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Harnessing data for expert ESG and sustainability strategies

A Guide to Building a Data-Driven Sustainability Program


LAST UPDATED: 13 June, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) focuses on measurable aspects of a company's operations, while sustainability encompasses a broader philosophy.
  • Using aggregated data can help businesses set benchmarks and target interventions where they will have the most significant impact.
  • Companies should consider building dedicated sustainability teams to identify unsustainable practices and develop effective strategies.
  • Aggregated data helps set benchmarks, guide actions for the highest impact, and support leadership proposals.
  • Success lies in consistent, imperfect sustainability efforts by many, not perfect efforts by few.

Sustainability and ESG are more than just buzzwords. Sustainability represents a shift in how businesses understand their societal role and impact on the environment and humanity. ESG offers a measurable framework for assessing a company's operations, while sustainability delves into its wider societal and environmental impact. 

This blog post aims to demystify these concepts, emphasising the importance of comprehensive understanding for businesses committed to making a real difference. We'll explore the key elements of an effective sustainability program, the significance of dedicated teams, and the strategic use of aggregated data to set benchmarks and prioritise impactful actions. Highlighting the collective journey towards sustainability, we underscore the notion that widespread, consistent efforts are the cornerstone of meaningful change. Join us as we navigate the complexities of sustainability and ESG, charting a course toward a more sustainable future.

The difference between sustainability and ESG

While sustainability and ESG are closely intertwined, they each carry a distinct focus. Sustainability is a way of living and thinking and an expansive philosophy deeply ingrained in every aspect of an entity's operations, whether a company, city, or family. Its primary aim is to prevent resource depletion and ensure prosperity for future generations. When a company adopts a holistic approach to sustainability, it goes beyond environmental concerns to address bigger problems that have a larger impact on humankind. 

Within this overarching sustainability framework, the concept of ESG is a subset. ESG focuses on an organisation's responsibility, transparency, and accountability concerning environmental, social, and corporate governance issues. Additionally, ESG reporting requires companies to present unequivocal evidence, via disclosures, about their carbon emissions and any actions undertaken in the name of sustainability.

In short, sustainability represents a more comprehensive approach to managing resources with the future in mind. In contrast, ESG focuses on reporting the transparent and responsible practices that prove a company's commitment to sustainability.

Components of a comprehensive sustainability program

Sustainability is multifaceted, and its focus depends on the nature of a company's business and operations. For instance, at Aquent, our primary sustainability concerns revolve around energy consumption from buildings, transportation, and computer systems. These elements contribute significantly to our carbon footprint. However, other aspects of sustainability, such as food security and water resources, aren't directly related to our operations. Therefore, understanding ‘materiality'—how your company impacts the environment and community—is the first step.

As a sustainability professional, a thorough analysis of a company's operations is critical. This in-depth examination involves scrutinising each department's daily activities, the resources used for manufacturing (if applicable), the company's energy usage, and the means of delivery. With a comprehensive understanding of these operations, you can identify which aspects have a significant environmental impact. For example, if a company identifies frequent air travel as a major contributor to CO2 emissions, solutions such as remote work policies or less frequent business travel could be implemented.

It's also important to consider compliance requirements that can differ by location. After conducting the initial gap analysis via a materiality assessment, companies must familiarise themselves with their local, state, and national obligations regarding sustainability programs. The USA's requirements, for instance, differ from those of Australia. If a company operates in the European Union, it must adhere to even more stringent reporting requirements. Hence, it's not only essential to gauge materiality but also to understand your location-based expectations and reporting requirements. This dual approach ensures that your company's sustainability program is comprehensive and compliant.

Embracing sustainability: It's not always about being net zero

As businesses embark on their sustainability journey, it's crucial to remember that the ultimate goal is a significant net improvement in sustainability practices, not necessarily net zero. There's a quote that encapsulates this sentiment perfectly:

“We don't need a hundred people doing sustainability perfectly. We need a hundred thousand people doing it imperfectly.”

Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef

“We don't need a hundred people doing sustainability perfectly. We need a hundred thousand people doing it imperfectly.” Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef. The impact of masses striving for sustainability, even if imperfectly, will be far more significant.

Companies may set goals to reduce carbon emissions by 40% or 50%, but these specifics largely depend on their industry and operations. For instance, are they involved in manufacturing? Or perhaps they're a transportation or travel company? Each sector presents its unique challenges and opportunities for sustainable improvement.

