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Navigating a Sea of Sustainability Tools Doesn’t Have to Be So Hard

Frontier Co-Op has always been a recognized leader in sustainability, and it remains an industry leader given its cooperative governance structure, organic and fair trade products, commitment to give back 1%, and Well Earth program for supplier development.

When Seth Petchers became Sustainable Supply Chain Manager, he saw two key challenges. The first was one of focus. Seth knew that the sustainability culture of Frontier was strong: Employees wanted their sustainability report to be more than marketing. But where should he focus? Seth considered hiring a consultancy to perform a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to determine hot spots, which could then inform prioritization of initiatives.

But this brought him to a second challenge – LCA requires data, and the company’s data collection and reporting systems needed an upgrade. Although a pioneer in sustainability reporting, Frontier had fallen into a habit of only collecting sustainability data at the end of the year, to enable the writing of the annual report. As a result, sustainability could not drive decisions and operational improvements in real-time.

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Seth hired me, at the time a master’s student at MIT working toward a Sustainability Certificate from the Sustainability Initiative, to help him out with these challenges. Specifically, I was tasked to update/revamp Frontier’s operational sustainability strategy, including data collection, reporting, and strategic goal-setting. He hired me to provide an outside perspective on the latest sustainability tools and approaches, as well as to dig into the Co-Op’s current systems and mental models. At the beginning of the summer, we came up with a systematized plan for the work:

  • Assess current status of both qualitative and quantitative data collection
  • Benchmark externally against sustainability leaders and our competitors to identify our strengths, weaknesses, and gaps
  • Determine and prioritize material issues for Frontier
  • Build a roadmap, and present it to the CEO and management team

I was nervous about the short timeframe and large scope, but felt confident in our approach. Little did I know that I would soon be simultaneously overwhelmed by the landscape of possible tools to use in some areas, and desperate to find supporting resources in others.

A Challenging Summer, In a Nutshell

As I started to execute our plan, it immediately became clear that the world of sustainability tools is crowded, messy, and hard to navigate. Consultants, academics, and companies all create tools and guides to help practitioners; however, each tool has a slightly different approach. For example, the Embedding Project, CSR Hub, and Sustainalytics, to name just a few, all provide tools to help with benchmarking sustainability. But as each has a different format and dimensions they measure, it’s really hard to develop a useful framework to compare across companies.

Benchmarking in particular is further complicated by the fact that there are many different reporting formats (e.g. GRI, SASB). And each advocates for different units of analysis. One that tripped me up, for example, was that some companies commit to reduce a certain amount of carbon emissions per year, while other have goals framed in terms of percent reduction. Given these different metrics, how does one say which company is more sustainable? Which metric is most appropriate?

I also struggled to navigate the sea of supporting tools and resources given the technical and industry-specific language. Many tools use phrases such as “Scope 1 emissions” without explaining what this means or how it’s determined. Practitioners are then left to start a whole new inquiry around what this new term means and how to apply the concept to a specific use case or company.

There was also a qualitative aspect to my work, as I had to uncover existing mental models and organizational dynamics within the firm. This type of work requires a skill set that is only tangentially related to sustainability, but is no less important. It would have been hugely useful to have high-quality, easy-to-find resources on topics such as conducting qualitative interviews, creating compelling presentations, analyzing data, and best practices in leadership, persuasion, and storytelling.

Finally, I knew that at the end of the summer I’d have to present my findings to the CEO, so I looked to find resources to help me make a compelling case for our recommendations and roadmap. I again found myself navigating a crowded landscape of tools on, for example, “making the business case,” “the ROI of sustainability,” and “CEO decision making.”

Navigating the Sea of Sustainability Support

In overcoming each of the challenges discussed above, I spent significant amounts of time searching for supporting resources and existing frameworks. It was a constant balance between investing the time to find off-the shelf resources I could adapt and use, vs. developing my own custom tools and frameworks.

For example, I ultimately came up with my own framework to help Frontier prioritize its sustainability initiatives and set SMART goals that would hold it accountable for progress. It was undeniably both a challenging and rewarding experience to come up with my own framework, but at many points along the way, it felt like I was wasting time to reinvent the wheel. The tools already existed, but I just couldn't find them!

Enter MIT’s SHIFT Platform

As I, and many consultants and sustainability professionals like me, learned during my time at Frontier, navigating the landscape of sustainability tools and frameworks is currently not cheap, efficient, or easy.

In some cases, resources already exist, so the challenge is finding them, using them, and then ideally building on them to advance the state of practice. This last piece is critical, and also requires support: right now, creating new tools is a manual, unstandardized process that requires significant investment of time and money.

That’s why I’m excited to introduce SHIFT - the Sustainability Help, Information, Frameworks, and Tools platform.

Developed by the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, SHIFT is out to solve the challenges I describe above; think of SHIFT as the equivalent of a “cnet.com” or “App Store” for sustainability.

The SHIFT platform will enable organizations such as Frontier, and consultants such as me, to find, compare, and choose resources for their own use, and support individual and organizational learning through curated curricular sequences. It will also help create more world-class sustainability tools by identifying gaps in the landscape of current tools, and by making it easier for people to discover and use high quality tools.

I believe that SHIFT has the potential to catalyze improvement across the sustainability field. But though MIT Sloan will be able to build on its history of science-based, real-world, high-impact research and teaching in sustainability, it cannot realize the full potential of SHIFT alone.

Get Involved

We are looking to ally with faculty and graduate students at our peer schools, and professional networks such as Sustainable Brands, to support the curation process. That means the SHIFT team needs your help to identify valuable sustainability resources to add to SHIFT.

Do you have a favorite resource? Add it here! Or sign up here for information and announcements about the platform and future opportunities to get involved.

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