Benchmarking your organization relative to others is an important and powerful aspect of developing a sustainability strategy. Benchmarking can be done at various levels, at a single point in time, or at regular intervals. Often times, however, organizations do not understand full value of the benchmarking exercises they undertake.
There are several points along the path to developing a sustainability strategy where benchmarking is valuable. Early on you may want to benchmark for overall level of engagement on sustainability. Questions explored here would be along the lines of “How many of my competitors have sustainability reports, goals, or dedicated sustainability positions?” Or, “How many are looking at sustainability from a triple, bottom line (social, environmental, & economic) perspective?”
Later on, you may want to benchmark with respect to very specific impacts. “How many metric tons of CO2 or pounds of waste per unit of product are each of my competitors emitting?” This can help you to know if your impact level is out of whack with your peer group, for example. Further on in your strategy development, you can benchmark around goals. If you are considering GHG emissions reductions targets, for example, you can search databases such as Pivot Goals and look at goals set by others in your industry. Or you can review your competitors’ CDP reports and websites to see what targets they have set.
In addition to various stages and aspects, you may want to consider benchmarking your organization against several different stakeholder groups, beyond your competitors. If you are a B2B company, benchmarking against your customers can be extremely informative. If many of your customers are further along in their strategy or fairly audacious in their sustainability goals, this will tell you a lot about what they may expect of you in the future. The same logic goes for key strategic partners.
Given the amount of time and energy that can go into benchmarking at any level, be aware of all the potential benefits so you can capitalize on them.
1. Benchmarking helps you see more possibilities. By digging into what others are doing you often find things that surprise you. Areas of sustainability that you may not have considered delving into. Stretch goals that others have set that you might have considered impossible. Sometimes it will be depressing and sometimes it will be inspiring. Either way, it is always eye-opening.
2. Gain insights about where you want to be. No matter how independent a thinker you are, it is important to consider where the rest of the world is when deciding your next steps. Depending on how concerned you are with being ahead, behind, or in the middle of the pack, having information about what others are doing will be helpful in guiding your choices, if only to clarify what you don’t want to do.
3. Seeing what others’ are doing can teach you more about sustainability in general. Especially for those in the early stages of adopting sustainable practices, the process of finding the information you need to create a benchmark will educate you about everything that your competitors, partners, or customers are doing. Recording things you find or observations you make will come in handy later on. And, for those who are more seasoned, how and what others are doing is always a moving target, so regular revisiting is useful. You can mine that evolving information for creative and innovative ideas that might work for your organization as well.
4. Use benchmarking to progress measure. Speaking of being a moving target, if benchmarking is scored and done regularly, it can be a very helpful way to demonstrate and articulate your progress over time. Some benchmarking tools, like a CDP or CSR Hub score for example, can provide a built in way to track and communicate absolute or relative improvement.
And, true to form, I leave the best for last.
5. Benchmarking can provide powerful visual representation that you can use to get buy in for what you want to do. Any way you can find to capture in a visual way how you are doing relative to your key stakeholders will help you get buy in. The beauty of this is that it works for building the business case almost no matter what the reports show. If you are ahead of others, you want to make sure you maintain the leadership position. If you are middle of the pack, you may have some slack now, but you don’t want to rest on your laurels for long. If you are behind…well, it might be time to wake up and take some action.
I will end with a shameless plug for Sustrana’s own benchmarking tool. Sustrana’s Business Environment Assessment Tool (BEAT) allows you to benchmark your level of engagement with sustainability relative to ANY other organization. It covers all aspects of sustainability and results in a score and beautiful graphics that can be downloaded and included in presentations or documents. Using BEAT enables you to fully realize all five benefits I describe above easily and efficiently.