AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Sustainability Assessments

Copyright 2006 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Sustainability Assessments

When they are useful, what to ask for

by Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy arztsamui,

Courtesy arztsamui,

A number of clients are asking for sustainability assessments. These assessments typically provide a snap shot of an organization’s sustainability performance and generate recommendations for future action. They may be broad assessments, looking at a wide range of performance areas (e.g., facilities, greenhouse gases, purchasing, policies and practices), or they may be focused on one or a few areas of performance (e.g., energy, waste). There is a time when these assessments are useful and a time not. This article will help you understand when to request a sustainability assessment, what kind to ask for, and what to expect.

Why do a sustainability assessment?

Organizations have different motivations for why they want a sustainability assessment:

  • They’re not sure what to work on next
  • They need an independent assessment of how well they are doing
  • They want to gather baseline data so they can measure progress
  • They want to know how they stack up against their competitors

The most common reason appears to be the first; they need help deciding what to work on next. The operative word here is ‘next.’ We have had some clients want to do an assessment as a way to get started. While this is possible, it can be an inefficient use of resources. We prefer to work with a client to establish priorities and a start-up strategy first. This typically involves facilitating them through the impacts and/or strategic analyses listed below which are not performance assessments as much as analytical exercises. Armed with this information, a formal assessment can be done on areas linked to priorities.

What types of assessments might you want?

assessment types pie chartWe think of assessments as being on two levels: High level assessments and more detailed assessments on such specific areas as waste or energy.

At the 30,000 foot level, you may want to assess the four areas listed below.

  • Impacts
  • Strategy
  • Practices
  • Systems

The first two can easily be done internally, although it can be helpful to engage the services of someone well versed in sustainability. The second two assessments are usually best done by connecting to existing formal assessment systems.

Impacts—Start with an understanding of your environmental and socio-economic impacts. While some organizations do an exhaustive analysis, and this can be appropriate at times, we find that this approach usually just consumes the energy of those involved. We find it’s most useful to identify just the major impacts. To do this, we use what what we call a Bubble Diagram, basically a process flowchart that categorizes the most likely impacts and contributions.

Figure: Bubble Diagram


Where does your energy come from? What materials do you buy the most of? How benign and useful are your products and services? What are your major waste streams. The Bubble Diagram also recognizes that your organization exists in a larger system so it prompts you to consider what you should do to influence your industry, supply chain as well as related community or social problems. Similarly, you can also use The Natural Step’s backcasting process in lieu of or in conjunction with a process analysis. However you approach this step, this impacts assessment provides the basis for understanding where your organization causes negative impacts and where action on your part can move your own organization and the world toward a sustainable future.

Example: Through the Oregon Natural Step Network’s coaching process, I’ve helped Entermodal conduct a thorough backcasting assessment for their new product line of leather bags and brief cases. This analysis revealed that chemicals used to tan leather are one of the biggest major impacts. This has led to them finding a source for leather tanned with vegetable oils, free of heavy metals and formaldehyde and sourced from sustainable tannin sources. While addressing this and other identified major impacts, they have begun to engage the market, focusing on a concise and meaningful delivery of their philosophy and commitment to sustainability. They say the backcasting process has been invaluable in identifying and prioritizing targets and will remain integral to their business model.

Strategic Assessment—Based on this understanding of your impacts, it’s time to look at your strategic threats and opportunities. Many organizations find it convenient to skip this step when they first begin a sustainability effort, preferring instead to pick off some easy, obvious initial projects. But at some point, you need to develop a clear business case for pursuing sustainability. “It’s the right thing to do”, while honorable, is insufficient to maintain momentum. You have to be able to describe why it’s in your strategic self-interest to pursue sustainability. Realistically, this is an ongoing conversation where clients become increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of this. To get you started, the time-tested SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) process can be useful.

Example: Dick Roy, a Portland attorney who started the Northwest Earth Institute and more recently the Center for Earth Leadership, has been engaging lawyers and law firms in an exploration of how they can contribute to sustainability and why they should be engaged. Improving law office operations—reducing energy and paper use, for example—yields moderate benefits, both in terms of cost savings and environmental impact but is still important to do from the standpoint of integrity. But there is a much broader, more strategic role for the profession and lawyers to play that will certainly be defined in the near future.  Should the concept of justice—a cornerstone of legal thinking, be expanded to encompass the rights and opportunities of future generations?  Is the lawyer steeped in knowledge about sustainability and ecological principles better able to give advice to clients in today’s world?  Under any circumstances, many clients are pursuing sustainability, so attorneys need to understand what they are talking about. Because attorneys have played a major role in past social transformations—women’s rights, civil rights, tobacco, drunk driving—they likely have an important but as of yet ill defined role in the sustainability movement too. Climate change is already beginning to show up on the legal battlefield, and in Europe, public policy has been a major driver of sustainability initiatives. So attorneys need to examine these strategic issues  to uncover why pursuing sustainability makes business sense.

