Who do you trust more than yourself?
Photo: Guido Coppa, Unsplash
Couple of years ago I participated an online course on sustainability leadership at the University of Cambridge (1). From day one, it was made clear to us students that it was obligatory to back up our arguments with facts and present comprehensive list of sources. Everything had to be referenced by using the Harvard Referencing Style (2). After two weeks, the professors gave us a warning: “Your referencing sucks! If you want to pass this course, start presenting proper sources. (This was of course articulated in a very polite manner).” For many of us, it had been a while since we had written academic papers, so our referencing techniques were a bit rusty. But this was a harsh reminder to all of us to do our fact-checking properly, and not only from one source but several reliable sources. Besides fantastic insights and network of CISL, referencing was one of the main things I took home with me from the course.
What happens in the cloud, stays in the cloud
In this era of big data, proving your sources is tricky. We hoover information from millions of public data sources, connect the dots, without really knowing if we had chosen the right dots to connect. This applies also in sustainability data. It has become more and more popular for companies to rely their sustainability analysis on third-party ratings, meaning that someone outside of your company evaluates your performance, ESG risks, CO2emissions, gender equality development, possessing a proper list of certificates and ISO standards and so on (3). In theory this sounds ideal and objective. Some frameworks are easy, such as GRI reporting, for the methodology is pretty transparent, some others are trickier, for we do not really know where does the data come from, how is it referenced, and how reliable are the sources.
For example, let´s take our business field, the tech companies. Our business takes place in the cloud and all our data is in the cloud. We can, for sure calculate our CO2 emissions on our direct and bought consumption of energy (Scope 1,2), but those calculations have little or no value for we cannot calculate our carbon footprint in the cloud (Scope 3) for cloud providers do not present the data (4,5). Currently, cloud providers consume 1 % of the global energy demand, but it is estimated to grow as much as 15-30% in some countries by 2030 (6). So this applies also for us, no matter how small operator we are. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, a piece of advice, get your Harvard Referencing Style in order now.
Outside in versus Inside out.
Outside in-Inside out is a model for business management (7,8). Inside out refers to a management, where company´s purpose lies in the core of everything. Company feels very strongly its mission and knows why they are doing what they are doing and combine that with understanding customer´s needs and desires. In outside-in business model the customer value creation is in the core and companies are fulfilling the needs of their customers (7,8). Similar analogy can be applied to producing a reliable data. We can produce the evidence of our sustainability impact ourselves or we can acquire it from a third party who evaluates our actions from out-side.
Partnering with third party professional analytics companies has its perks. They bring objectivity for they look your performance from outside, with the eyes of your stakeholders (suppliers, customers, investors etc.) This is all fine and at best can provide valuable insight. But in the context of sustainability, there can be concerns. To prove the impact of your sustainability policy you need to do concrete things and communicate the results of your actions. Who could do that better than yourself?
We got all this data, but what to do with it?
Collecting data is a mode of the today, also in sustainability (4). Companies prove their environmental, social and economic performance with policies, reports, certificates, ESG risk assessments, SDG Monitoring etc. But there are so much more we can do with the data, and making most of our data requires that we provide data sources from inside and outside and reference them properly. Front runners are using a mix of both methods.
Use outside in data for identifying larger sustainability trends in your business landscape. If you are relying only on inside out data, there is a danger that you lose the focus of what is really important to your stakeholders and you create a sustainability plan that has very little added value or importance in your supply chain. In practice, all reporting, business analytics and certificates provide you this. Collaborate with the ones that provide you with data that suits you best and can be brought to live in various ways.
Bring your data alive
There is so much more you can do with your data than just providing the information. Apply your data for defining your purpose, inspiring and engaging your stakeholders. For theses purposes the inside out approach works the best. Here are few tips for bringing your sustainability data live:
Don´t just state that your sustainability policy is embedded in your business strategy but use inside out approach to pick up the key KPIs from your sustainability data and show how you have implemented them into your leadership practices.
Engage your employees for data collecting and data sharing, be it the health and well-being, motivation, working conditions, productivity, promotions etc. This can be extremely valuable, especially when remote work has become a common practice and we do not have a physical space that binds us together.
Pick up the concrete actions from your policy and communicate them to your customers. You clients have no time or energy to read the reports nor have they little interest to find out what certificate means what. Open them up, highlight the key facts and communicate their concrete impact.
Present your sustainability performance and back it up with the source. Don´t just list your figures and silo your performance in yearly reports, but explain where you are on track towards your targets and where you are leaving behind.
Most sustainability actions have long-term targets. Companies and organizations set up their targets to the magic years of 2030 and 2050 and in this hectic start-up world where speed is everything those target years seem to be long ahead. Real sustainability frontrunners know that this is not the case. They know what actions to take today and next week in order to reach those targets and how to prove them true. They are like Harvard students. In order to pass the mid-terms, it is not enough to start studying the weekend before, and in order to get good grades on the essay it is better to have some insight, be written by yourself, based on reliable sources and properly referenced.
(1) Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, https://www.cisl.cam.ac.uk
(2) What is the Harvard System of Citing References? Ask a Librarian. Harvard Library. https://ask.library.harvard.edu/faq/81735
(3) GRI Reporting, Our Mission and History h https://www.globalreporting.org/about-gri/mission-history/
(4) Mytton,D. (8th Aug 2020) Assessing the suitability of the Greenhuose Gas Protocol for calculation of emissions from public cloud computing workloads. Journal of Cloud Computing. https://journalofcloudcomputing.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s13677-020-00185-8
(5) Mytton,D., (13th July 2020) Hiding greenhouse gas emissions in the cloud. Nature Climate Change.https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0837-6
(6) Kamiya, G. & Kvarnström, O. (20th Dec 2019) Data centres and energy – from global headlines to local headaches? International Energy Agency https://www.iea.org/commentaries/data-centres-and-energy-from-global-headlines-to-local-headaches
(7) Ozeritskaya, E. (14.5.2015), Inside-out Versus Outside-in – What´s better strategy? https://blog.hypeinnovation.com/inside-out-versus-outside-in-whats-the-better-strategy
(8) Yrjölä, M. (9.5.2020), Eye on the customer: breaking away from the inside-out mindset. Journal of Business Strategy. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JBS-02-2020-0022/full/html