State of the Planet

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Defining and Measuring Sustainability

Back in 2009 when I was completing my book Sustainability Management and preparing it for publication by Columbia University Press in 2010, I was also working with colleagues at Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education (now Professional Studies) to develop a new master’s program in sustainability management. I remember struggling to provide a meaningful and bounded definition for sustainability, and in the end, we decided our focus would be on “environmental” sustainability. It’s difficult to believe that a decade has passed since that time, but not hard to believe that we continue to struggle with boundaries and definitions. What was common to our thinking then and at least as typical today, was our desire to ensure that we were focusing on substance rather than symbols.

Sustainability is the mantra of the moment, a word used by many people for many purposes. Over a decade ago I was at an Earth Institute meeting with Jeff Sachs and Bill Gates, whose foundation had helped fund the Millennium Villages Project, and we discussed the concepts of “sustainability and sustainable development.” Mr. Gates did not like the concept of “sustainability” since he thought we ought to be about improving our conditions, not simply sustaining them. In other settings, I’ve participated in intense discussions contrasting the concepts of sustainability with sustainable development. The term sustainability seems to be a word in search of a modifier. Development is preferred by some. I’ve been leaning toward “environmental sustainability”. Or “sustainability management”: The practice of organizational management that has the goal of sustaining our environment so that future generations have the land, air, water and food they need to live.

In our Sustainability Management Master’s program, we require three courses on “the physical dimensions of sustainability.” The rest of the program is an environmentally focused management degree, but for “physical dimensions,” we require our students to study energy, pollution, water, food, green architecture, ecology and climate science. Sustainability requires a deeper understanding of our physical world: Its resources and the impact of human technology on its natural systems. We are trying to bound the definition of sustainability by the topics we include in the curriculum.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this emphasis on the physical environment. In this view, human rights, labor practices, gender and race biases and a range of social justice issues must be included because, without them, organizations and places cannot truly be considered sustainable. In my view, all of these definitions are legitimate and worthy of discussion and I suspect that under the broad umbrella of “sustainability” we will see a number of subfields and more bounded definitions. We are already seeing the emergence of fields devoted to social sustainability, financial sustainability and risk assessment, organizational sustainability and environmental sustainability. All of this, I consider to be substantive sustainability. All can be carefully defined and measured.

But then there is the symbolic field of sustainability. Here an organization or a place aspires to present an image of sustainability. To these folks, sustainability is a green branding exercise. This variant of sustainability makes no one’s planet less polluted and no one’s world more socially just but induces consumers to favor one product over another because of its green image. This greenwashing is far from a new story, but more and more companies have come to understand that people under 30 years of age are basing consumer decisions on the image that an organization presents as they sell goods and services. Google once had a motto of “don’t be evil,” which was eventually replaced when it morphed into Alphabet as “do the right thing.” But the motto was tossed back at the company in the wake of its efforts to commercialize data about individual users. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple are pushing hard to reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact and making sure we know about it. They are investing in solar panels and taking other steps to reduce their environmental impact. But is it substantive or simply symbolic? It is easy to be mistrustful of these efforts because we have no way to really know what is going on.

The measurement of organizational and local sustainability is conducted and verified by a host of nonprofit organizations. On the Small Business Trends website, Annie Pilon provides us with a list of “25 Legit Green Business Certifications.”  The problem with all of these is structural: Nearly all of these organizations generate revenues by certifying the “sustainability” of other organizations. It’s fine that sustainability measurement is a business — so is accounting — but what’s missing is the independent audit. The regulatory body that verifies the sustainability measurement. What is also missing is a key practice we have in financial accounting: Generally Accepted Accounting Practices. Under the watchful eye of the Security and Exchange Commission, the definition of corporate revenues, expenses, and financial transactions is specific and transparent. Financial reports are audited and checked. In contrast, sustainability measurement lacks uniformity and independent audits.

One reason for this lack of precision and structure is the vagueness of the concept of sustainability and the proliferation of the numerous subfields I referred to earlier. The other reason is the failure of government to begin the hard work of evolving measures of sustainability. Our economic life has nearly a century of evolution of economic measures. The definition of concepts such as unemployment, GDP, inflation, and other measures continue to be refined by government agencies such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce. Sustainability measurement in our anti-government era has been largely ignored by government. For a few years, the U.S. government measured the presence of “green jobs” in the economy, but it was abandoned in order to save federal funds.

While I don’t see the U.S. government getting into sustainability measurement any time soon, until it does, the use of sustainability in organizational management will be difficult to assess. Peter Drucker advanced the now common concept that you “can’t manage something if you can’t measure it.” That without measurement you can’t tell if management’s decisions are making things better or worse. A key problem with sustainability measurement is that you can’t measure something if you can’t define it. Generally, the narrower and more specific a concept can be defined, the easier it is to measure. That is one reason why I hope to focus sustainability metrics on environmental sustainability or the physical dimensions of sustainability. This is not to denigrate the importance of all the other elements of sustainability from labor practices to income inequality. It is only to say that the overall concept of sustainability is too difficult and complex to measure and therefore we should focus on measuring what I am referring to as “subfields”. Working globally, it is much harder to come to an agreement on definitions and measures of justice, than definitions and measures of environmental toxicity. There are objective methods for measuring energy efficiency, sources of energy, waste production, effluents in water and emissions in the air. These can be combined into a set of generally accepted environmental sustainability metrics.

In order to separate substance from symbol, we need to carefully define sustainability and then measure its various dimensions. I believe we should begin with environmental sustainability and then measure the other dimensions of sustainability. We need the U.S. government, the European Union, China, Japan and India and eventually the United Nations to work together to develop metrics and methods of verification. An emphasis on generally accepted sustainability metrics can help ensure that sustainability substance dominates sustainability symbols.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Antonio Vives
4 years ago

Totally agree with the discussion on the need to measure to counter greenwashing, but careful to be carried away with an emphasis on measurement that tends to conspire against the required actions. Emphasis falls then on how to game the system to appear good on the measures. Even with the “rigorous” Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, there is income smoothing, off balance sheet items, etc.

Furthermore, even though you can measure some components, you cannot combine them in meaningful way that represent “sustainability”. For each company and its context, there would be a measure of sustainability, the “weights” of the components in an overall measure will be company specific.

And I very strongly disagree with the dismissal of Social and Governance sustainability. The measurement problems are identical, we can measure parts (gender disparity, quality of the working environment, product responsibility, etc.) and have the same problem in aggregating at all the firm level. The emphasis in comparability is ruining the needed actions. Paying too much attention on the needs of financial analysts, that want to have comparable information to make their decisions, is conspiring against meaningful consideration of context. Even the SASB indicators, which are industry specific fail to incorporate company context.

The article is biased towards the E in ESG. We may have a beautiful environment in which society cannot thrive because of social inequality, discrimination, corruption, etc.

We need to strive to see the whole picture, even though we may have to act on the parts. And let’s not forget the interactions between them. Environmental sustainability with bad governance, with unjust laws, corrupt policy makers? Environmental sustainability with social oppression?

The emphasis on measurements must not detract from the need to have a holistic view and act on every factor that conspires against “total sustainability”, Social, Environmental and Governance.

And, yes, we desperately need institutions that investigate and denounce “green”washing, but not only the “green” part, allwashing.