What Counts Can't Be Counted

iStock_scales.jpgSustainability is a property of the whole planetary system. It should not be confused with the performance of discrete parts of the system, for example, single firms. That's why I am careful to define sustainability as flourishing, an emergent property of the whole, complex system, including all forms of life, human and otherwise. And like all such properties, sustainability cannot be reduced to a single or even a set of metrics.

To do so is to risk confusing progress in reducing the burden on the world with advances toward flourishing. Worse, better numbers gives the impression that we are doing just fine and can go back to the same habits that brought us unsustainability in the first place.

Emma Stewart writing in "Leading Green," the blog of the Harvard Business Press, reinforces the conventional wisdom about sustainability metrics.

So now the challenge is shifting from metric availability to metric suitability.

First, in streamlining metrics, practicality should reign supreme. New indicators, like all other management techniques, must pass the test of cost-effectiveness. This means that a certain level of inaccuracy may be optimal and only issues material to the company should be covered. This will also save you from unwieldy amounts of data collection and drawn out consensus building processes. . . .

Guidance for the final step of refinement stems from the projected use of the information. A good place to start is to consider the heaviest, and most demanding, users of the data. Business unit managers and environmental NGOs will likely want to see both absolute and intensity metrics, while line managers will benefit more from intensity metrics in order to align employee ambitions with those of the company. Investors and rating agencies, from those focused on sustainability like INCR or SAM, to more conventional groups, will be most concerned with how sustainability performance affects risk management and profitability. Consumers will be concerned with different indicators, and to varying degrees, so require segmentation by the Marketing and Sales departments. Academia and government agencies may be interested in the overall impacts of corporate activity, so aggregated data is enough for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ". . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." So is it in the sustainability game. We cannot ignore the contributions of individual entities to the threatened world, but, at the same time, we have to keep an eye on the whole system. We cannot allow historic, often misplaced confidence in numbers lull all the interested parties Stewart mentions and more into forgetting to seek the uncountable qualities that constitute sustainability.