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5 ways sustainability managers can use data to make their business case

<p>A webcast just hosted by Joel Makower explored in-depth why solid data are critical to sustainability success -- and how that success can be hindered by manual reporting methods.</p>

Data makes the business world go round. So it makes sense that sustainability managers can improve their chances for successful buy-in if they demonstrate measurable outcomes that relate directly to their broader corporate agenda, according to a panel of operations experts.

But collecting that data is far from simple if your organization relies on spreadsheets or other manual reporting methods.

"Sustainable business these days requires data, lots of it," said Joel Makower, executive editor for the GreenBiz Group, during "How to Design a Data-Driven Sustainability Program," a Webcast sponsored by CA Technologies.

The discussion focused on the real-world example of Columbia Sportswear, which recently adopted CA's ecoGovernance software to automate collection of sustainability metrics. ecoGovernance manages data on emissions, water consumption, waste management and packaging, among other things.

Columbia Sportswear adopted this software after struggling for some time to collect this data manually   -- and only after convincing senior management that it needed to embrace a tops-down approach to sustainability that included related metrics as part of broader operational concerns.

"We needed to convince them that [sustainability] needs to be just another project that happens to have an environmental case," said Kristen Sagan, sustainability manager for Columbia Sportswear, and a former accounting manager for the company. "This is part of what we do, not one more thing that we do."

Columbia Sportswear worked closely with Jones Lang LaSalle to define which metrics were relevant to collect as well as how to incorporate the concerns of both internal and external stakeholders.

"There are a lot of different ways to measure sustainability," said Michael Jordan, executive vice president of sustainability strategy for Jones Lang LaSalle. "Cross-representation of different functions is extremely important."

It is important to ensure that the measurement of sustainability metrics doesn't get in the way of existing business processes, said Lara Graden, senior principal of energy and sustainability business strategy at CA Technologies. "Look for a platform to live with you throughout your journey," she said.

The panelists offered several suggestions for sustainability managers seeking to win better support for their sustainability agendas -- using data to make their case. 

  • Get top-level support. Columbia Sportswear, as an example, went to employees first when introducing sustainability practices to the organization. But because employees were being accountable for other things, it was difficult to get attention, Sagan said. Things changed when she took her argument to senior managers.
  • Don't make sustainability one more thing to do. Measurement needs to be tied to a specific business value in terms of brand marketing or to the company's ability to manage expenses. Would your company be able to attract or retain better talent by improving its sustainability program? The needs of each operational function -- from finance to human resources to marketing -- should be considered, Jordan said.
  • Start with customer expectations when figuring out which data to collect. Every company will have a different roadmap for what matters to shareholders, consumers, retail or business partners or to non-profit organizations or regulatory agencies. For example, retail partners would be impacted by packaging changes or your business might be able to attract new customers with new products. In either case, prioritizing can be a challenge but it is necessary for turning expectations into metrics, Jordan said.
  • Look for scale and flexibility when selecting software to automate data collection. Among the things that Columbia Sportswear sought during its evaluation of applications for collecting sustainability metrics were whether or not the platform could handle local currencies, how the platform integrated with existing systems, whether or not it could scale over time to collect additional data, and whether or not it offered analytics capabilities -- to help account for gaps in reporting.
  • Have patience and adapt as necessary. It will often take longer than expected to make progress on your sustainable plan, so don't let the desire for "perfection" get in the way. Instead, focus on embracing initiatives that can demonstrate tangible results and then use that data to communicate the success to every stakeholder possible. Something as simple as changing packaging or replacing the forks in the corporate cafeteria can go a long way toward earning support, Sagan said. "Things that are visible speak louder than words," she said.

Spreadsheet photo via Shutterstock.

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