At the core of every successful sustainability implementation, regardless of industry, branch, or geography is data, or more accurately information. With appropriate information that is easy to understand, consume, model, manipulate, and share, executives have a platform upon which to make confident business decisions.
There is a strong relationship between organisations that are well run from an environmental and social perspective and organisations that consistently outperform the market. They are more innovative, attract and retain the best talent, clients, partners and investors and are more resilient to market shocks and recover faster when the market stalls.
One of the biggest challenges is highlighting the importance of accuracy, high quality, consistency and verification.
Sustainability data provides an environmental profile for all the materials and processes that make up your products and services. Software is used to transform the data into a decision support tool, from which you understand the impacts, trade-offs and potentials to build better products and create better services. All of which can be communicated to a wider audience in an appropriate manner.
Excellent can be a rather subjective term, especially when applied to data. As with an iceberg, what you see above the surface (the value you might use in calculating a products impact) is only about 10 percent of everything that goes into finding that value.
The hidden 90 percent is where the excellence lives. Recently I have had the privilege of supporting the upcoming annual upgrade to the data PE INTERNATIONAL provides to our clients and partners. This data has been collected over two decades working in real-world situations, on site with clients, trade associations, regulators and other partners. The benefits with this approach are the speed, relevance, accuracy and timeliness of the information collected. As the great Albert Einstein said:
“Knowledge is experience, everything else is just information”
There is something incredible in the care and attention to detail afforded to this data. A whole series of quality checks, verifications, cross checks, and reconciliations are carried out against the data and the associated methods, which form part of a far broader governance model. Regular and extremely rigorous verification by a number of external third parties, including the European Commission has resulted in much of the data and methods being used as the foundation for numerous sustainability initiatives. This care and attention to detail results in data that is pretty damn good because it is:
This means that you can rest assured you are at the cutting edge with that data you are using in your product sustainability efforts.
So back to the initial thread, how can you use this data to engage, inform and optimize?
Complexity (unless complexity theory is your thing) is not generally engaging to a business audience. People are busy, very busy; if I offered you more data and more complexity would you be interested?
No? I didn’t think so.
The objective here is to abstract the user from the complexity, but not from the value the complexity delivers. Abstracted data is bad because ultimately you need to drill into the detail as you look for the incremental changes that add up to a significant change. With abstraction there is nothing to drill into. The balance then is to provide access to information in a format, language and style that you and your audience can make sense of. Product designers have a different perspective to sales, which differ from finance, who differ again from operations, and so on.
Web based dashboards (as illustrated below) are an engaging way to not only present sustainability information, they create a level of interactivity that enables cross functional teams inside and outside the organisation to engage in a solution.
This is particularly useful when working across the value chain. The dashboard helps to make the data engaging, but how can the data be used to inform?
Chris McGrath, vice president for sustainability at Kraft Foods had this to say in a MIT Sloan Management Review.
“LCA gives us a competitive advantage because it gives us more insight into how to reduce our products’ footprints, find efficiencies and validate and explain those benefits to customers and consumers. When we’re making more efficient designs and more effective use of the raw materials to make our products and packaging, we’re making changes that benefit our business, the environment and our customers.”
Kraft Foods are a long standing client of PE INTERNATIONAL and used software and data to carry out a life cycle assessment of packaging. Various scenarios were created based on the information collected which allowed the designs to be optimised. The resulting savings were pretty impressive.
The resulting product the Kraft “yes pack” was smaller and more flexible than the rigid gallon jug it replaced. The savings in transportation were the result of being able to pack more products into the same space.
The yes pack also received critical acclaim and awards from within the industry and improved the overall brand appeal of Kraft within its target market.
The example outlined by Chris McGrath uses the data to inform internal and external parties.
Apple have used LCA data to present to a global audience the impacts of their operations as a total, or broken out by categories as shown below.
Engage; inform are the two steps that precede the final stage optimize. This is where the magic of innovation takes place.
Engaging and informative data allows business executives and colleagues from right across the value chain to determine insights, discover false positives and really get to grips with the impacts of the whole product lifecycle.
Access to incredibly accurate, granular, up to date and easy to use information frees people to make more informed decisions, with the benefit of involving a far wider circle of stakeholders.
Another example of an organisation making decisions based on sustainability data comes from long standing PE client InterfaceFLOR the worldwide leader in design, production and sales of environmentally responsible modular carpet. An in-house LCA, which evaluated two types of virgin nylon as well as recycled nylon, demonstrated that recycled nylon had a much smaller environmental footprint in all impact categories. Interface began working with their suppliers to support their ‘off-oil’ efforts by providing recycled nylon whenever possible and encourages them to accept reclaimed fibre and turn it back into yarn, which is both cheaper and less damaging to the environment. This initiative has resulted in a factor 4 reduction in carbon footprint reduction. Cost savings are passed on to consumers.
In a truly inspirational move Interface is sourcing nylon from discarded fishing nets from impoverished fishing communities from around the world. This project Net-Works has inspired a whole range of ocean based carpet colours and designs, the “Net Effect” which really underpins how risk can be a positive especially when turned into innovation, and ultimately competitive advantage.
Ramon Arratia, is the very passionate Sustainability Director for EMEAI at InterfaceFLOR and he has this to say:
“Everybody is talking about embedding sustainability. But sustainability is not embedded until it is in your product. We measure this using LCA and GaBi Software. Furthermore, LCA allows consistent integration of sustainability standards such that what we tell our customers is in line with what we ask of our suppliers.”
What of the future?
In order to continue to remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain world the executives of the future will need to be more adaptive, making difficult decisions, in shorter time scales, in areas that are outside of their comfort zones than in business as usual and often including a far wider range of stakeholders. Making these decisions requires information to be reliable, accurate and up-to date.