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Counting by itself is meaningless.

Learning that a company sent 30 fewer tons of trash to the landfill this year  doesn’t help you understand how a company is doing in the bigger picture.

But it’s a start.

The next step  is to put those numbers into context.

Like asking,  “Out of How Many?” and “Compared to What?”

In the above example, we might want to know what the total landfill tonnage is, and year-over-year change. How does this year’s reduction compare to how similar and nearby organizations perform?

Does this change represents a beneficial or harmful effect to the local economy and environment? What is the landfill’s capacity and status?

Where did that trash go instead of the landfill, and did that have a greater negative impact? And so on.

Mark MacElroy, founder and executive director at the Center for Sustainable Organizations, is one of the forerunners bringing Sustainability Context into the larger conversation.

A good starting point is his July 2011 Sustainable Brands article, Sustainability Context – What Is It?

From there, a new August 2012 article from Fortune writer Marc Gunther applies these principles to a comparison between how telecomm giants Sprint and AT&T report their sustainability metrics.

Via MarcGunther.com:

Sprint vs. AT&T: Metrics That Matter

It’s great that 3 million cell phones were collected for reuse or recycling, but how many cell phones did AT&T ship? Nice that 50.1 million pounds of scrap was kept out of landfill, but how much scrap, in total, did the company generate? 5,114 alternative-fuel vehicles sounds like a lot, but I’d be even more impressed if AT&T had a total of 10,000. If it has 100,000, or 300,000, I’m a lot less impressed.

Put another way, Gunther says, numbers without their context are “numerators in search of denominators.”

I think that’s a neat way to frame the initial steps of a complex issue.

If this sounds a lot like materiality, you’re right. Knowing what’s important, or material, about a company’s performance is chained to putting data into context for making better decisions.*

(*For more on this connection, McElroy, co-authoring with corporate sustainability architect Bill BaueGRI and Sustainability Context: Explain It Like We’re Four)