June 17, 2014
Panelists at Slow Living Summit Discuss Context Based Sustainability Metrics
by Robert Kropp
Corporate sustainability architect Bill Baue leads a conversation about the importance of placing
sustainability reporting in the context of planetary boundaries. Second of a two-part series.
Earlier this month, the Governance & Accountability Institute reported that
72% of companies listed on the S&P 500 index now publish sustainability reports. As recently as
2011, only 19% of those companies produced sustainability reports.
of sustainability reports by corporations has always been a priority for sustainable investors, and
on the face of it the rapid increase in such reporting is a positive development. But when one
considers the concept of planetary boundaries—according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, limits "within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive
for generations to come"—it becomes clear that business activity continues to contribute to an
unsustainable depletion of the world's resources.
A seminar addressing planetary
boundaries and how to measure corporate sustainability performance against them was recently held
at the Slow Living
Summit in Brattleboro, VT. Moderated by corporate sustainability architect (and former
SocialFunds.com writer) Bill Baue, panelists at the seminar discussed the concept of context-based
A number of standardized platforms for corporate sustainability
reporting currently exist, most notably the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). But in 2012, Mark McElroy,
the Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Organizations (CSO),
told SocialFunds.com that the GRI's standard fails to account for a context in which performance
can be accurately linked to targets that must be met to achieve sustainable business practices.
"Most of what passes for mainstream sustainability measurement reporting fails to express
sustainability performance in any literal or authentic way," McElroy said. "While I applaud the
fact that so many companies are focusing on this and putting out reports, few of these reports
actually express sustainability performance."
Using a company's use of water resources as
an example, he continued, "Much of what we see today simply tells how much water a company uses
from one year to the next. But there's no connection in measurements like that to the actual state
of water resources in the place where a company is doing business. You have to be able to compare
the rate of water use by a company to the rate of available water supplies."
Davis, Sustainability Director of the Vermont-based Cabot Creamery dairy cooperative, spoke at
length about his organization's efforts to base its optimal water use within the context of local
water resources and their proper allocation.
"It's really important to understand what is
happening out there around us, not just what we're doing," Davis said.
One of the
challenges addressed in the seminar was the current practice of linking sustainable resource use to
gross domestic product (GDP). By that standard, the larger the company is, the greater its share of
resources to be used. It's reasonable to question whether linking resource use to GDP is in itself
sustainable; and as Baue pointed out, alternatives that might more accurately measure quality of
life are actively being considered.
"We're still early on in the methodology of how to do
this," he said.
Also on the panel was Mike Bellamente, Executive Director of Climate Counts, a New Hampshire-based
nonprofit that rates the world's largest corporations on their climate impacts. In 2013, working
with McElroy and Baue, Climate Counts revised its methodology to account for context. In the
resulting study, the
organization attempted "to analyze the operational emissions of 100 global corporations between
2005 and 2012 to determine their performance against a science-based targets that seek to limit
climate change to 2 degrees Celsius."
Bellamente told attendees that the analysis revealed
that 49 of 100 companies were sustainable within planetary limits, and 22 "showed evidence of
decoupling," he said. That is, they continued their economic growth while reducing their carbon
Also on the panel was Cary Gaunt, Professor at the Marlboro College
Sustainability MBA program. Gaunt offered a more aspirational vision of sustainability. "How do we
move beyond merely sustaining to flourishing?" she asked. "How do we operationalize it?"
As an example, Gaunt referred to the work of the Living Futures Initiative, an organization which describes its
Living Building Challenge as "the built environment's most rigorous and ambitious performance
"By embracing the psychology of the endgame, we strive to identify the most
direct path to a future in which all life can thrive," the organization states.
that aspiration, Gaunt asked, "How do we give back more than we take so all can flourish?"