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UN Releases Manual for Companies to Conduct Authentic, Context-Based Sustainability Assessments

The Sustainable Development Performance Indicators help close the ‘Sustainability Context Gap’ — in which less than 1% of sustainability reports produced from 2000-2013 measured corporate performance in the context of ecological sustainability thresholds.

Today, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) releases Authentic Sustainability Assessment: A User Manual for the Sustainable Development Performance Indicators, which provides — for the first time — a comprehensive set of indicators for assessing organizational performance in the context of sustainability thresholds and transformative change needed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. To advance from existing SDG indicators, which assess incremental performance (i.e., year-to-year progress in percentages), the SDPIs instead assess performance relative to normative sustainability thresholds (see here for a list of the 231 SDG Indicators — only a handful of which integrate normative thresholds).

The Sustainable Development Performance Indicators (SDPIs), which UNRISD has been developing collaboratively since 2018, have been heralded as “a major inflection point” (Jonathan Morris, Business for Social Responsibility) and “sustainability history in the making” (Kees Klomp, THRIVE Institute), as they transcend the incrementalist measurements that have predominated sustainability efforts over the past two decades (i.e. performance compared to peers or relative to unit of production, etc). The SDPIs finally enable broad implementation of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)’s Sustainability Context Principle, established in 2002 — which calls for assessing “the performance of the organization in the context of the limits and demands placed on economic, environmental, or social resources at a macro-level;” but critics have long pointed out the need for more practical guidance on how to apply the Principle.

“For the past two decades, there hasn’t been sufficient guidance on how to assess organizational sustainability in the context of ecological, social and economic thresholds; nor in the context of necessary transformations to the status quo — until now,” says Ilcheong Yi, Senior Research Coordinator at UNRISD and Project Manager of the SDPI development process. “The release of the SDPIs sets a new norm — for the first time enabling authentic sustainability assessment with thresholds and transformation explicitly integrated.”

“The UNRISD Sustainable Development Performance Indicators provide sorely needed guidance and methods on how to measure and manage environmental and social performance with respect for sustainability thresholds and transformation imperatives,” says Ralph Thurm, co-founder of partner organization r3.0 (Redesign for Resilience & Regeneration) and former COO of GRI. “Companies large and small now finally have a way to readily enact the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Context Principle, two decades after its inception.”

The SDPIs provide the tools necessary to close the “Sustainability Context Gap” that was identified by Danish researchers in 2017, in which less than one percent of sustainability reports produced over more than a decade (2000-2013) measured or disclosed corporate performance in the context of ecological sustainability thresholds — aka planetary boundaries. The Manual and SDPIs were pilot tested in 2021 by more than two dozen organizations — large, for-profit enterprises such as Anglo American, SK hynix and Manulife; as well as Social & Solidarity Economy Organizations & Enterprises (SSEOEs) including two Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, Cabot Creamery Cooperative in the US, Vancity in Canada, and Grameen Vikas Kendram Society in India — in a process managed by r3.0. Other participants in the pilot testing project included the World Bank, Impact Management Project, and World Benchmarking Alliance.

“Cabot has been putting out Context for more than a decade to a deaf market that is demanding in-depth information that largely lacks Context,” said Jed Davis, Sustainability Director at Cabot Creamery Cooperative. “So, the SDPI indicators are groundbreaking in a very positive way.”

The organizers say the ability to more accurately contextualize data from sustainability efforts also makes the SDPI indicators a more robust approach than joining the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which has become an industry go-to for companies aiming to set credible climate goals.

“The SDPI Manual provides a better alternative than the SBTi — seeing as UNRISD took a 'universal principles' approach and appealed to scientific evidence of the best science-based target-setting method for greenhouse gas emissions,” says Bill Baue, Senior Director at r3.0, co-founder of Sustainability Context Group and former technical advisor to SBTi.

Download the SDPI Manual from the UNRISD website.

In the coming months, UNRISD will also launch the SDPI Online Platform — an easy-to-use tool to assess the progress of companies or organizations towards sustainability. It automatically generates a report that features trend analysis and allows users to assess impacts or performance in relation to sustainability norms and thresholds, providing a means to gauge the extent of transformative change towards genuine sustainability. In the coming days, the Platform will be open for registration at