Business Practices—It’s also important, especially for organizations that have been ‘doing sustainability’ for a while, to assess the degree to which they have embedded sustainability into the policies, procedures and practices of their organization. Far too many efforts stall because they were dependent upon the passion of a particular employee. You have to weave sustainability into the fabric of how the organization operates. AXIS created S-CORE™, a proprietary assessment, for this purpose. An early version is available in our book, The Business Guide to Sustainability. This assessment looks at the common functions that all organizations share (top management, purchasing, HR, finance, marketing, etc.). It defines the practice areas relevant to sustainability within each of those functions and then defines levels of performance for the initial phases all the way through to full sustainability. This scale provides a road map. As Dean Kubani at the City of Santa Monica said, “I think that S-CORE is an excellent tool to help an organization assess its internal strengths and weaknesses with respect to sustainability.  I think it can be very helpful to organizations that are committed to sustainability and have a desire to improve and excel.”

Systems audit—Sophisticated organizations will want to assess their sustainability management systems. Similar to an environmental management system, an SMS ensures that a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is is applied to sustainability efforts. Americans tend to do a reasonably good job of planning and love the doing but usually fall well short of verifying that their efforts are working as intended and that the learning from those efforts is institutionalized. If your organization has a robust environmental management system or sustainability management system, you can conduct audits internally. However, if you are not well versed in ISO-14001, we recommend you engage the services of someone who is. If you want to become or maintain ISO certification, you will also need to hire a third party to audit your systems periodically. A systems audit will help you find and fix the weak links in your system.

These four assessments look at your organization from a high-level view. At some point, however, you will want to do a more specific analysis of certain aspects of your operation. This ground-level assessment should provide useful baseline measures and lead toward specific tactics for improving performance. We tend to organize these loosely around the bubbles in the Bubble Diagram. In most cases, it’s best to engage the services of someone who specializes in doing these assessments. We often include specialists on our teams to perform these functions. You may be able to find free or low-cost service providers to do some of these assessments for you. If you are doing more than one, however, it’s best to assemble a team where the project manager or team integrates all the results and helps you prioritize the findings.

Greenhouse gas inventory—A greenhouse gas inventory provides you an understanding of the volume of greenhouse gases your operation produces and where they are generated. This analysis may lead you to set other priorities than if you just did an energy audit. You might find that it would be affordable to eliminate most or all of your greenhouse gases through a combination of energy efficiency measures, green power options and carbon credits. AXIS conducts a greenhouse gas inventory on our own business each year and purchases carbon credits to offset those GHG producing activities that we can’t replace or eliminate.

Example: Gathering the data for a greenhouse gas inventory can be a straightforward process if you only want to assess your organization’s internal impacts from energy and transportation. It gets more complicated if you want to gather climate impacts of a product all along your supply chain across the full life-cycle (as Time, Home Depot, Stora Enso and Canfor just did for magazines and lumber) or if the client is a governmental agency that wants to estimate the climate impacts of their community. When we did such an assessment for West Linn, though, we were able to assemble the information in just a few hours with the help of ‘proxy data.’ It can be hard to find certain specific data (for example, how much gasoline every household uses) but we were able to find a source for how much gasoline was sold in the community. This was a reasonable substitute for data that would otherwise be hard to get. As Michael Armstrong, who does this job for the City of Portland, emphasizes, getting the exact number is less important than finding reliable sources, avoiding systematic bias, and doing the assessment the same way each time. This data gives you a number expressed in metric tons of CO2 equivalents; something that’s hard to visualize. So we like to convert the figure into the acres of trees you’d have to plant to offset the greenhouse gases. The image not only gives meaning to the number, but usually shocks people into action.

Energy audit—Energy audits assess opportunities for reducing energy use, sending dollars directly to your bottom line. In Oregon, these audits can be performed free by the Energy Trust for those who pay the public purpose fee through their utility bills. Elsewhere, check with your local utility or look into an energy service corporation (ESCO) that can do the work and share in the savings. Be sure to investigate incentives to offset the cost of capital improvements. In Oregon, the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program gives up to a 35% tax credit (not a deduction) for energy reduction efforts. In some cases, your improvements may also qualify you for carbon credits, which amounts to getting paid for reducing greenhouse gases.

