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A Debate: What Should We Call Sophisticated Sustainability Measurement Tools?

One of the ongoing debates in our office is based on the frequent and common use of the word “tool” in the sustainability metrics field. What is a program that delivers sustainability measurement and results? Is it a tool? An application? A solution? A product? The debate rages without any clear answer and while we’ve tentatively settled on using all of them in different contexts, it’s a very unsatisfying resolution.

Framing the debate  

And here’s the main reason. We often refer to sophisticated decision-support “tools” for businesses as a “tool in the toolbox.” But there are lots of other tools out there. We’ve seen what people are calling “tools” that are linked interactive PDFs or Excel spreadsheets, or simply a white paper with a cool matrix. Sure, those are tools too, but what real-life sustainability and environmental measurement tools are delivering is so much more than that. So maybe “tool” isn’t the right term after all.

We see that many tool developers face the same confusing challenges. Are we delivering software? Or an “application” or a “product?” And the recent introduction of “cloud-based” products doesn’t really help because the cloud delivers products that cannot be packaged and shipped. They are not traditional software that can be bought at Best Buy or downloaded and licensed. And while they are technically applications, they can’t be bought in the iTunes store and downloaded to your iPad. So the last option is solution: and yes, of course, those in our field provide lots of great solutions. But solution usually implies a consulting engagement where all sorts of customized deliverables are designed to meet the very specific problem of the moment. None of these describes our approach, as well as some of our peers. And yet they all do.

Tools for the sustainability toolbox

We use the “tool in the toolbox” analogy because we know that sustainability is complicated and there are so many different facets of it that no one “tool” can provide all the answers. Like a real toolbox that holds a screwdriver, a wrench, a hacksaw, and a power drill, different tools have different uses and different levels of sophistication. It’s important to asses each tool at its individual value and use. A $2 sheet of sandpaper is useful because it’s designed for a specific function (like interactive PDFs or a cool matrix). A $150 power sander has a completely different value because it’s designed for a much different type of job and commitment from the user (like user-driven online tools). You also have the option of hiring a carpenter to do the sanding for you (like results delivered by consultants). Given the task you have at hand, you have a decision to make: the $2 sheet of sandpaper versus the $150 power sander versus the $500 carpenter for a day. In this scenario, I would call the $2 sheet of sandpaper and the power sander “tools” and the carpenter a “solution.” And just like in this analogy, there are sustainability measurement options that fit different objectives and budgets. But so many of these options are currently labeled as “tools” and we need better terminology to differentiate the sandpaper from the power sander from the carpenter.

Let’s hear from you

If you’re inspired, I welcome your comments here with other terms that should be considered in our field. But don’t confuse the usefulness of sophisticated sustainability metrics tools with plain sandpaper just because they’re both called tools. Sophisticated sustainability tools can be so much more than that.

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting, lifecycle assessment and product carbon footprinting. Visit: www.carbonostics.com.

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3 thoughts on “A Debate: What Should We Call Sophisticated Sustainability Measurement Tools?

  1. Interesting debate. Personally, it doesn’t really matter what you call it – I prefer to fixate on the outcome, not the language. The bottom line is: what is the path to improving impact and what is the best way to measure success? Zeroing in on whether it is a tool, application or solution is not a ‘must have’ to forward the movement. I place this under the ‘semantics’ category. I hope this is a helpful perspective.

  2. Thanks for bringing up this important framing issue. In my view, the word “tool” used to describe sophisticated information systems for environmental sustainability is problematic for several reasons (as I’ve described on my blog here: http://greeningit.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/systems-vs-tools-a-framing-problem-for-digital-age-environmental-sustainability/). First, unlike a hammer, digital systems are constantly changing and evolving at an ever increasing rate, creating investment and user complexity. Second, a hammer is used by a person who doesn’t affect the nature of the hammer, unlike an information system which has a two-way impact effect. Third, thinking of an IS as a tool like a hammer makes it seem simple and straightforward, when most sustainability information systems are not simple at all. For example, unanticipated outcomes may occur such as hackers planting viruses on machines which then cause cascading failures beyond the IS in question. Lastly, using the word tool may lead to “silver bullet syndrome,” meaning that managers may believe the hammer may solve all the nail problems, when in fact, sophisticated IS often require (costly) changes to business processes and work practices to gain their full value.

    For these (and other) reasons, I don’t think the word tool used in this context makes sense. At the same time, I understand the attraction of simple terms like “tool” to describe complex things like “energy management system.”

  3. It’s all about baseline and starting from there. Without a measured baseline, no starting point to compare improvements or digressions. The tool for measurement can be anything, accuracy is secondary when the same tool is used for future measurements.
    But above all, measurement is the starting point. Great article.

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