Measuring sustainability performance

With a shift towards outcome-focused sustainability standards and measurement, ISEAL commissioned 3Keel to review different metrics for monitoring sustainability performance.

Many organisations, companies and governments are responding to the urgency of the global environmental crisis and mounting social inequality by doubling down on their sustainability commitments, policies and activities. The need to show results from these activities has brought with it a discernible shift in emphasis towards reporting sustainability outcomes and impacts: the short- and long-term effects of interventions undertaken to improve sustainability. 

Sustainability standards that adopt credible practices, such as ISEAL members, are one of the few non-regulatory tools that many companies and consumers have to ensure that what they buy and sell has been produced sustainably. Like other actors, these schemes are increasingly focusing on measuring sustainability outcomes. 

However, measuring outcomes across diverse issues, scales and contexts is far from technically straightforward, and it often involves considerable costs. There are a wide range of available performance metrics out there and standards systems need to be able to choose the right ones for the job so they can credibly communicate how their activities impact on the sustainability issues people care about.

ISEAL commissioned 3Keel to research metrics for six critical sustainability issues: greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water use, biodiversity, poverty and forced labour. The focus was on identifying the different types of metric available – from those that require in-field data collection such as species counts, to those based on modelling – and to evaluate the various metrics and data sources in terms of their applicability; the degree to which they are underpinned by evidence and address material impacts; their context-sensitivity; and the practicality of the associated data collection and analysis. 

The report presents an evaluation of the benefits, limitations and trade-offs associated with the use of each metric and provides case studies of user experiences, based on interviews with organisations that have used different metrics in their sustainability reporting.

As well as presenting different metrics, the publicly available report provides insight into the process of considering and understanding the suitability of certain metrics for different purposes. In this way, it offers a resource to support standards systems and other sustainability initiatives to consider metrics which can help them move towards more data-driven outcome claims when reporting sustainability performance. 

The full paper can be found here.