Water audit—Water is increasingly becoming a constrained resource. Typically, your local water utility can perform a water audit, checking for leaky fixtures and wasteful practices. You should also examine run-off or outflows to make sure you are not contributing to the degradation of our streams and rivers.

Facilities assessment—A facilities audit may include an energy and water audit, but it also typically includes an assessment of building materials, cleaning products, operational practices, and renovation opportunities.

Example: When we conducted a broad sustainability assessment for the City of Corvallis (with a team at the Zero Waste Alliance), one of the major components was a facilities assessment. While they had done an admirable job of reducing energy use and recycling, walking through the facilities while asking questions and opening closet doors revealed a number of opportunities for improvement in many areas: waste management, chemicals, and so forth. We were able to ferret out and give recognition to individuals who, through the power of their perseverance, kept programs going, while we also pushed for making these tasks an official part of their job.

Purchasing assessment—Many people are familiar with waste audits but it can help to start up-stream and look first at what you’re buying. When we do a purchasing assessment, we typically try to pull from the accounting system the major categories of purchases (by dollar or volume) and then try to answer these questions: Is there a way to convert the purchase of a product into a service? Is the client buying the most environmentally (and socially) preferable product that will meet their needs? Does the durability match the needed use and what happens at the end-of-life? Can the products be reused or recycled? Where can they source better products? Are there appropriate purchasing policies and practices in place to encourage people to use the preferable products?  What conversations should occur between the client and their suppliers (of both products and services)?

Example: As part of a comprehensive assessment we did with a major local law firm, we discovered that several of the firm’s key vendors had sustainable products in their product lines, but never offered them up to our client because they didn’t know the law firm was interested.  Sometimes the simple act of asking your vendors whether they have better solutions for you is all that is needed.

Chemical inventory—A chemical inventory includes many products that you may not think of as chemicals. Unfortunately, many of the products we buy contain toxic chemicals: cleaning products, paints, interior finishes, landscape products, glues, markers, inks and toners, etc. A chemical inventory gathers information about some or all of these types of products and then puts them into priority order so you can determine which to work on first. This is definitely a job for an expert. When we conduct chemical inventories, we include a green chemist on the team. The process involves defining the scope of the inventory (what types of products you plan to assess) and then pulling information off the Material Safety Data Sheets. The ingredients are evaluated against criteria and then the products are ranked or rated. The Zero Waste Alliance has a sophisticated Chemical Assessment and Ranking System (CARS) that can compare chemicals against a host of well-vetted lists (e.g, carcinogens, ozone depleters, greenhouse gases, neurotoxins).

Process efficiencies assessment—Total quality tools from the 1980’s are just as useful today for finding inefficiencies in your work process. Process mapping helps you identify sources of mistakes, quality problems, time wasters, and rework cycles. Control charts and histograms can help you bring processes into control. An old maxim of the quality movement maintained that there are always three processes for any task: what you think it is, how it really gets done, and how it should be done. Understanding the difference between these is key to eliminating waste and improving core business performance. Continuous improvement is key; doing it once is not enough. There’s always room for improvement and process efficiency assessments can help you engage employees and elicit their ideas. It can also be helpful to include someone unfamiliar with the process who can ask the seemingly naïve but powerful questions.

Waste assessment—Waste assessments typically involve examining the waste stream to identify opportunities to reduce waste and to find ways to divert ‘residual products’ to better uses. This is done most commonly for solid waste but can apply to other waste sources (e.g.,water, heat). You may be able to find low or no-cost resources to perform these assessments, although engaging employees in ‘dumpster diving’ can be a humbling and educational assessment. (By the way, it’s much easier to separate and weigh materials before they get thrown into a dumpster. ‘Dumpster diving’ is a misnomer.) The process involves categorizing and measuring waste, identifying materials for which there are better uses, and exploring ways to reduce the volume of waste.

Example: The Yellowstone Business Partnership (YBP) is a nonprofit business organization advancing sustainable enterprise across the Yellowstone-Teton region. A waste audit is one of the first things their participants do in their UnCommon Sense program. On Site Management, a Bozeman-based contractor, was mortified to see the amount of waste their building projects generated. They conducted three dumpster dives—one early in a building project, one half way through, and one near the end—since the materials change significantly throughout the building process. They have already found ways to reduce their waste, in part by gathering the wood scraps which they burn in boilers to produce heat in the shop and other sites. They think they can reduce their waste to landfill by 60 percent. They created a jobsite waste stream handling manual and are pleased that three of their yard managers are excited about making the program work.

