Have you ever asked yourself if your company is working on the right sustainability aspects, the material sustainability aspects, the ones that are material to your business? Are the projects you run or your current sustainability strategy designed to make the greatest possible impact or improvement? Are you focusing on the right things? Or are you moving with the herd, doing the same thing as everyone else? If you are asking yourself any of these questions, then it’s time to take the pulse of your material sustainability aspects.
Your Sustainability Strategy
Your sustainability strategy should fit your vision, your organization and its environment, your people and your ambitions. Your sustainability strategy should create measurable results within a given timeframe. Your results should focus on reducing the major sustainability impacts as well as creating as many benefits as possible for the given investment.
Before you can develop the best sustainability strategy for your company, you do need to know your current situation. You need to know your sustainability impacts, risks, opportunities, costs, and potential benefits. You need to understand which sustainability aspects that are material. This is true regardless of whether the impacts are financial, operational or legal. What do your stakeholders find important? An assessment of all your parameters should be included in a report to create a comprehensive understanding at the outset.
Approach and Standards
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has published its G4 Reporting Guidelines. GRI recommends working through the following:
- Issue identification
For you to make the first list of issues (aspects), you can use the GRI G4 reporting indicators, ISO 26000, AA1000, or another standard approach. You should also consider adding issues you are aware of that may be relevant to you now or in the future. Monitoring trends in stakeholder opinions may be a worthwhile activity as well. GRI speaks about internal and external impacts. However, a more specific, structured, and systematic approach is to work with the structure of your entire value chain. Your procurement function may be sourcing from several tiers of suppliers, and if so your tiers should be added as segments of the value chain. Once completed, you will have a value chain that at an organizational level mirrors a product life cycle. This value chain is the backbone of the assessment for material sustainability aspects.
Assess your aspects along the value chain
Now you can assess all the sustainability aspects that you identified. Assess them for status (what’s in place, what is not in place), impact, and legal, financial and operational risks and opportunity. You may even wish to add external costs by applying a natural capital accounting approach or add an environmental management accounting approach. There are many ways you can do the assessment; for example, you can do it at a higher-level brainstorming or workshop session or series of sessions. You can also develop a questionnaire and conduct interviews with stakeholders. You may wish to include footprinting with quantitative measures or even product life cycle assessments. The results can be inserted into a matrix and then valued on a scale that you have pre-defined. The depth and length of the assessment can range from high-level to very detailed or from a few working days to several months of work. It’s important to define this before starting. The goal should be to understand your material sustainability aspects-
Evaluate the results of the assessments and pick the material sustainability aspects
Once you have done all the work and inserted your results into your matrix, then you need to bring this into an understanding of your aspects. This should help you create a prioritization. If you have set up a strong valuation scheme and have worked diligently, then you should now be able to see the patterns. Can you see your patterns? Is it possible for you to prioritize your sustainability aspects? Can you see where in your value chain they are most important? Do you have segments of the value chain that are more relevant than others?
You should now be able to evaluate the results at a detailed level, but you should also be able to bring them up to a more aggregated level. These are your material aspects, and now you know where in your value chain they are most relevant. In addition, you should now have an understanding of where you have basic compliance risks that need to be addressed immediately and on an on-going basis.
Beginning Your Sustainability Strategy
When you move into the phase of developing your sustainability strategy, make sure that you bring all these material sustainability aspects in. This will make it easier to build your strategy to fulfill the needs you identified. Even more, build a strategy that goes beyond just filling these gaps. Build it to create great results.
The identified material aspects are the ones you should focus on if you wish to improve your actual sustainability impact. You may be tempted to work on other aspects while working on this new strategy. You can do this, but you may need to clarify your reasons for doing so. Don’t blind yourself and believe you can avoid working on your material sustainability aspects. In the long run, it’s the only thing that counts. Focus on where you can make the greatest impact and can create the best business value!