Driven by initiatives like GRI and CDP, many companies are measuring the environmental impacts of their business and reporting on these results and other aspects of their sustainability-related strategies. In the case of the corporate footprint of an organization, companies are looking beyond their own operations and extending the scope of these measurements to include activities beyond their four walls — both upstream and downstream (referred to as Scope 3 for CDP). These efforts, however, are often driven by requirements or stakeholder expectations, leaving much of the potential value of this information untapped.
This year’s reporting season is coming to a close, but don’t put that data up just yet. There’s much more value that can be leveraged from your environmental metrics.
Corporate Footprint: The Key to Unlocking Opportunities
The results of a corporate footprint are most valuable when this data is used to support decisions concerning top priorities such as sustainability strategy, employee engagement, supply chain management, R&D/new product development, reporting and communication.
A corporate footprint informs your stakeholders and drives your action plan. Here’s a suite of examples demonstrating the value that’s just waiting to be untapped from all of that environmental information you’ve been putting together (or should be):
- Evaluate risks and opportunities. As climate change and water scarcity worsen across the globe, attention on companies’ carbon emissions, water use and land use will become increasingly scrutinized. Be aware of the sources of your company’s impacts so that you can start addressing them, saving you from bad press and potential costs. Using their corporate water footprint, an electronics company identified facilities in water-scarce locations, where local populations are sensitive to the company’s water use. In order to avoid potential conflict, the company made a plan to reduce water use at those facilities under particularly high water stress.
- Challenge your current sustainability strategy. Validate top priorities. Still focused on reducing energy, water and waste in your facilities? Keep it up! But don’t stop there. For many companies, the majority of their impact on the environment is found within the supply chain. Use your corporate footprint to identify the most important sources of impact across your entire value chain. If you are conducting a materiality assessment, use your corporate footprint results to challenge stakeholder misconceptions about where impacts lie (hint: most people overestimate the impact of packaging and transportation, and underestimate the impact of materials in their products). Even if it’s outside your operational control, you can still have influence! For example, a yogurt company determined that most of its impact occurs on dairy farms. Using this information, instead of purchasing milk from the commodity market, they decided to establish a direct, long-term sourcing partnership with a local dairy farm, and have already starting working with the farmers to reduce their environmental impact.
- Set meaningful goals. Ones that are more than a drop in the bucket. Use your corporate footprint to identify priority areas of impact, where a small change might make a big difference. Combining your corporate footprint information with the methodology for science-based goal setting can put you on the track for effective impact reduction, finding that sweet spot between carbon-neutral and carbon-too much. For example, companies in the food sector are evaluating how such approaches can help them understand the “safe operating space” they need to work within as they work to feed the planet’s growing population.
- Track your progress. You set goals and you’re working hard to make improvements. Incorporate the impact of those improvements into your next corporate footprint to see how you’re progressing. Know whether the introduction of a green fleet is (or would) make a difference. Compare your corporate footprint to your competitors.
- Add credibility to your communications about sustainability. Putting numbers behind your sustainability story can give you the substantiation you need to affirm a strategy decision or back up your claims of change and improvement. Visualizing those numbers in an informative, understandable way can give you the one-two punch you need to convey your sustainability message. For example, a cell phone manufacturer used its corporate footprint to quantify the impacts of its phone recycling program, and show that the program is addressing the most important area of impact in the company’s value chain.
Don’t let your corporate reporting efforts sit untapped. Reflect on where your footprinting data can inform other parts of your sustainability work and how you can make that happen.
Sarah Mandlebaum is a sustainability consultant and LCA expert based in the Boston branch of Quantis International. She specializes in corporate and product footprints, LCA, CDP reports and risk assessments and has delivered game-changing projects for medium to large food and beverage, pharmaceutical and packaging companies.