Sustainability Metrics: The Engine Versus Fumes

From regulators to investors to curious consumers and members of the C-suite, companies’ sustainability initiatives are being scrutinized with increasing intensity. As the 2015 Millennium Development Goals deadline looms on the horizon, many companies are faced with answering the question: “What progress have you made in your sustainability journey?” 

In late September, I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Brands conference, The New Metrics of Sustainable Business, held in Philadelphia. As a marketing and communications professional, my life revolves around measurement, whether it’s demonstrating the ROI of a campaign, tracking performance, conducting research or establishing benchmarks. Furthermore, as a sustainability marketer, I’ve seen firsthand how the measurement standards and expectations have evolved, and the challenges that this has presented. One of the goals of the conference was to examine what they call “new forms of value” – new ways of measuring economic, social and environmental impacts on products and services, organizational value and societal value. 

One of most interesting takeaways from the one-day conference was just how many ways there are to measure both tangible and intangible “impacts.” Yes, you can measure the tangible, like how many kilowatts of energy did you conserve, how many tons of waste did you reduce, how many gallons of water did you use, etc. But as Amy du Pon of Havas Media Group, noted, we can also measure how a company’s sustainability efforts impacts the brand’s “meaningfulness” to consumers. 

As du Pon told the audience, Havas Media Group conducted a survey of 134,000 consumers across 23 markets and found that most people would not care if 73% of brands disappeared and only 20% of brands notably improved their quality of life. The research also found that those brands that were perceived as enhancing the wellbeing of communities and societies were more meaningful than those that were not. 

This research poses an unique challenge to marketers – convey to consumers that the companies they represent are enhancing the wellbeing of communities and societies. The solution begins with measurement. As marketers, we are tasked with connecting our brands with key audiences – consumers, investors, employees – and it is crucial that we understand not only how the companies we represent are positively connecting and where they are missing the mark. It’s also crucial that we understand what metrics are being used to quantify progress and success as it will be the building blocks of our campaigns. 

To enhance the “meaningfulness” of a company, first, they must actually be doing meaningful things, but more importantly, they have to be measuring it so that progress can be communicated in an authentic, genuine way. 

As another speaker Jason Saul, Founder and CEO of Mission Metrics, said, sustainability professionals should “use the engine of the business, not the fumes to create social impact.” Likewise, as marketers, we should be ensuring that our campaigns have substance and authenticity and avoid getting wrapped up in the “fumes.” 

Overall, it was a terrific conference that facilitated engaging dialogue for sustainability practitioners. Let me know in the comments or at @Brigid_Milligan, how do metrics impact your sustainability story?

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