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Are We There Yet? Bringing a New Framework to Sustainability


By Maureen Hart and Bob Willard

Are we there yet? Most existing sustainability reporting and assessment systems focus on progress made since a prior baseline year. And each year thousands of companies publish corporate sustainability reports detailing millions of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions avoided, tons of waste reduced, and gallons of water and BTUs of energy saved. With all this progress being made, surely the sustainability battle must be almost won by now, mustn’t it? Unfortunately, no.

But it’s not for lack of trying. Many businesses, government agencies and NGOs are trying to chart a new and more sustainable course of development. They are changing their processes and systems in ways that use less energy and fewer resources, reduce emissions, and restore ecosystem functions. However, much of these actions are done piecemeal, hindered by the lack of a comprehensive understanding of what a sustainable organization -- indeed, what a sustainable global economic and social system -- would look like and an approach for getting there.

Another problem is that most of the sustainability reporting and assessment tools, guidelines and standards currently available – Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Accountability 1000 and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), to name a few – are focused on external reporting and ranking. As a result, their output focuses on the most positive aspects of what the organization has done in the past, not the difficulties or challenges for the future.

So, what does sustainability really look like? And how do we know if we are getting there?

Two new open-source tools are now available to answer these two key questions, the Future Fit Business Benchmark from The Natural Step (TNS) Canada, and S-CORE from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. Both of these tools can be integrated with the 150+ sustainability reporting and rating standards that are currently in use.

The Future Fit Business Benchmark, (formerly called the Gold-Standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business) defines a set of science-based performance criteria that describe a company that is fit for the future. The aim of the benchmark is to help business leaders and investors understand the rapid, radical and necessary changes required if companies, people and the environment are to have the possibility of mutual well-being and prosperity, today and in an unpredictable future.

Future-fit is a flexible context-based benchmarking tool that defines what level of performance is necessary, based on best-available science, rather than prescribing exactly how to reach that level of performance. Future Fit includes a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) and goals that measure truly sustainable practice. Companies are not able to compensate for poor achievement on a couple of KPIs by exceptional performance on others. To be a truly sustainable future-fit business, the company must do well on all of the KPI goals.

S-CORE is a high level sustainability evaluation that provides a framework for first understanding what organizations need to achieve relative to sustainability and then prioritizing effective collaborative action of all key stakeholders. S-CORE is a dynamic process that guides organizations in reviewing their business policies and practices for gaps and opportunities for improvement. It includes more than 70 practices organized by functional areas common to all businesses such as senior management, human resources and purchasing. S-CORE also has sector supplements that include practices specific to different industries such as manufacturing, construction, utilities and government.

Evaluating by functional areas makes it easy to assign accountability and responsibility while fostering organizational understanding and dialogue. Each practice describes three maturity levels of sustainable activities so that organizations can see where they are now and where they need to go long-term and the results feed into the organization's sustainability planning process.

These two tools fill a major void in today’s efforts to improve sustainable performance. To date, most of the sustainability performance improvement focus has been on after-the-fact reporting often using intensity, per capita or per product performance metrics. However, sustainability is not something a business can achieve by itself, so measures of water used, waste produced or carbon emitted needs to be based on the carrying capacity of environmental systems, not just the economic activity of an individual entity. In addition, most sustainability reporting is for external showcasing of success stories rather than a critical examination of what really needs to be done to create a sustainable future.

Future Fit provides a rigorous, science-based, and measurable description of a truly sustainable business that has the possibility of thriving both in the near term and in a resource constrained, less unpredictable future. We need a new future-fit benchmark that is firmly grounded in how scientists say companies must behave if businesses are to enjoy the support of healthy environmental and societal nests. The beta release will be available at for a two-month comment period on Nov. 1, and Version 1.0 will be launched as a free, open-source resource in July 2015.

S-CORE’s focus on internal evaluation and decision-making allows an organization to truly look at their barriers and challenges and prioritize actions while also identifying internal accountability and responsibility. Since it is an internal decision-making tool rather than an external reporting and ranking tool, S-CORE allows an organization to honestly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and create plans for true sustainable progress. In addition, because S-CORE is done as a group exercise with key members of the organization, it brings all members up to speed on the challenges and opportunities for implementing and accelerating adoption of sustainable practices throughout that organization.

It’s time to reframe corporate sustainability. It’s time that companies had a benchmark that tells them when they have achieved sustainability and an internal evaluation tool for assessing what really needs to be done to reach that level.

At the upcoming ISSP Conference 2014, Future Fit Business Benchmark and S-CORE will be the topic of a break-out session, Kickass Tools for Sustainability, led by Bob Willard and Maureen Hart.

ISSP Conference 2014 will be held November 12-14 in Denver. For more information, visit http://www.sustainabilityprofessionals.org/.

Image credit: Flickr/aigle_dore

Bob Willard is a leading expert on quantifying and selling the business case for sustainability. He is a teacher, speaker and author whose books include "The Sustainability Advantage," "The Next Sustainability Wave" and "The Sustainability Champion's Guidebook." He is a key contributor to the Future-Fit Business Benchmark.

Maureen Hart is the Executive Director of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, the world's leading association of sustainability practitioners.

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