Typically, when EH&S consultants, business specialists, and regulators talk about sustainability, they break things down into the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet, Profit.
This approach emphasizes that a business aiming to be successful in the long term needs to ensure there will always be people willing to do the work that needs to get done, that there will always be enough natural resources to produce its products or services, and that they are financially stable enough to continue operations indefinitely. These three simple concepts offer up an effective recipe for sustainability, and make the whole thing seem pretty straightforward.
But in practice, implementing the Triple Bottom Line philosophy is a complex process that most businesses today struggle to achieve. That’s because those three basic building blocks - people, planet, profit - are actually comprised of a complicated spectrum of elements that all need to be measured and accounted for.
So while there’s nothing wrong with using the Triple Bottom Line as your sustainable business mantra, you actually need to dig deeper when it comes time to make decisions and act.
Looking Beyond the Human, Environmental & Financial Dimensions
Take a look at the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a voluntary sustainability reporting standard for any business. It has been maintaining a series of sustainability indicators for years. It breaks down your environmental performance into 9 distinct categories, and those are measured using 30 specific sustainability metrics, all of which you should be monitoring and continuously improving on.
GRI does the same thing for its human and financial dimensions, with 11 Human Resources metrics, 9 Product Responsibility metrics, and 9 Economic sustainability metrics.
That’s nearly 60 individual metrics that a sustainable business can manage and measure as part of its sustainability tracking program… and the number of sustainability metrics is growing every year with feedback from program participants.
The Building Blocks of Action
However, there are other essential sustainability building blocks that cannot be overlooked. These are all about how you put your philosophy into action. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve integrated theories of sustainability into your business culture and mindset if you ignore these important sustainability actions. They are the fundamental building blocks that will actually drive the results you want.
Measure & Monitor
There’s no point in defining all the sustainability metrics that apply to your business if you’re not going to do a proper job of tracking them by measuring and monitoring your inputs, outputs, and other sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). This is especially true when it comes to environmental, health, and safety sustainability metrics, which all include some of the most data-intensive tracking in your entire business.
For example, environmental sustainability tracking involves quantifying all your air emissions, water usage, and hazardous waste generation. But you’ll also want to track what proportion of your energy use is from renewable resources, the ecological impact that your water use has on local water sources, the amount of packaging you use, and other environmental outputs not typically included in federal and/or regional environmental compliance reporting.
Tracking all of that environmental data can be a time-consuming process and it’s often the area that most businesses fall flat. EH&S can sometimes get left by the wayside because it requires more difficult number crunching than “People” and “Profits”.
As part of their corporate sustainability programs, many businesses use an Environmental Management System (EMS), like ISO 14001 or an environmental data management software tool to make it easier for them to incorporate measuring & monitoring into their everyday practices.
Report & Communicate
Once you’ve devoted time and resources to sustainability tracking, the next step is to put that data to work by reporting it and communicating it both internally and externally. It will fuel your future decision making, get all levels of management and employees working toward the same goal, keep you on track toward your future goals, and notify you when things aren’t going as you planned. Sharing the data you collect transforms it from a series of numbers to something that has a meaning and a purpose.
You can choose to undertake voluntary sustainability reporting protocols like the GRI’s, you can adapt an existing system to suit your sustainability needs, or you can decide for yourself what to measure and report.
There’s nothing wrong with using only a handful of GRI sustainability metrics, especially if your business is just starting out on the sustainability path. Just remember that the more you include as reportable sustainability indicators, the more information you’ll have to make smarter choices in the future.
Existing EMSs like ISO 14001 and the EPA’s suggested format for creating your own EMS both emphasize that sustainability should be seen as a cycle rather than a fixed object. This means that your sustainability planning should focus on continuous improvement. Once you measure and report on a particular sustainability metric, the next step is to decide on how to improve your performance by the next reporting period. This keeps your sustainability program flexible, as excellent as possible, and it helps your business adapt to future changes.
Putting the Blocks Together
Sustainability planning is all about putting these blocks together so you can move beyond seeing sustainability as a theoretical practice, and start seeing it as an executable process that achieves results. By focusing on measuring, monitoring, reporting, communicating and improving your actions, your business can not only plan for sustainability, but you can start achieving results immediately.