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Sustainability Context – What Is It?

As some readers of this column may already know, I have for the past several years been advocating for the adoption of an approach to sustainability management known as context-based sustainability, or CBS. CBS is not only the most intellectually rigorous form of sustainability management, it is the one upon which the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) explicitly relies in the form of what it refers to as sustainability context.

Notwithstanding the fact that GRI requires the inclusion of context in reports prepared in accordance with its guidelines, it is the rare exception that a GRI-based report actually does so. And because of that, it is also the case that few corporate sustainability reports have ever actually reported on the sustainability performance of organizations – eco-efficiency, philanthropy, or citizenship, perhaps, but not sustainability.

So what exactly is sustainability context? Here, briefly, is how GRI defines it (GRI, G3.1):

"The underlying question of sustainability reporting is how an organization contributes, or aims to contribute in the future, to the improvement or deterioration of economic, environmental, and social conditions, developments, and trends at the local, regional, or global level. Reporting only on trends in individual performance (or the efficiency of the organization) will fail to respond to this underlying question….This will involve discussing the performance of the organization in the context of the limits and demands placed on environmental or social resources at the sectoral, local, regional, or global level. For example, this could mean that in addition to reporting on trends in eco-efficiency, an organization might also present its absolute pollution loading in relation to the capacity of the regional ecosystem to absorb the pollutant."

Later on in the Technical Protocol section of G3.1, GRI provides a second example as follows:

"…performance [should be expressed] in relation to information about economic, environmental, and social conditions in relevant locations, e.g., discussing water consumption in relation to available supply in a particular location."

Now while it is true that GRI does call for the inclusion of context in measurement and reporting, it is also true that it largely fails to enforce it. It fails to enforce it by (1) not providing sufficient guidelines for exactly how to do so, and (2) making it possible for reports that are completely devoid of context to receive superior (A+) ratings, nonetheless.

Context in sustainability measurement, management and reporting plays a very important and specific role. What it provides are standards of performance against which social and environmental impacts can be measured. Consider the two GRI examples above. The first one points to the limited capacity of an ecosystem to absorb pollution; the second one points to a limited capacity of a different kind: the extent of local water supplies.

Sustainability context, then, consists of norms, standards or thresholds for what an organization’s impacts on vital resources in the world would have to be, or not be, in order to be sustainable. It is determined by defining levels of such resources required to ensure stakeholder well-being; what their current status is; and the extent to which an organization is responsible for preserving, producing and/or maintaining them.

For environmental impacts, thresholds are expressed in terms of maximums: levels of resource consumption that should not be exceeded; for social and economic impacts, the logic reverses: impacts are expressed in terms of minimums, since the resources involved are human-made (e.g., knowledge, teams, organizations, material objects, etc.). Either way, there are thresholds involved – benchmarks for assessing the sustainability performance of organizations, instead of no benchmarks at all.

Questions abound, I know, but they will have to wait. I will have more to say about this in forthcoming columns of mine. For now, let us simply acknowledge and understand that most of what passes for mainstream measurement, management and reporting in corporate sustainability is context free, and as such does not comprise sustainability measurement and reporting at all. Indeed, how could it? There are no thresholds involved – which is a little bit like trying to assess profitability by using income statements that omit costs.

Because the exclusion of context in sustainability measurement, management and reporting is so pervasive, examples of its absence and their effects are legion. In future contributions of mine, I will examine many such cases, while highlighting the need to correct them. This will include examples of missing context across the entire Sustainability Performance Value Chain (see Figure 1). Stay tuned for that!

Sustainability Value Chain


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