Session 2: Measuring Your Social Footprint
Mark McElroy, Executive Director, Chief Sustainability Officer, The Center for Sustainable Innovation 

Every once in a while I feel like I’m back in school. This session was thick with black-on-white arial-font powerpoint slides, complex theories and TLA’s* (*Three Letter Acronyms), unfortunately scheduled during my usual afternoon digestive nap-time. Before long, however, the mostly-atrophied academic curiousity part of my brain woke up.

But because this session was so information-intensive, I won’t try to describe the entire thesis here. Rather, I’ll highlight the bits and pieces that resonated with me.

Sustainable Measurement

Mr. McElroy begins by introducing and describing measurement standards, differentiating between Principle-, Performance- and Process-based systems, and taking a strip off the Global Reporting Initiative for offering measurement without standards. He then underlines the importance of context in measuring ecological impact. (For example, Dupont reported that their water usage declined over three years. This cannot be described as more or less sustainable without knowing the context – ie, what the rate of water usage is in that area – increasing or decreasing)

All of this moves towards a measurement system for what is sustainable. Which is all about performance vs. standards of performance. Simply, you cannot measure sustainability performance without setting standards. Unfortunately, most of what passes for mainstream reporting these days is context-free.

In getting to the social performance measurement, Mr. McElroy began by describing ecological performance, in terms of Natural Capital – the valuable goods and services provided by the planet’s ecosystems (wetlands water purification services, forest carbon absorption services etc) Thus, the Ecological Footprint Method measures the impact of human activity on beneficial flows (or carrying capacity) of this Natural Capital.

Mr. McElroy then introduces the concept of Anthro Capital. This is a measurement of our human resource based on three pillars:
Human Capital (individual knowledge, skills)
Social Capital (Shared Knowledge and cooperative networks – people achieving common goals
Constructed Capital (The material world that humans produce)

A measurement of Ecological Sustainability can then be expressed as an equation:


S= Sustainability Performance
A= Net Actual impacts on the carrying capacities of Vital Capitals resulting from organizational operations (Impacts of what you are doing today)
N= Net Normative impacts on the carrying capacities of Vital Capitals resulting from organizational operations (How much impacts can be absorbed by the ecosphere)

So (and this is my example here) if you are cutting 1000 trees a year, and the forest can only grow 500 trees a year, then your sustainability performance score would be 1000/500, or 2.

Any score of 1 or lower is then sustainable.

Sustainability is not a property of products or companies, because it is only the activities of an organization that can be sustainable (or not) An inanimate object cannot be held accountable to a standard of performance.

You cannot say a glass is sustainable. You must consider the USE of the glass, or the PRODUCTION of the glass, and the disposal of the glass.

Likewise, carbon footprints (by themselves) are not measures of sustainability. There are no ‘denominators’ or standards of performance. Unless you measure them relative to some economic unit (Carbon Intensity) or relative to ecological threshold, (ability of the planet to absorb) or social threshold. (standards set by people) Simply reporting on trends or efficiency fails to respond to the underlying question.

“When there are competing points of view on standards, let them compete (what’s the alternative – no context?) If we’re waiting for certainty, or consensus… we’ll never make progress.”

It’s always good to remember that all the marketing hoopla we produce still has to impact our world and its people. Thanks, Mark. 

One in a series of articles on Lorne’s Sustainable Journey to the Sustainable Brands 08 Conference in Monterey CA. Click here for the full list of sessions, or here for the ‘Fear & Loathing’ road trip journals.

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