There are some questions every sustainability manager or CSO is going to encounter along the carbon journey. One measure of success is how quickly you can put together an intelligent response.
These questions reflect the several elements that are essential to a sustainability program: Data gathering, planning and analysis, tactics, target setting, strategy, continuous improvement, design for environment and employee and external engagement.
The other lesson for managers in these questions is that they are focused upon your business and cannot be addressed with generalities. That is one reason so many sustainability managers will tell you the most important tool in their toolbox is knowing your company.
1. What's our carbon footprint?
Since carbon dioxide has become something of a surrogate for environmental impact, this is the question most executives are asking, and it often comes together with a more academic one, such as 'what is a carbon footprint?'.
2. How 'green' are our products?
Since products are the lifeblood of any company this question tends to follow very quickly. Again, the likely follow-on is something like 'exactly how do we determine if our products are green?”. The area of product standards and ecolabels is rapidly changing.
3. Where do we stand relative to our competitors?
A frame of reference is always important and most companies tend to look to competitors, customers and similar companies for benchmarks in term of carbon footprint. Thanks to the Internet and the growing trend towards corporate reporting, this task of benchmarking has become much easier.
4. How do we become a greener company?
This is the most complex questions in many ways since the answer can literally involve every part of an enterprise and its supply chain. It involves both short-term tactics and project management, as well as longer-term program development and strategy.
5. How educated and engaged are our employees?
This is another question that signals a sustainability journey is maturing since the conversation is expanding beyond the key managers and executives to the entire workforce. Achieving some kind of cultural transformation is extraordinarily challenging in many organizations, particularly larger ones.
6. Who are our 'stakeholders' and what do they think of our performance?
The notion of sustainability extends well beyond the boundaries of the corporation, with various groups and individuals interested in the company’s performance. Also, 'feedback' is a key ingredient in employee development and in customer engagements, so that sort of context may aid the conversation.
7. Which groups do we need to partner with?
This is an area that requires extensive research, benchmarking and some pilot projects. A corporation and a nongovernmental organization, will not necessarily find their collaboration successful.
8. What are our key sustainability metrics?
There are also some emerging metrics that bear consideration. Calculating an aggregate ROI involves some tracking many companies are not currently doing; how much have you saved through sustainability investments.
9. How do we set improvement goals in this area?
This question has many implications and also requires a lot of data collection, analysis and planning. What levels can we achieve while growing our business, what will the projects involved cost us, how quickly can we achieve the goals and how will others perceive the goals. One other related question that gets teed up is whether the goal should be absolute or normalized.
10. How do we innovate and offer greener products and services?
Since innovation is usually the result of a process it can be encouraged and nurtured, often without a guarantee of success, but resources and a commitment are a good starting point.
Undoubtedly, some new challenging questions will emerge in this field, but the basics will have continued vitality.