Tracing and Tracking a Sustainability Footprint

Tracing and Tracking a Sustainability Footprint

There is much talk about footprints these days. Many companies are creating carbon footprints to monitor their greenhouse gas emissions. Because of severe droughts, there has also been a lot of interest in water footprints. The very concept of a footprint creates a visualization of the issue that enables leaders and stakeholders to literally "see" what is happening. For a long time, people preparing ISO 14001 management systems have used a footprint to make sure that all of the environmental "aspects" are found. After all, there are a lot of activities associated with each of the products and services. Each of these activities uses and loses resources. The resource intensity and resource productivity of these activities was the subject of my previous blog.

Using this concept of a footprint, let's see if it is possible to capture all of the aspects of a sustainability program at the facility level. You might wonder how it can be done since there are no international management system standards for sustainability. It turns out that British Standards has a sustainable development standard, BS 8900. Australian Standards has a corporate social responsibility standard, AS 8003-2003. The International Organization for Standardization is completing its work on a social responsibility standard, ISO 26000. On the economic side, there is Section 404 of the Sarbanes Oxley Act. This section helps establish a system to manage the internal control for financial reporting. The COSO standard provides more detail for financial and operational risk management. So if we add the environmental, health & safety and the quality management standards, we could have a fully operational triple bottom line sustainability management system.

Let's assume that you currently have some combination of quality, environmental and health and safety management systems in place. To create a footprint, you will first need to list all of the product and services at the facility. Next, you must understand the core processes associated with these products and services. The steps in the process help you define all of the "activities." Now you have your activities, products and services as required in the management system standards.

You can visualize the activities using hierarchical process maps. Once you have the process maps with the activities in your core processes, you will need to define each of the supporting processes. Be sure that you do not get too detailed here. I check the activities against the work instructions or standard operating procedures that are already in place. The process maps will place these in a visual presentation and be linked to these important documents.

Each activity will use and lose resources (ISO 14001 calls these "aspects"). Each activity will have a set of hazards associated with it and there may be a number of quality issues that can be caused by that activity. Stakeholders may have an "interest" in the activity especially if should something go wrong with the process. For the employees, having a problem may be a consequence of not following the procedures. Consequence thinking is a key to avoiding problems with the process.

There is also a second kind of process going on at the facility level -- business processes. These activities are conducted by the management at the facility (e.g., human resources, purchasing, accounting, public relations, logistics and general management). The social responsibility standards define a set of that they call, "core subjects." These processes involve activities that become aspects associated with human rights, labor practices, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development. The financial reporting (even for privately held smaller businesses) has activities associated with financial and operational risk management.

Some companies have begun creating sustainability accounting sheets for each activity so that they can track the operational risks associated with each sustainability aspect. Other companies are using spreadsheets and databases to link the sustainability footprint with the work instruction documentation. When a new employee starts or there is a shift in job responsibility, the information on each activity can be accessed by the trainer. People involved in process improvement can see the systems implications of changes to the process by looking at the information that is associated with the hierarchical process maps. Sustainability footprints are great for the stakeholder engagement programs as well. It is important that your management system representatives learn how to use the footprint tools to generate a better picture of how this all fits together. This way everyone will "see" how their activities influence sustainability. Now, sustainability can truly become part of what every employee does every day!

Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D., is the practice leader for Business Sustainability at First Environment Inc. and an internationally recognized authority on the topic of business sustainability and process improvement.