Is Sustainability Your Known Unknown: Using Sustainability Analytics to Make Confident Business Decisions

Josh Hatch, Director of Sustainability Analytics, Brightworks

By Josh Hatch

Director of Sustainability Analytics

Confident decision-making in tumultuous times requires a thorough understanding of triple bottom line and broader sustainability impacts. Using the sustainability lens may not influence each decision in a significant way, but it will enable businesses to identify opportunities, reduce risk and effectively communicate the sustainability impacts of their operations.

Effective organizations are learning that modern business decision-making and planning requires them to look beyond sustainability as a certification, rating system, goal or even a theory. They’re embracing sustainability as a set of decision criteria and a filter to be applied to any major business dilemma. Businesses that ignore sustainability’s strategic value do so at their own risk in an era marked by volatile energy and resource prices, evolving regulatory requirements and unforeseen financial, environmental and supply chain disruptions.

Titanic vs. Iceberg

Sustainability implications for businesses often hide beneath the surface until it's too late. Image via Robert M. Williams

Here are four steps leaders in sustainability are taking to build stronger, more resilient organizations:

1.  Establish Organizational Sustainability Bearings Before Setting Your Course

The first step isn’t necessarily the hardest in addressing sustainability—there are so many opportunities for low-cost/no-cost improvements that can be pursued immediately. However, many organizations suffer from the problem of setting broader organizational priorities and launching sustainability initiatives before fully mapping the relevance and impacts of these initiatives on their business.

Without a solid understanding of the major and minor impacts and their relative proportions, sincere efforts can be made chasing relatively small gains. Metro, a regional government organization based in Portland, Oregon, enacted aggressive sustainability targets in 2003 for reductions in their major sustainability impacts—water, toxics, GHG, waste and habitat. However, they didn’t also conduct a thorough audit to develop a baseline, prioritize efforts and gauge progress toward the targets from their many programs and initiatives addressing sustainability.

Sustainability technical assistance from Brightworks ultimately provided them with the analytics to understand current sustainability impacts for each of their five goals, as well as the composition of those impacts. For instance, they targeted a water usage reduction of 50% by 2025. Our analysis identified how much water they were actually using so progress toward the target could be quantified. We discovered a single property (the Zoo) used 42% of their total water budget. Without seriously addressing water efficiency at the Zoo, the target will be difficult if not impossible to reach.

Confident planning requires this level of understanding of sustainability impacts. Major efforts should be focused on the biggest opportunities, while also ensuring appropriate attention is paid to minor, but meaningful, opportunities elsewhere in an organization. All companies need analytics to comparatively assess major and minor opportunities as well as to track their progress to justify further initiatives.

2.  Go Beyond Credentials by Applying a Sustainability Lens to All Major DecisionsBusiness Decision Making Criteria: Profitability, Marketability, Sustainability?

A few years ago, you only had to complete a GHG footprint analysis to assert your green credentials. But most of those reports just quantify the magnitude of one potential liability without providing mitigating solutions or a framework for considering the impact of future business decisions. Today, organizations must consider carbon impact and other sustainability factors in all major business decisions.

To respond to the outsized environmental footprints of their data center facilities, our clients have engaged us during site selection to consider the upfront impact on long-term water resource availability, carbon intensity of grid electricity, system development costs and green building incentives. They want to ensure their mission-critical facilities remain operational while effectively managing and limiting their resource consumption. Smart consideration of sustainability impacts at the front end of the project can result in selection of a site that has long-term water and energy security and a low carbon footprint. This reduces future risks from resource scarcity or carbon taxes.

3. Use Sustainability Analysis to Uncover Business Opportunities

This trend follows from a broader shift in perception. Not simply a static concept, sustainability is increasingly approached as a dynamic process. No longer do sustainability plans collect dust on the shelf. They must be actionable initiatives that relate to core business strategy.

The DOE Hanford Site faced federal requirements for GHG reductions across the board. Given the current traffic congestion, long commutes and rising gasoline prices encountered by their employees, they started by addressing the portion of their GHG footprint associated with commuting.

Responding to these challenges, Brightworks conducted a greenhouse gas reduction and cost savings analysis. We uncovered a future scenario so compelling that reductions beyond those required are being planned. Steps include expanding vanpooling, facilitating and promoting carpooling, condensing work weeks and relocating a significant number of employees to Hanford offices in Richland, Washington.

This combination of steps will save DOE and employees money, reduce emissions by more than twice the amount required by federal mandate and increase employee morale. The immediate savings possible will motivate Hanford Site to implement our recommendations ahead of schedule, and we expect they will look for reductions elsewhere in their operations.

4. Commit to Ongoing Improvement

Today’s sustainability leaders also continually address and re-evaluate their sustainability efforts. Consumers have a healthy amount of skepticism and insight into the legitimacy of sustainability efforts; only genuine efforts will allow your organization to avoid being seen as greenwashing. That’s why deft organizations are continually re-evaluating their business and operations for opportunities to align with sustainability practices.

After spending considerable effort renovating their event space—including energy efficiency upgrades, careful material selection and screening vendors for leadership in sustainability practices—Leftbank Annex in Portland asked Brightworks to conduct a thorough sustainability audit. They wanted to honestly assess the building’s strengths and weaknesses and identify additional opportunities for improvement.

In addition to validating their venue’s strengths, we identified creative solutions to respond to their unique constraints. For example, part of the venue’s appeal is as a historic building with original brickwork and large windows that provide a beautiful city backdrop for events. In their renovation, Leftbank Annex prioritized energy efficiency equipment, but they were limited in their ability to further insulate the building envelope. We recommended a partnership with a solar provider using third-party financing. Leftbank Annex would benefit by reducing their reliance on grid energy without compromising their aesthetic appeal, gaining a system paid for upfront by the solar developer (and paid off by energy bill reductions) and showing a visible commitment to renewable energy.

At the conclusion of our study, our client demonstrated a real understanding of ongoing improvement, stating: “Having you do an annual review, or asking for your advice before making a major investment, would probably be a very smart thing to do. Every decision we make needs to build off this foundation.”

It appears few companies today haven’t considered sustainability in some way. For many, however, sustainability remains a known unknown—something that is dismissed as irrelevant until it becomes the peril too close and large to avoid. What will separate the leaders and winners of tomorrow will be the ability to turn the demands of sustainability on their business into a known known—something that can be managed.

Companies that consider and reconsider the relationship of sustainability to their business will adapt quicker. And competitors that dismiss sustainability as extraneous or too costly will be left behind.

3 Responses to “Is Sustainability Your Known Unknown: Using Sustainability Analytics to Make Confident Business Decisions”

  1. I seldom drop responses, but after looking at a
    few of the comments on Is Sustainability Your Known Unknown: Using Sustainability Analytics
    to Make Confident Business Decisions | Brightworks Sustainability Advisors.
    I do have a couple of questions for you if you tend not to mind.

    Is it only me or does it give the impression like a few of these responses appear as if they are coming
    from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are
    writing on other online sites, I’d like to keep up with you. Could you list of all of all your social community pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    • Hey Abby. Thanks for the comment. As for ‘braindead,’ we all have a lot to learn. And for now, this and our web site are the two primary places we publish our ideas. Stay tuned for a (badly needed) website redo next month!

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