By Max Tau, Capgemini Netherlands
Fellow Capgemini Sustainability Blogger Kevin Marcotte wrote on Tuesday about the development of product sustainability indexes. He approached the consumer/product relationship and how some big retailers are starting to mandate that brands start to provide sustainability data to enable products to be evaluated.
He recognized an interesting challenge in this new reporting requirement:
"This monitoring and tracking effort is going to be new to many companies, who will likely have to scramble to keep up and obtain the knowledge and processes to comply. Part of this growth for manufacturers will be the collection and management of large amounts of sustainability related information, and storing it reliably for auditing and reporting."
This new reporting requirement will require that companies become self aware of their impact, and force them to make improvements. This challenge can, however, be met through the same approach that companies are currently using to approach big data in other aspects of their operations.
The global nature of enterprise challenges management to keep a very broad perspective when considering key business decisions. They pride themselves on being able to appreciate financial, sales, logistics and compliance data in the grand scheme of operations.
Its part of their job description to fully understand the relative impact associated with key figures in these activities.
Where the management seems to be lacking in is the ability to fully understand the data coming from an enterprise's environmental impact. When a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) explains to the board that the company reduced its carbon foot print by 50k tons in Q1, very few in non-sustainability/CSR management have any clue what this actually means.
I will gladly make the claim that interpretation of data is the single most important factor in making sound strategic and operational decisions. This reality tasks those involved in the sustainable practices with a new dimension on their job.
How can we make sustainability data relative to the real impact of business activities?
Using the example of a textile company with operations in Egypt, among other places in the world, we can focus in on water usage. Simply saying "our plant just outside Alexandria used X-kGal water in 2011" means nothing to an operational minded executive looking to turn cotton into table cloths.
The gold status of water in North-East Africa must be reflected in the way we report the usage data as well. One gallon of water in Amsterdam, with more than 915 mm (36.0 in) of annual rainfall, should be calculated differently than that of Northern Egypt, which has an average of 190 mm (7.5 in) of precipitation annually.
Relative data is not only an issue surrounding water. Air quality, virgin material sourcing, transportation related congestion, and other focus areas of sustainability can be viewed in a similar light. Usage data must be made approachable and consistent to the real impact.
Initially, enterprise scrambled to find out how to approach this issue. Complicated in both scope and mathematics, the idea of contextualizing the sustainability wasn't exactly at the top of the list.
The process of making sustainability and resource consumption data relative places sustainability data firmly in the category of Big Data. Forward thinking companies have already developed a Big Data infrastructure for core business processes and they are starting to see the benefit to the investment they have made. With intuitive reporting tools, excellent dashboards, and real time strategic alerts that help mitigate risk throughout the organization, the transparency delivered by big data is revolutionizing the game.
The case, therefore, has already been made for big data solutions. The question now remains how do we start talking a language that a wider audience can understand? Dr. Ory Zik, Founder of Energy Points, has come up with a funny (yet interesting) prescription.
In an online article for the Environmental Leader, Dr. Zik lays out the core issue of reaching and discussing sustainability targets:
"So instead of wondering what is the relative importance of 1,000 kgal and 1,000 kWh, businesses can simply treat each domain like Weight Watcher’s treats calories – based on efficiency points. This is one way we collapse Big Data to a common metric to address resource consumption decisions."
We will dedicate time in the coming weeks to look at how some clients and partners are processing this data and making it accessible for a broader audience. Also taking into consideration that without publishing the hard data, interpretations may also misrepresent the true impact.
A prime example of that "creative use" of data can be found in a controversy surrounding the A10 highway in Amsterdam. A recent discovery that maximum particulate numbers were based off of a study designed for non-urban farmland, not the densely populated West Amsterdam. The maximum speed increased this year on the city ring from 80km/h to 100km/h during the hours of 0600-1900. The particulate study was a factor in making this change happen.
Focusing on the methodology of scaling sustainability data is just as important as the collection of the data itself. We look forward to investigating best practices from our network of clients and partners and sharing it with you.
Max Tau is a technology and Supply Chain consultant at Capgemini Netherlands. As a member of the Sustainability Framework within Capgemini, he specializes in information technology based solutions to environmental and efficiency related targets.