To build on this discussion, it's worth mentioning the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). This organisation plays a pivotal role in helping companies establish realistic reduction targets. Companies pledge to adhere to SBTi's guidelines and work collaboratively with them to set attainable goals. As noted earlier, achieving net zero may not be feasible for every company, depending on their operations.

What truly matters is aligning with global initiatives like the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The initial step toward this end involves engaging with organizations like SBTi to define sensible goals within a realistic timeframe, even if they don't lead directly to net zero.

The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is one of the many positive outcomes of international summits like the Paris and Kyoto Climate Accords. These gatherings have played a significant role in shaping global sustainability efforts, proving that while the path to sustainability might look different for every company, the collective effort is what truly counts.

Using aggregated data to drive sustainability in business

Sustainability initiatives and goals wouldn't be possible without data. Specifically, aggregated data is critical when it comes to setting benchmarks. It's about understanding where your organisation stands, keeping tabs on global trends, and meeting expectations within your specific industry.

Consider an example from our own experience. Early in our sustainability journey, we moved our data centre for Aquent's internal proprietary software from Virginia to a net-zero facility in Oregon. This complex process involved navigating the intricacies of migrating a database from one server facility to another. Upon completion, we found that the move eliminated approximately two tons of carbon per year.

While this was indeed a commendable achievement, it's essential to weigh the payoff against the effort expended. By reducing commuting or flying less, we could potentially make a much larger impact, as these activities generate hundreds and thousands of tons of carbon per year. This underscores the importance of using data to guide our actions and target interventions where they will have the most significant impact.

A data-driven approach also facilitates more productive conversations with leadership. Proposing an initiative based on a hunch may not be compelling. However, presenting a proposal backed by data, demonstrating how a particular initiative could reduce a substantial portion of our carbon footprint at a specific cost makes a far more convincing argument.

At Aquent, we consistently monitor our sales figures, expenses, and talent distribution across various states. Thanks to our internal tools, we have a solid grasp on our data. However, we understand that data collection can be more challenging for some companies, particularly those whose operations involve more complex factors like manufacturing, or food refrigeration.

Industry associations play a significant role in facilitating the sharing of data and sustainability practices. Regardless of the industry, benchmark information sharing promotes transparency and collaboration, enabling each organization to learn from the experiences of others and make more informed decisions about their own sustainability practices.

In essence, we're all part of a larger ecosystem, working together to achieve a common goal: a more sustainable future. Therefore, understanding and leveraging data is not just beneficial—it's essential to driving effective and impactful sustainability initiatives.

Ensuring a holistic approach to corporate sustainability

While metrics and reporting form an integral part of any sustainability program, businesses must ensure their approach to sustainability is holistic. A truly holistic sustainability program involves a comprehensive understanding of the company's operations and processes. Here's how businesses can achieve this:

Involve every department

Sustainability isn't just the responsibility of one department; it should be a company-wide initiative. By involving every department in the conversation, businesses can effectively identify areas for improvement and detect potential sources of emissions. This cross-departmental collaboration can help uncover unexpected problem areas and devise more effective solutions.

Understand the ins and outs of your business

To create a holistic sustainability program, you need a deep understanding of the company's operations. A sustainability team should examine various aspects of the business, from daily operations to properties and assets, and evaluate their environmental impact. This thorough examination can uncover hidden issues that may not have been apparent at first glance.

Uncover hidden issues

The impacts of certain operations may not be immediately apparent, making it all the more important to have a thorough understanding of the company's activities. By digging deeper into the company's processes, businesses can uncover hidden issues and address them effectively. A great example of this is examining HVAC systems. Cooling and heating often represent a large portion of office energy use and emissions. Older systems can be highly inefficient or even leak harmful chemicals. Identifying issues like these can not only reduce emissions, but also reduce operating costs and have positive effects on employee health. Proactive approaches like these move the company closer toward its sustainability goals.

Spotlight on corporate sustainability: Microsoft and Kohler

Microsoft and Kohler are two companies that exemplify the pursuit of sustainable business practices. Their approaches offer valuable lessons to other companies on integrating sustainability into their business models.

