We Need to Accelerate the Development of Sustainability Metrics | Steven Cohen

If we are to make the transition to a renewable resource based economy, we need to do a better job of measuring the sustainability of our organizations, cities and nations. In an excellent article published in 2002 entitled "Using Sustainability Metrics to Guide Decision Making," Jeanette Schwarz, Beth Beloff and Earl Beaver proposed a framework for developing measures of sustainability within organizations. In that piece, the authors identified what they called the "five basic indicators of sustainability":

  • Material intensity
  • Energy intensity
  • Water consumption
  • Toxic emissions
  • Pollutant emissions

Their very accessible article provides details that define and further explain these measures. Since that time a wide variety of organizations have begun to develop and implement an even wider variety of sustainability measures. The retailing giant Walmart requires its vendors to measure and report their performance on sustainability indicators before Walmart will purchase their products. Many companies are measuring and reporting their sustainability performance in annual reports to their shareholders. These are all important steps in bringing sustainability into routine management decision-making. As Peter Drucker once famously observed, "if you can't measure it you can't manage it." Without measurement, you can't tell if your management actions are making the situation better or worse.

While the development of these organizational level indicators is critical and must be continued, it is time to begin the process of settling on organizational sustainability indicators that everyone can use. We need a generally accepted set of definitions and indicators for measuring sustainability. We also need independent auditors to verify that these numbers are real. Numbers without verification are ultimately useless.

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