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“Did this work?” Setting Appropriate Metrics From the Start

New sustainability programs can be exciting. For organizations that are just starting to “go green,” there are numerous projects and opportunities available that can have a noticeable impact. Yet when is a project “successful”? Was the lighting retrofit a worthwhile investment? Did your company’s charitable giving actually enhance brand reputation? And to make matters worse: if you can’t answer these questions, will your sustainability program be able to continue into the future?

Fortunately, if you set proper metrics from the start, none of this will be an issue. Every sustainability project your company implements should have some outcome that can be measured. The goals for each project, plus their means of measurement, are something to consider in the planning stage. If you can’t think of a clear way to define “success” for a specific project, then maybe that’s not the right project for your company to invest its resources.

Some targets and metrics are easy to figure out. In the case of projects with tangible results, such as new recycling education or a power management program for company laptops, success can be easily defined. The amount of recyclables collected can help you judge if the education was effective, while the energy consumed by your company, found on utility bills, is a simple way to measure if the new power management helped to conserve electricity.

Yet other projects are not as clearly defined. For instance, those geared towards improving employee engagement or enhancing company reputation do not have obvious, quantifiable outcomes. Moreover, there are many factors that affect employee engagement and company brand; one project may not have a drastic impact. In cases like this, surveys are often a great way to bring qualitative outcomes into a quantifiable metric. Your company might offer a system for employee feedback, or survey customers through social media to evaluate these projects.

It’s also important to set realistic goals. As an example, if you started printing company materials on partially recycled, FSC certified paper as a way of enhancing its brand, you shouldn’t suddenly expect throngs of new customers or a drastic increase in sales. Instead, a realistic outcome would be the increase of internal and external awareness of this switch in paper. You can determine this more pragmatic measure through surveys, both to employees and customers. This is an example of how well-crafted goals inform the metrics of a project.

Finally, the metrics picked should match the scope of your project. If your organization is trying to implement a “power down policy,” where all company computers are to be shutdown at the end of the day, the best metric to judge its success is the percentage of computers that are powered off at the close of business. You could measure this once a month or so even, to track progress. However, if the project was an entire overhaul and upgrade of your building’s lighting system, then the metrics should probably look more at saved energy, or even the reduction in company carbon footprint. Both projects will result in saved electricity, but in the case of the power-down policy, percent compliance is more indicative of its overall success.

Metrics provide a concrete way to express the benefits of your sustainability projects, and empowers your company’s green efforts to continue into the future.