Microsoft, a tech giant, has set ambitious goals to become carbon negative, water positive, and achieve zero waste by 2030. But beyond these goals, Microsoft engages its supply chain in its sustainability efforts, setting clear expectations for its vendors, including Aquent, to reduce their carbon footprint. This proactive approach sends a powerful message to other businesses about the importance of environmental responsibility. It also gives sustainability professionals the ammunition they need to drive sustainability goals within a company.

On the other hand, Kohler, a private bath and kitchen product manufacturer, has embedded sustainability into every aspect of its operations. The company focuses on social sustainability and inclusion globally, as well as sustainable product designs. Despite being a private firm with less obligation for disclosure, Kohler's commitment to sustainability is clear and commendable.

These two companies highlight that sustainability can be pursued regardless of a company's size or industry. Their approaches underline the importance of setting clear sustainability goals, engaging the supply chain, and integrating sustainability into the core business model.

Every company has a role to play in the pursuit of sustainability. The cases of Microsoft and Kohler demonstrate that with commitment and strategic planning, significant strides toward sustainability can be achieved.

Choosing the right partner for your sustainability journey

There are different approaches to getting this work done when embarking on a sustainability journey, from hiring a sustainability leader and a team of FTEs to bringing in consultants or project-specific talent, or a blend of both. The right partner can provide invaluable insights, share experiences, and offer guidance that helps you navigate potential pitfalls. Here are some key qualities to look for when seeking a sustainability partner.

Experience in sustainability initiatives

If your company is at the beginning of its sustainability journey, partnering with a company that has observed and worked with sustainability teams at different stages can be incredibly  beneficial. This partner can share their experiences, lessons learned, and even what didn't work for them, potentially saving you time and resources. The sustainability community tends to be open and willing to share, making this a valuable resource.

Industry relevance

For companies that are further along in their sustainability journey, forming a network of peers within the same or similar industries can be advantageous. For instance, a service industry company like Aquent may not find it beneficial to compare notes with a healthcare firm or an energy company due to differing challenges and needs. However, collaborating with companies facing similar issues allows for a more meaningful exchange of ideas and solutions. This peer-to-peer sharing can lead to innovative solutions and drive collective progress toward sustainability goals.

Understanding of your objectives

It's crucial to find a partner who understands and aligns with your sustainability goals. Whether your company views sustainability from operational, social impact, risk management, or financial perspectives, your partner should be able to tailor their assistance effectively. By truly listening to your needs and understanding your projects and goals, they can help shape a program that fits your unique vision and objectives.

Whether you're just starting out or well into your sustainability journey, collaboration plays a critical role in accelerating sustainable practices. Choosing a partner with the right experience, expertise, industry relevance, and understanding of your objectives can significantly enhance your sustainability program's effectiveness and impact.

Key advice for your company's sustainability journey

If your company is embarking on sustainability efforts or doubling down on the work you've already done, it can feel like a daunting challenge. However, adopting the right mindset can make all the difference. Here's some advice to help wherever you are:

Adopt the right mindset

The first step toward sustainability is to adopt the right mindset. A fantastic resource that encapsulates this philosophy is Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, “Braiding Sweetgrass.” This book beautifully outlines the core principles of sustainability—not taking more than we need and fostering respect for our world and the communities within it.

While the book might initially come across as abstract, it offers powerful insights that provoke deep thought about our relationship with the environment. It suggests that environmentalism isn't just about adhering to a list of prohibitions—like not eating meat or avoiding air travel. Instead, it's about recognising that our current ways of operating—as individuals, communities, and corporations—are not sustainable in the long term.

Shift your focus

We're often focused on resource extraction and immediate profit, but we need to shift this thinking. Instead, aim to set up operations that are sustainable, minimise impact, and give back as much as possible. By doing so, you can ensure success and prosperity without compromising the future.

Foster leadership buy-in

This change in perspective is crucial, and it starts at the top. Leadership needs to understand and embrace this concept. Sustainability isn't something we do because we're forced to; it's a better way of operating, and we need to figure out how to get there.

The work of sustainability is never easy, but it's so incredibly worth it. We hope the insights from this blog sparked some new ideas and inspired your work of actively contributing to a better world.

Interested in advancing your sustainability objectives? Our innovative solutions are tailored to support your environmental, social, and governance goals. Join us in making a positive impact. Learn how we can help with your sustainability journey.