There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, so how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? If you want to talk about sustainability without the eye-roll and the sideways glance of incredulity then read on.

The importance of data

Ever try getting a home loan without supplying credit info or bank accounts? It’s not enough to say, “I’m good for it.” Banks require some data to back up your claims. Why don’t we require data from the many, many companies that are making claims about sustainability? I don’t know.

On the bright side, this creates a window where you and your company can start collecting data and quantifying your environmental and social impacts before you are regulated to do it and before it becomes a boring accounting exercise that has already been figured out. You get to be the change. How exciting!  It can also help you make the financial case for sustainability projects you want to do. 

Sustainability data sounds great! Where can I get some?

People in your organization have been paying utility bills for some time now. These bills contain kilowatt hours, gallons of water, yards of garbage as well as financial information. Start capturing this raw usage data and also cost information per facility or at whatever level seems like a good place to compare usage or drive behavioral change. Here’s a list of good sources of data:

  • Going to the utilities directly for data dumps in spreadsheets
  • Looking at old annual reports or sustainability reports from consultants (if your organization previously engaged them)
  • Energy Star Portfolio Manager: an EPA tool to measure and track energy consumption in buildings

Give some thought to what’s “material” in your organization before you start gathering the raw data. For example, if you’re an airline, your electricity in your buildings is important, but it is dwarfed (in terms of both environmental impact and cost) by the amount of jet fuel you purchase.

How do I turn my usage data into carbon footprint numbers?

Once you have the raw data, there is a bit more you will need to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions that result from your business activities.

For example, you will need “carbon emissions factors” that will help you determine the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are generated from your activities.  There are many sources of carbon emissions factors depending on the particular resource you are measuring. For example, the Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID) has factors that are region specific in the US for electricity. (A kilowatt hour in the Pacific Northwest has a smaller eGrid number than a kilowatt hour in the Southeast because the Pacific Northwest has less coal and more hydroelectricity which creates less greenhouse gas emissions.)

This primer on Managing for a Changing Climate can provide you with more information on how to use emissions factors and other things you will need to generate a footprint.

You will also want to consider what tools to use to help you collect and manage data.  Considering the frequency you are collecting and calculating this information will be helpful. If this is a once a year exercise for you and if there aren’t many things to keep track of, then spreadsheets may work just fine. If you are tracking many locations or resources and want to look at this data for trends and opportunities to reduce, or share the data with more people (especially for publication or regulatory purposes), you might consider using specially designed Excel sheets or software. 

There are various types of software available, ranging from cloud based systems (such as Scope 5) to large enterprise systems.   Looking at a range of options will help you to determine what might be best for you at your stage.  Scope 5 staff members are available to help you think about the critical factors in making this decision.

Great, so when can I start talking about sustainability without people rolling their eyes?

The answer to this question really depends on the circles you travel in. Where I live, in Seattle, people who know about this stuff tend to roll their eyes if you’re not reporting at least the greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and fuel used by your organization on an annual basis…if your organization is big enough to warrant some attention. Your organization gets extra credit(ability) if they employ someone to work on sustainability as their focus or hire a consultant to do so. There are many places to publish your sustainability data and doing so goes a long way in being able to tell your sustainability story from a place of truth and authenticity.

Maybe several years from now it will be unthinkable to make a sustainability claim without the data to back it up, but in the meantime you can be one of the people who has the data in the bank to fund the stories that you’re telling.

Derek Eisel leads the Scope 5 sales effort and is responsible for helping organizations understand how they can simplify and focus their sustainability data tracking and reporting. Learn more about Scope 5 at www.scope5.com and follow Derek on twitter @derekeisel.