Like beauty, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder.
We’ve talked previously about how sustainability is a delicate balancing act, and that it’s more of a journey than a destination you can reach (you can always be more sustainable than you were, but you can never really be 100% sustainable).
We thought it was about time we addressed another important issue and that’s subjectivity.
Regardless of the criteria you choose, and whether some are given greater weight than others, it’s very difficult to evaluate how sustainable a business or process is.
In our Sustainability and CSR Performance Review, we consider up to 30 separate indicators and then codify performance as either Beginning, Improving, Succeeding or Leading in each one. But despite the checks and balances we’ve built-in, and our efforts to provide our clients with a meaningful view of where they’re doing well and where there’s room for improvement, there’s still an element of subjectivity to it all.
Here’s a good example. It could be argued that growing broccoli in the UK for the home market is more sustainable than importing broccoli grown in South Africa – it would reduce the CO2 emissions of so-called ‘food miles’ clocked-up in the shipping of the produce and sustain jobs here in the UK, for example. However, conversely, it could be argued that it is less sustainable overall because buying broccoli grown in South Africa would create more wealth in poor communities, which in turn could improve health, social and educational outcomes there.
Likewise, you could argue that burning coal for electricity generation in, say, India is unsustainable. But you could also argue that it’s more sustainable than having so many families with no access to electricity at all and therefore reliant on burning wood and dung on open fires leading to very high mortality rates as a result of indoor air pollution.
It all depends on your perspective of what’s most important.
Our scoring system covers indicators that fall into the three strands of environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance for this very reason, built around the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework but also taking account of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, so it’s not all about environmental sustainability. But even then, there’s still a degree of inherent subjectivity that it’s very difficult to engineer-out.
It’s why it’s so difficult to judge whether one company or process is more sustainable than another – even in the same class: recycling isn’t always more sustainable than landfill; renewables aren’t always more sustainable than fossil fuels.
You can only ever really judge sustainability from your own perspective, taking account of the ethical, moral, economic, social and environmental factors that are relevant to your situation.
Measure your performance, define what sustainability means to you, and strike out to improve your performance where you can make the most difference. If you’re ever asked to account for your statements on sustainability, just be clear about how you’re defining it with respect to your situation and the things you can do better – and feel free to challenge anyone that tries to impose their definition on you.