New Metrics
Measuring Sustainability, Part I:
The Basics of a Sustainability Index

When we work with a company that is just starting its sustainability journey, we try to focus on one central framing question: What does sustainability mean to your organisation? Sustainability has evolved way beyond merely measuring carbon emissions, which means it requires management of many factors. There are a multitude of impacts to consider: impacts on water use and water supply; impacts on human health; and even social impacts on workers and communities.

What Does Sustainability Mean to You?

Defining and managing a sustainability programme is a complex, multi-faceted task that can take vastly different forms, depending on the priorities defined and the choices made by the company. Starting a programme by defining what sustainability means to an organisation can help reduce confusion and launch stakeholders into a common understanding of the goals, priorities, and opportunities surrounding sustainability efforts.

It is important to not only understand which impacts are relevant to your organisation but also the trade-offs between different decisions. Organisations often define a set of metrics to help manage complex decisions — managing sustainability decisions should be no different.

What Is a Sustainability Index?

One tool that is useful for managing these types of complicated decisions is a sustainability index, which is meant to simplify the complex decision-making processes involved in helping your company to become more sustainable. Boiling this information down to a manageable set of decision criteria can greatly alleviate this complexity. The idea behind a sustainability index is to aggregate relevant information about the sustainability aspects of various decisions, strategies, and approaches, and then provide an easy-to-understand “scoring” system to quickly determine the most sustainable options. A customised sustainability index will help to provide a platform for evaluating decisions that will increase the sustainable value of the organisation.

Those Who Are Doing It (Successfully)

Let’s look at a few examples of sustainability indices that are used to help make decisions in the face of the complexity of sustainability.

GoodGuide is a website that rates products on their health, environment, and social impacts. It compiles data from many sources and translates that data into actionable information for consumers, and ranks products from 0 to 10 in each of these three impact areas. The result is a set of metrics that consumers can use to quickly evaluate and identify products that fit their values.

The Higg Index is a tool created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition that measures the environmental impact of consumer apparel and footwear using a single-score approach. The tool assesses environmental and social sustainability at the brand, product, and facility level, and looks at several impact categories. Scores from each of the impacts are combined using a weighted average approach, intended to help organisations assess their progress towards sustainability goals. The Higg Index is based on several other existing tools, including the NIKE Material Sustainability Index and the OIA’s EcoIndex.

These are two great examples of organisations developing indices to help individuals make more informed decisions with the goal of achieving sustainability. Each takes complex sustainability information and translates it into easily understood metrics, and the scoring systems promote outcomes that are consistent with a clearly defined set of sustainability criteria.

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the specific steps for creating a customised sustainability index for use in your organisation.

Advertisement

More Stories

Have Sustainable Brands delivered right to your inbox.
We offer free, twice weekly newsletters designed to help you create and maintain your company's competitive edge by adopting smarter, more sustainable business strategies and practices.
Copyright ©2007-2019 Sustainable Life Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Sustainable Brands® is a registered trademark of Sustainable Life Media, Inc.