Sustainability: Imperfect But Better FTW

Image courtesy Dale de Vera @thewalkingdale via UnSplash.

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 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.

First, make sure you develop a sustainability plan that fits your organization like a glove.

Second, work the plan and measure progress.

The journey from vision to outcomes takes us up and around this funnel several times. General indicators let us know if we’re getting warmer or cooler, measures tell us to what degree. Only then can we see whether we’re on target, and moving toward our goals and intended outcomes. © GeoLiteracy, LLC 2022
  • 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.




Katie is the founder of GeoLiteracy, LLC. She has evaluated environmental programs for 20 years and loves solving tricky problems.

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Katie Butler

Katie Butler

Katie is the founder of GeoLiteracy, LLC. She has evaluated environmental programs for 20 years and loves solving tricky problems.

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