Thursday, 24 February 2011

Report evaluates 21 sustainability ratings

Thinktank and consultancy SustainAbility has evaluated 21 sustainability ratings and found significant weaknesses in terms of both methodology and transparency. It was particularly critical of ratings systems that treat their methodology like a "secret sauce", preventing the companies rated from using the data to improve their performance. Ironically some of the companies criticised for this declare their objectives as helping the rated companies to improve their own performance and disclosure. Others were singled out for relying too much on external sources and placing too little emphasis on quality control, running the risk that they recognise the companies that spend the most on promoting their sustainability achievements, rather than those that achieve the most.

As a sustainability professional, I have personal experience of this problem and would endorse SustainAbility's findings. Two specific examples spring to mind. One is the uninvited rating where an organisation relies totally on public domain information and publishes a report which fails to uncover some of your organisation's achievements. Once the unjustifiably low rating is out there it's hard to overturn perception. And secondly, the paid-for rating system which relies on a long obsolelete standard as a key criterion, thereby preventing a new candidate from achieving maximum score even though it comfortably achieves all the other criteria.

With 80% or more of contracts for IT equipment including sustainability in their supplier evaluation (in our experience, anyway), there is increasing emphasis on sustainability ratings as a quick way of benchmarking environmental credentials. But buyers understand the limitations of the various schemes to avoid being misled. The Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility Research Voluntary Quality Standard aims to provide a seal of approval, which looks promising.

The schemes commended by SustainAbility for disclosure of methodology were: CDP, Climate Counts, FTSE4Good, GS Sustain, Global 100 and the Access to Medicine Index. Those showing good validation practices were CSRHub, FTSE4Good and Trucost.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Give to charities before April 2011 and they receive more

Thanks to the ever-helpful Martin Lewis at for spotting that a Gift Aid bonus of 3p per £1 conated ends on 5th April 2011. When the basic rate of tax was cut from 28% to 25% in 2008, the government said that Gift Aid would be maintained at the old rate until April 2011. So if you're a taxpayer making regular donations, it's worth making your payment early so maximise the benefit to your chosen charity.

If you donate to Oxfam, it's also worth noting that during February 2011 Paypal will cover all Oxfam's running costs on all donations that they transact, so 100% of your donation goes directly to support their work. There's a useful guide to charity giving here.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Return to BASE

Sustainability professionals converged on The Brewery this Wednesday for BASE (Business and A Sustainable Environment) 2011. Sub-titled “where business meets sustainability”, the conference featured a plenary programme with high profile speakers, interspersed with a varied selection of interactive workshop sessions.

Keynotes were delivered by Tom Burke CBE, the government’s advisor on sustainability, and Dame Ellen MacArthur, whose Foundation works with education and business to inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a positive future. Inspiration was provided by the CEOs of Cisco, GE, Coca-Cola, BSkyB and notably InterflaceFLOR, whose founder Ray Anderson pioneered floor coverings that are recycled and recyclable, as well as introducing the concept of flooring as a service. In keeping with the sustainable ethos of the event, Ray joined by videoconference from the States and Coca-Cola streamed the proceedings via the internet to its staff around the World.

From inspiration to perspiration, and the struggle to choose between the numerous workshop sessions: such a wide range of highly credible organisations, all offering valuable insights and know-how. To single out just a couple, there was a useful model for developing a business case for sustainability from Forum for the Future and Global Action Plan introducing a helpful tool called EMS Easy to help SMEs plan towards ISO14001 accreditation. BASE also hosted the launch of the ET UK 100 Carbon Rating scheme, which aims to highlight the leaders and laggards in the fight against climate change.

Events like these are invaluable for providing time out from the nitty gritty of daily business to ponder the bigger issues of how to combine commercial success with respect for people and planet. Plenty of food for thought here, but as always it’s putting ideas into action that will make the difference.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Coming first by putting the customer second

I spent an inspiring day yesterday at Happy, learning what makes it such a great place to work. Some of the ideas were familiar, being inspired by Semco, a company I have long admired. But one insight especially stood out for me.

One of the Happy mantras is to put customers second; whereas most comanies claim to put customers first. But Happy's founder Henry Stewart reasons thus: if you hire good people and treat them well, they will demonstrate pride, passion and commitment that will result in exceptional service that delights customers because it is sincere and authentic. Happy's frequent awards for customer service and training are testament to the success of this approach.

Happy is no holiday camp; its staff work hard but they enjoy a democratic and inclusive management structure that invites ideas, accepts failure as an essential element of learning and development and trusts them get on with what they were hired to do, free of too many rules and policies. And it shows.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Cost efficiency = energy efficiency

The Route Map for Sustainable Health has been published laying out some of the measures the NHS needs to take to meet the government's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. The NHS Sustainable Development Unit consulted opinion leaders including Forum for the Future to build intelligence for the report, which was published on 1st February. According to a report by Fiona Harvey in The Guardian, the NHS has emissions similar to Croatia. No wonder, then, that it has been tasked with cutting them by 10% by 2015.

Just a couple of days later, the BBC reports that overspending on basic supplies costs the NHS £500k annually. The National Audit Office examined how English hospitals purchased 66,000 products, uniforms and dessings to office stationery. It concluded that despite buying power of £100bn, the NHS is missing opportunities to leverage its buying power to gain economies of scale - a criticism similar to that levelled at central government in Sir Philip Green's Efficiency Review. It is tasked with finding up to £20bn of annual savings by 2015.

Leading private sector organisations are deriving commercial benefit from the link between efficiency and carbon emissions. When responding to the challenges in these reports, the NHS could do worse than examine best practice there.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Embedding sustainable development across Government

A report published by a parliamentary select committee has warned that Defra is not best placed to ensure that other government departments embed sustainability in their operations and policy making. The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee has called for the Cabinet Office to take more responsibility for driving improvements in sustainability across Government, and has recommended greater support from the Treasury and the Prime Minister.

Next year funding will be withdrawn from the Sustainable Development Commission, the government's watchdog on green issues. The committee raised concerns that the loss of its experience and resources will threaten the government’s green agenda and the sustainability of its policies.

It argues that embedding sustainable development into the policy-making of all departments will help tackle long-term environmental, social and economic issues. In addition, increased resource efficiency can save the government millions towards reducing the budget deficit. But it claims that the government is not set up to capitalise on these potential benefits.

The report recommends creating a new minister for sustainable development, based in the Cabinet Office, whole role would be to hold departments to account when they fail to deliver on green targets. Financial sanctions are also proposed for departments that deliver poor sustainability performance. Without such measures, the committee warns that the government will not be able to keep the commitments made in the Climate Change Act.