Going green? It’s time to stop measuring and start fixing

Companies are treating sustainability as a measurement challenge. It isn’t and they’re measuring the wrong things

Sustainability: time to stop measuring and start fixing

You’ve got to feel for the sustainability manager, they have world-changing agendas but have been allocated ‘tinkering’ budgets. Too many spend more time reporting up the line than on making the deep changes we need. 

Today, sustainability is ‘disclosure’ – we have the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and dozens more frameworks.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to improve if you don’t know where you’re starting from. Establishing a baseline for greenhouse gas emissions or recycled plastic in packaging or slavery in supply chains isn’t unimportant. 

Let’s agree we should all be assessing whether sustainability plans are in line with what the science says is needed and whether the targets are ambitious enough. We all want businesses to be held to account.

Transparency can even be a competitive advantage. For example, see how Tony’s Chocolonely wields its supply chain traceability and child-free labour over the rest of the chocolate industry.

What gets measured doesn’t get done, actually

‘What gets measured gets done’ is repeated so often that we take it as truth. Except it isn’t. 

Just this month the Science Based Targets initiative, which assesses company decarbonisation plans, downgraded 239 companies including P&G, Microsoft and Walmart, for missing their commitments on emissions reductions. We’re underperforming. But you knew that already, right?

We’re in the grip of a measurement cult. A cult more interested in measuring how deep the hole is than in having a hole management plan and grabbing a ladder.

The high-precision rear-view mirror

The big management consultancies, the carbon accountants and hundreds of startups serving them with proxy emissions data are all complicit in building a high-precision rear-view mirror. Heads down in calculations and data capture, they’re missing the giant obstacle in the road ahead.

All this measurement makes a big assumption that the past is a reliable guide to what comes next. Well, I have news: when it comes to climate breakdown, it isn’t. Even the best scientists aren’t entirely certain how things are going to unfold. Many of the models that we’re relying on are linear and built in isolation. 

But climate change is not a gentle upward glide of rising temperatures, it is an unforeseen chain of events as complex systems interact and spiral out of control. How will your metrics serve you then?

I’m not here to depress or scare you. But we must put this ‘measurement as procrastination’ exercise out of business.

If you must measure, measure this instead

Measure how radical you’re being

If you’re tinkering with business as usual, you’re not going to get anywhere near net zero. You’ll pluck the low-hanging fruit and then hit the wall. So, how far ahead are you looking? How many truly radical ideas for future-proof business models, products and services are in your pipeline? How many are you testing each quarter and what’s your hit rate?

Measure your clean, green share of market

The future is undoubtedly post-carbon (post-fossil-fuel-carbon, to be precise). So, if your business doesn’t have a post-carbon portfolio of products and services, you’re basically dead. Track the growth of clean, green revenues, track it against your competition and do some clear-eyed demand forecasting so you can see the growing pie.

Measure whether you’re all in the same place

Lots of leadership teams get into head-nodding agreement on the sustainability problem. But it doesn’t mean they’re aligned on how to make solutions real or workable. Assess how well-aligned your people are. Do they have a clear North Star? Do they know what it all means for their role? Or are we making outward pledges and commitments while internally everything is a permanent work in progress?

Measure your ‘ROC’ as well as your ROI

You need a return-on-carbon award show. The winners are those who have generated the best returns from low- or no-carbon emissions. That’s what the heroes of the new economy look like. They build thriving businesses that don’t destroy their own backyard.

You’ll see in my forthcoming columns that I’m a provocative optimist with hope in human ingenuity. I’m here to bring a real but bold perspective on the job we have to do and I promise to always leave you with ideas that inspire you to get started and then to keep going.

Leo Rayman is CEO and founder of EdenLab, the green growth and sustainability innovation firm whose mission is to make big companies more sustainable and sustainable companies bigger.