Product functionality and design assessment—It can be sobering to analyze the impacts your products or services have on the world, but these insights can lead to startling innovations. Life cycle assessments, biomimicry, backcasting, and design for environment are all useful tools here.

Example: Philips Microelectronics designs a ‘flagship’ green product in every product category, trying to create the greenest version possible. This often leads to insights that can easily be applied to their entire product line. For example, while examining their TV housings to see how they might eliminate fire retardants (which are accumulating in human body tissue), they discovered a simple way to eliminate the hotspots in the unit. Since heat is the major cause of electronic failure, they both reduced fir risk and simultaneously improved the life span of their products by moving components around inside the box. This obviously has as much value in DVDs and other electronic products, not just TVs.

Employee satisfaction assessment—These assessments are commonly used in organizations to uncover opportunities to improve the work life of employees, so we won’t discuss them in any detail. However, we don want to point out that these are opportunities to assess the degree to which sustainability connects to their values. Many organizations have found that sustainability is a powerful force for employee motivation. Quantifying the degree to which it helps you attract and retain talent can help your business case for maintaining the focus on sustainability.

Stakeholder assessment—Organizations don’t exist in a vacuum so understanding the needs, expectations, and opportunities of your stakeholders is an important step. Using formal stakeholder assessment processes can be an important way to improve transparency and avert brewing problems.

Example: Many organizations have too narrow a view of who their stakeholders are. While conducting an assessment for a respected architectural firm, the client could only list management, employees, their customers and their subcontractors and suppliers. What about the neighborhoods in which their projects are placed? What about the governmental agencies and boards involved in land use planning, transportation planning, and building ? A closer, collaborative relationship with these other stakeholders could improve the image of the organization and also speed the adoption of sustainable practices across the state.

Community needs assessment—This is a variation of a stakeholder assessment. Many organizations participate in volunteer efforts but few have looked strategically at this issue, defining how they can best contribute to solving community challenges. Consider the work you do and the ways you impact the community—for better or worse— and then identify the creative and targeted ways that you should apply your philanthropy and volunteer efforts.

How can you ensure you get the full benefit of the assessment?

Whichever assessment(s) you choose to implement, the following tips will help you get the most out of your efforts.

Don’t assume—When people tell you it can’t be done, don’t believe them, at least not at first. One client dry cleaned their police uniforms and were agonizing about whether it was a good use of tax dollars to send them to the more expensive green dry cleaner instead. I asked why they didn’t buy fabrics that could be washed. The question made them examine all the assumptions they held about dry cleaned uniforms (they looked ‘crisper,” it was necessary for exposure to biohazards, etc.). But one by one, we found that none of them were substantiated. When I finally found the right person in the police department to ask why they couldn’t buy uniforms made of washable fabric, her jaw dropped. “I can’t believe we didn’t think of that,” was her stunned reply.

Engage others in the process—Don’t just run around with a clipboard making red marks on paper. This makes people nervous. Involve a wide spectrum of employees in the assessment process. This can be done in focus groups as well as individual interviews. Honor their ideas and insights. They’ll have more interest in acting on the findings. Unless there is a strong reason not to, let managers review and comment on the results before they become public.

Include your suppliers—Unfortunately, the default for many suppliers is to provide you the toxic, unsustainable option unless you request otherwise. We talked to the building janitorial service for one of our clients. “Green cleaning products, sure we have those. We didn’t even know they cared.” Until the sustainable option is the default, ask for it.

Don’t just take a snap shot—Unless you are trying to gather initial baseline data, use the process of doing the assessment to move yourselves measurably forward. We have used the assessment process to help clients share best practices across the organization, make decisions, establish metrics, and develop reporting processes. Get the most benefit from the effort buy building in these elements.

Don’t get hung up on the numbers or how you compare to others—It seems everyone who wants to use our S-CORE assessment is focused on seeing how they rate. But they soon realize that the biggest benefit of doing S-CORE or any other assessment comes from the conversation. Assessments provide a forum for raising issues and launching trial balloons. And the only lasting benefits come from what you do with the information. Once you do an assessment, it creates an expectation for change. Share the results, set goals and get going.

Don’t feel as if you have to do all these assessments at one time. You may want to start at the 30,000 foot level or drill down to something more specific. Be clear about your reasons for wanting an assessment and call upon the many resources to help you. Sustainability assessments are powerful tools to quantify your progress and identify holes in your sustainability efforts. Plan these into your implementation plan in regular intervals to keep you on track.


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