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Managing Sustainability for the Breakthrough Decade Starts Now

Date: 18/03/2015
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The importance of sustainability has surged over the last two decades, as has the amount of information available and the demands on companies and practitioners – from regulators, customers and investors. At the same time, the new opportunities that have emerged are enormous.

Companies are no longer just reacting to being told to be more sustainable – business leaders are driving change by using sustainability to boost their economic performance – reducing cost, mitigating risk, improving brand value and increasing sales. Take the Kenco coffee brand, which switched from glass jars to refill packs. This one move reduced the packaging weight by 97% and the energy to manufacture it by 81%. The change was clearly marketed on the basis of its environmental benefits and helped to drive significant growth in market share for Kenco.

Ten years ago, the multinational companies we deal with were telling us that 85% of their sustainability efforts were focused on compliance and just 15% on adding value to their business. A decade on, that proportion remains the same. Sustainability professionals still spend a huge amount of time filling in forms because, until now, there has been no easy way of doing it. 

Budgets have been increasing – companies today spend around 0.5% of their revenue on dealing with sustainability issues – but not enough to meet the increased demand. And the opportunities are too significant, the needs too big, the consequences too severe and the demand too extensive to simply ask sustainability professionals to do more with the same tools or to continue to bootstrap solutions. 

Thankfully, a new approach is now possible – one that enables individuals to focus on implementing change, driving results, reducing impacts and generating value, rather than chasing data, manipulating multiple spreadsheets and collecting information in a range of forms to meet different compliance requirements. Software platforms such as thinkstep.one, the newly-launched product from thinkstep, formerly PE INTERNATIONAL, are the tools that address the needs and desired role of today’s sustainability professionals and teams. 

Environmental, social and compliance factors are becoming increasingly central to companies’ ability to operate successfully. At the same time, value chains and product life cycles  have become ever-more complex, not just because individual issues are now more in the spotlight, but because these issues are increasingly interacting with each other – there are strong links, for example, between climate change and water availability and between poverty and deforestation. 

Business as usual is no longer an option in the era of climate change, resource scarcity and population growth. Today’s complex global value chains carry substantial risks and opportunities for business. That’s why governments, investors, customers and communities demand increased transparency and a proactive response from companies. 

Added to this is the fact that we live in a new age of transparency. With more information out there than ever before, there is a corresponding expectation that it will be available to those that want to see it. Your sustainability performance has become public property.


Yet at a time when it has never been more important for organizations to have comprehensive and accurate data at their fingertips, many are still struggling with a sea of information and systems that cannot cope. Accurate sustainability data are much harder to gather than financial data. Manual data collection and Excel spreadsheets just won’t cut it any longer. It’s so time-consuming that people would rather do without data that could be vital to their future success. 

Software platforms help to bring together all of your data to create what one auditor calls “the single source of truth for sustainability data” and use it to identify the sustainability issues throughout your operations, create new sustainable products across your portfolio and embed sustainability into your core operations. It's about freeing practitioners to focus on value added activities. It’s about creating a better business. 

For example, industry associations will be able to collect, benchmark and report data from across their sector to enable them to report on its sustainable development performance. Member companies will only get involved if the process is secure, low effort and adds significant value to their business. Associations can use the platform to create a secure and flexible internet-based questionnaire that can be easily updated every year. Companies will be able to benchmark their performance against the industry average and identify areas where they can improve, while the association can show how the industry is becoming more sustainable and transparent.

But the benefits of the platform are not just “defensive”, or about keeping on top of today’s risks. There is now an opportunity to reverse the proportions so that 85% of sustainability activity creates business value and just 15% is spent on compliance.

Sustainability leaders can move beyond reporting and use their data to drive performance. Software platforms enable you to identify and take advantage of the growing number of opportunities that sustainability challenges create. 

These opportunities start with identifying the main impacts in your own operations and minimizing them, so you can cut costs and reduce your environmental footprint at the same time. For example, in the UK, the fast food chain McDonald’s recycles its waste cooking oil, turning it into biodiesel that provides around 40% of the fuel requirements for its delivery fleet and saves more than 6,000 tons of CO2 a year. 

And once you have the data that you need, it can be put to multiple uses up and down the value chain – from helping your suppliers to identify and deal with their key environmental issues to creating new products that help your customers to tackle their own sustainability issues. Companies such as Interface are using sustainability software platforms to determine the environmental footprint of product designs, enabling them to create products with the lowest impact.

Because companies today have no central software platform that can act as a data repository for the whole organization, there is often a great deal of duplication in collecting and analyzing information. Instead, information is fragmented across different departments, regions and product lines, often in multiple software packages, meaning there is no way of pulling information together from different parts of your business. Having the right system in place allows you to spend less time collecting data and more time using it. For example, lighting company Zumtobel uses a software platform to automatically produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for all its products – engaging both their customers as well as their own design teams.

Sustainability is the challenge of our time and we need the best people, using the best tools and applying the best thinking to get us on track. There is now a smarter way to approach sustainability to add value and build a better business. It is time for a change.  

By James Fava, Chief Sustainability Strategist, thinkstep