Setting Relevant, Flexible and Measurable Goals
So let’s take a look at being environmentally sustainable. How green is green? First, let’s define environmental sustainability, and there are many ways to do so (remember, I've collected more than 101 different definitions—so far). I’m kind of partial to this one from Herman Daly, an American ecological economist and professor at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland, College Park:
Environmental sustainability exists as a steady dynamic state “if:
1. Its rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed their rates of regeneration.
2. Its rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed.
3. Its rates of pollution emission do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.”
Many proponents of sustainable development believe in the necessity of measuring sustainable goals as metrics related to current standards; for instance, with paper usage the measurement is often the recycled content of the paper used and the total amount of recycled paper used over a period of time. But wouldn’t it be better to measure the present state against the goal that is trying to be achieved?
Is it the amount of recycled paper used that is the goal, or is it the impact on the total carbon footprint by the use of the recycled paper that is real goal? Here’s an example:
Acme Insurance Company’s in-plant printing operation wants to reduce it’s carbon footprint by 50 percent. The largest amount of consumable resource they use is paper, so they figure they can make the biggest impact with the following changes:
The in-plant uses 100 tons of uncoated virgin paper per year (it’s a big company). They want to convert to using all recycled paper. They convert to using 50 tons of 30 percent recycled content and 50 tons of 100 percent recycled content uncoated paper. The metric for this change could be considered a 100 percent conversion to paper with a 30 percent or more recycled content. Goal accomplished, right? But how does this measure up to the ongoing goal to reduce carbon emissions?
Looking at the same conversion to recycled paper, here’s how it affects the larger goal:
• 100 tons of virgin uncoated paper = 588,213 lbs of CO2 emissions.
• 50 tons of 30 percent recycled paper = 257,209 lbs of CO2 emissions.
• 50 tons of 100 percent recycled paper = 171,114 lbs of CO2 emissions.
• The total conversion to recycled paper = 428,323 lbs of CO2 emissions.
• This change = 27 percent reduction in total CO2 emissions, a significant reduction to be sure, but just over half of the established goal.
I often wonder just how accurate companies are at claiming they are “green.” Is that claim based on standards or goals they have set for themselves? Giving them the benefit of the doubt, and trying to be an optimist, I want to believe that there is a sincere effort on the part of a company or organization to contribute to sustainable development. The proof that needs to be the pudding, however, is establishing and reporting goals set for advancement of sustainable business practices.
Though I want to be an optimist, the pessimist in me fears that what we really see out there is more “green washing” than true sustainable business practice.
Those three goals that Herman Daly uses to define sustainable development are not static goals. The commendable goal of CO2 reduction by Acme’s in-plant is also not static. Sustainability is a process not a destination.
If we want to determine how our actions impact the earth—environmentally, economically and socially—we need to create goals that are relevant, flexible and measurable. These goals need to be relational to an ongoing effort at becoming a more sustainable operation. Simply not cutting down trees is not a true sustainable goal.