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Sustaining the data flow 

Effective sustainability management is dependent on working with meaningful, accurate data. Getting to grips with those data can be more complex than many people realise, as Paul Haddlesey explains 

A global survey of nearly 2,000 company executives, carried out earlier this year by McKinsey, found that more than 50% of respondents rated sustainability as either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important. The survey also found that only around 30% of companies actively seek opportunities to invest in sustainability or embed it in their business practices.

However, it’s a fair bet that this proportion is set to increase as sustainability continues to rise up the corporate agenda, often driven by environmental initiatives that are being imposed on many organisations. For instance, for those participating in the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC EES) failing to take action will result in heavy fines and potentially catastrophic damage to their corporate image. 

“Organisations are finding the CRC EES very challenging, in terms of finding the finance to purchase carbon allowances in advance and in funding initiatives to achieve ongoing energy savings,” says Simon Burnett of environmental consultancy Clouds Environmental. “There is funding available through initiatives such as Carbon Trust loans and many organisations would benefit from more centralised procurement, along with centralised evaluation of energy-saving technologies,” he continues. 

As many people are already finding, it’s also important to act sooner rather than later, as the whole business of sustainability management can be very complex. “There’s a lot more to it than people initially realise, when you start delving you unearth all sorts of things,” observes Ken Rose, Head of Business Services with Sage UK. “Furthermore, the information is changing constantly so you need to keep track of it in real time,” he adds. 

In fact, it’s clear that information is at the heart of the challenge that such organisations face. In order to manage sustainability (or indeed any other performance parameter) it is first necessary to identify what information is required. Then this information has to be measured to provide a rating of current performance, and then measured again to evaluate the success of any initiatives that have been implemented. 

Unfortunately, information relating to sustainability is very diverse and widely spread, residing in many different locations within the organisation and throughout the supply chain. Furthermore, it’s often in a range of different formats, coming from FM systems, management information systems, suppliers’ systems, spreadsheets and, quite often, people’s heads. 

“We found that one of the biggest challenges was getting the information in on a day-to-day basis from all of our 24 sites,” recalls Tony Dodds, whose health and safety management role at Sage UK now also includes sustainability. 

This situation is further complicated by the variable accuracy of such information. There is nothing to be gained from working with invalid information and, indeed, schemes such as the CRC EES will fine organisations that supply inaccurate information, so it all has to be validated as it enters the system. 

“To have credibility you need to have an auditable approach that is open and transparent,” warns Ant Wilson, Sustainability Director with consultants AECOM. “You need to define what you are measuring and then validate it to standardised metrics for benchmarking, so you are comparing apples with apples,” he suggests. 

Consequently, bringing all of this information together, validating it and converting it to a format that can be analysed and reported on can take weeks or even months using manual methods – by which time the information is out of date and meaningless. 

“We’ve been working with a number of organisations to address this issue and it’s clear that IT provides the answer to making the whole process manageable and meaningful,” notes Steve Dingley of Integrated fm. “Just as importantly, any such software system needs to automate as much of the process as possible, so that the information is as current and accurate as possible. For example, if acceptable criteria for data accuracy are pre-defined within the system, the data can be validated against those criteria as it enters the system, so that only exceptions are referred to a person for manual checking.” 

Carbon footprint 

Whilst sustainability encompasses many of an organisation’s environmental impacts, the carbon footprint aspect of sustainability has a particularly high profile; with the contribution of energy consumption taking poll position. 

For instance, those 30,000 or so organisations that are required to participate fully in the CRC EES need to submit their energy data by 31st September if they are to avoid swingeing fines. So this is a clear priority and it should be relatively straightforward to come up with gross figures for consumption as long as automatic meter reading (AMR) is installed.

However, the CRC EES also requires ongoing improvements in energy performance which, in turn, means understanding how each system (e.g. lighting, heating ventilation) contributes to the overall picture. This will require more extensive sub-metering, again generating high volumes of information to analyse and report on. 

In many organisations, the supply chain is a key factor in managing sustainability and carbon footprint, and the NHS is a prime example of this, as Clive Rex, Deputy Director of Estates and Facilities at Birmingham Primary Care NHS Shared Services Agency observes: “The NHS has determined that if 100% represents the whole carbon footprint, then 60% of it is what we buy, 22% is property related and 18% is transportation. 

“As a result, people are struggling to assess their true carbon footprint and then do something about it. However, they are also finding that when they do drive down their carbon footprint, they also reduce costs and become more efficient. So there are many good reasons for making the effort,” he asserts. 

Simon Burnett concurs: “Although we talk about carbon, it’s important to remember that carbon equates to kilowatt hours, which in turn equates to money. When you invest in energy-efficient technologies they continue to deliver savings way beyond the payback period.” 

Nor is energy the whole picture when it comes to carbon emissions, as transportation and waste also make an important contribution to the overall carbon footprint and can be harder to measure. With waste, for instance, it is important to measure the volumes of recycled materials and how much waste goes to landfill. Very often the information on recycling is housed internally and figures on landfill are held by an external contractor, so that various data sources need to be tapped and, again, the supply chain is important. 

“We found that some of our suppliers were not geared up to provide us with the information we needed but this requirement has now been written into their contracts,” Tony Dodds explained. 

Information, then, is at the heart of a credible sustainability management strategy, on the grounds that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. And as more initiatives come online ignoring sustainability will no longer be an option. It won’t be a quick job, and it will almost certainly require the use of specialist sustainability management systems as part of an overall management implementation plan. So it makes sense to adopt a pro-active approach that positions the organisation to take control of its environmental impact, and to reap the financial and efficiency benefits of doing so.