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Can Data Save Our Planet?

Can data save our planet? That's a big question. And, in my opinion, the answer depends on one thing: operationalizing sustainability.

Sustainability is an amorphic concept for many communities. There is a wide range of definitions and approaches. Many communities have the best intentions but struggle to identify exactly what they want to accomplish, how to track progress, and where to even begin.

There is very little insight today into the impact of an operational decision in terms of sustainability. But that's about to change. The language in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes several references to funding being predicated on mitigating environmental impacts. And the recent ruling by the SEC puts an exclamation point on the fact that data will be driving the climate conversation going forward.

So, how do we go about capturing that sustainability data? And perhaps more importantly, what do we do with it when we have it?

I’ll be the first to say this will be an imperfect process. It should be. There will be discrepancies and disagreements, questions and quelling, but through this imperfect process, we will start to answer the question of how our operational decisions impact our environment.

We are already doing this in our finance departments. We closely monitor and control financial impacts on the organization. But we utterly ignore the concept of “natural capital” because balancing that with financial and social good is inconvenient to straightforward decision-making. To date, there has been very little easily-available information to help us calculate that impact.

As we continue to reckon with and recognize the role that infrastructure plays in creating an equitable environment, we need to recognize we are woefully behind in creating metrics, flawed as they might be, to measure our impacts on the natural environment. Good or bad. Time is running out—but it is not too late.

It's time to get started

What is the positive impact of one tree being planted? How many gallons of fuel were saved by making one simple change to a routine process? Energy consumption reduced by investing in green infrastructure? And on and on.

These are the questions we need to be asking and answering. And there are actionable ways that you and your team can start measuring this data today.

For the sustainability professionals in your organization, operational impact information is hard to get and comes from a variety of systems, requiring a coordinated and concerted effort to gather basic data. And once that data is gathered, it's nearly impossible to glean answers from it or use it to guide future decision-making.

If we are going to change the way we protect our planet, we have to bring data into daylight. We have to know the impacts of our choices. We have to operationalize sustainability. And we have to start doing it today. 

If you could do one thing today to start measuring and achieving your organization's sustainability goals, what would it be? If you need ideas, check out the Operational Sustainability Playbook below.

PS. If you have ideas that you want others to hear, be sure to use the link in the playbook and share them. I, for one, can't wait to hear what you're working on!


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