Sustainability: Imperfect But Better FTW
A few weeks ago, I made it out to Scottsdale, AZ for GreenBiz’22, the second in-person conference I’ve attended since 2019. (1) I met (in person!) so many people devoted to not only eliminating the negative impacts their companies make and have made in the world but also to finding ways their companies can have beneficial impacts on the planet and people. Through my conversations and conference sessions, I left with the following impressions about the current world of corporate sustainability: first, the sustainability community continues to have a big problem with diversity and we must actively work to change this; second, WATER is the new carbon; and finally, shoot for imperfect but better to keep making progress.
Molly Wood of Marketplace fame spoke on the GreenBiz ’22 conference main stage about her podcast, “How We Survive.” She emphasized that her research into climate solutions shows WE NEED ALL OF THE SOLUTIONS. She said there is no silver bullet. No single solution is perfect — they all have tradeoffs — and this is okay. Her words stuck with me through each presentation I sat through for the remainder of the conference. I believe emphatically in not letting perfect be the enemy of the good because I’m impatient for progress.
Don’t get me wrong; measuring success is essential. I mean, it’s what I’m all about. We need to be continuously improving how we measure our results so we know we are moving the needle. But when we feel that we can’t act until we know we have the perfect solution, we miss the forest for the trees… and that’s a big deal in climate change mitigation.
Sustainability solutions vary widely in terms of costs and benefits to companies and the planet, and it can seem daunting to a sustainability decision-maker to select one option.
What if next year’s version of option B blows our option A out of the water on benefits?
It would be very easy to become frustrated with the lack of central organization to the sustainability game. It is typically the federal government that provides an organizational structure to efforts like these that cross multiple industries, media, and strategies. But in the U.S., government control over sustainability is very limited. Several organizations have stepped in to attempt to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a single regulatory (or advisory) body. As someone who has recently revisited the various advisory and tracking schemes, I’m here to say that there’s not a rotten one in the bunch. Each strategy has positive and negative attributes; the point is to choose one that will work for you and your business, and then work on making progress in that system.
Analysis paralysis and the complications of sustainability strategies popped up everywhere at GreenBiz ‘22.
- What set of standards should we look to? (Answers: All of them, none of them, or maybe one of them in particular!)
- Is solar the answer or a strategy that creates more waste? (Answer: yes.)
- Who is truly tracking corporate commitments? (Answer: several folks, with various adherents to each, but no one central.)
- What is the best method for addressing carbon credits in a legitimate way? (Answer: best is in the eye of the beholder, but make sure you’ve done your homework!)
What can we do when there are still so many unknowns? Answer: well, at least do SOMETHING.
Leaders in the corporate sustainability world take many paths based on their experience, needs, and objectives. Generally, the answers here are two-fold:
First, make sure you develop a sustainability plan that fits your organization like a glove.
Even if you work in the same industry as “Acme Company,” your individual business structure, corporate culture, and operational goals are not going to be the same. This is why it is essential to have a sustainability plan and strategy that works specifically for you. Acme Company’s impacts on the world are unique, as are the pressures they face from their board, shareholders, and employees. Your company will have better success in becoming more sustainable if your specifics feed into not only the actions you plan to take but also how and when you plan to implement them.
Second, work the plan and measure progress.
Plans are intended to guide your work, not to hold you to a static set of activities or even objectives. As you learn more in your sustainability journey, you can make changes to optimize your work and maximize your results. In the meanwhile, you can take heart in knowing that you are making things better. There are many ways to measure your progress, and part of the (fun!) challenge to developing your own bespoke sustainability plan is identifying the best ways to measure progress in your company, organization, or section.
This is why I love indicators even better than measures! Indicators are proxies for things, whereas measures typically tell you about the actual thing. An example from BetterEvaluation.org is helpful: the number of people wearing coats is an indicator of how cold it is, but the temperature itself is a measure of how cold it is.
I see it like a funnel of information getting you closer to your intended outcomes (see the funnel figure):
- Indicators are like that game of “hot and cold” you played as a kid. Indicators tell you, “you’re getting warmer!” Or, “No! Colder, colder! Turn around.” In environmental work, you can think of these as generalized indicators of ecosystem health: is the system of interest improving or getting worse? Are community members more or less engaged? Indicators may be quantified, but they are typically qualitative in nature.
- My favorite example of an indicator is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. What does the DJSI tell us? Nothing specific. It provides an indication of how markets are going. It was started in 1896 with 12 companies and expanded to 30 companies in 1929. How many individual companies are included in the DSJI today? 30. There are around 2500 companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and yet the 30 included in the current DJSI provide us with information about how the whole shebang is going.
- When you know you’re pointed in the right direction, you start measuring your position with more precision. This helps you make small adjustments to get and stay on track toward your targets, goals, and intended long-term outcomes. This is where we bring in the SMART concept: measures are best when they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-limited. Think about indicators as binary: better or worse? up or down? Measures allow you to define progress more specifically. In what ways is the ecosystem healthier? How long did it take? They also take more time to develop, monitor, interpret, and report.
- By understanding the indicators of progress and measuring the key aspects of the program, you can best determine how well you’re progressing toward your targets, goals, and intended outcomes.
“Imperfect but better” also helps us in the environmental sector with the challenges we face regarding precision, timeframes, and unintended consequences. There is no doubt that our work needs to serve the precautionary principle. When there is a potential for harm from taking action, we must hold off. But as we face a changing climate and the clock counting down to 2030, we need to take what we know today and make decisions that allow us to make progress as the learning continues.
At GeoLiteracy, our purpose is to help you to develop and track these plans. We are devoted to helping you optimize your work and maximize your results. Let me know if you’d like to chat about it… LET’S CHAT!