really work when they are easy for managers to grasp, and when they point the way to solutions. Sound frivolous? Think again. With increasingly complex jobs, sustainability is just one of many responsibilities that managers face, so getting data in dense tables, long reports, or dull bar graphs tends to mean they can only make limited use of it. Instead, functionality skyrockets with dashboards and an appealing graphic interface of just the right ‘actionable’ information that managers understand and know they need in order to make smarter decisions.
Perhaps our biggest challenge going forward is scaling up. We want to get governments and development agencies to step into the age of sustainability with the pragmatic integration of science-based metrics that empower decision-makers with a balanced and rational perspective. Some, like the government of Mexico, are taking radical steps to improve their policy and investments based on sound sustainability data.
I am heartened by the leadership that companies are taking. An array of leading US-based multinationals stood up for the need to address climate change in the face of business-as-usual government policies. While recently chairing a panel of some of the world’s large forward-thinking companies, a VP of Siemens remarked that their company’s world view encompassed not B2B (business to business) or even B2C (business to consumer) but B2S or Business to Society.
This novel sense of scope reflects a holistic and future-conscious understanding of corporate responsibility that will be fundamental to evolve thinking and practices away from typical philanthropy-oriented CSR, to programs that are integrated into their everyday business operations. Without this reformulation of their core operating systems to essentially alter current corporate incentives that work against sustainability, they will only achieve marginal results and cannot be truly effective stewards of sustainability. Some businesses are already succeeding. It’s not only firms like Patagonia or Mars, we see this happening within firms as diverse as McDonalds, McCain Foods, Nespresso, and Coca-Cola Still Beverages who are integrating next generation sustainability systems.
We thrive on the trust of many clients and partners to make SMART sustainability metrics more affordable, credible, and reliable for an increasing array of world-leading companies, development agencies, and NGOs.
Looking back 10 years, all of our approaches share one commonality: the need to effectively measure what matters. We hope that you join us in unfolding the next 10 as we strengthen our roots in the deep commitment to collaborating successfully and to always accelerating sustainability wherever we work.