What Gets Measured Gets Done: Defining Best Practices In Sustainability Reporting

July 01, 2015

Measuring tape

SOM Professors and MBA students address sustainability reporting and the use of data to create a renewable future.

Article first appeared in Spring 2015 SOM Management Magazine

Sustainability means different things to different companies—even within the same industry. Companies typically define actions and practices as sustainable when they create both societal and economic value. However, each company is endowed with unique resources and capabilities that determine whether any given action creates economic value. In other words, what may be sustainable for one company may not necessarily be sustainable for another company.

If the criteria for defining sustainability differs between companies, how can the public identify best practices, measure corporate actions, and use this data to create a more sustainable and renewable future?

Four Simmons College community members addressed this question at the February 2015 Net Impact Career Summit held at Boston University and co-organized by Simmons College. In the “Challenges with Measuring Data” panel, Dr. Indra Guertler, Professor of Practice at Simmons School of Management (SOM), led a discussion with Dr. Ryan Raffety, Assistant Professor, SOM; Ellen Shea, (MBA ’14), analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund; and Kathleen Luvisi, (MBA ’01), senior engineer at Alternative Resources, Inc., to explore the challenges with data in sustainability research and practice.

Reliable data can come from legislated regulatory requirements, but what gets measured and how, varies between industries and products. Data produced by third parties using indices to measure a company’s overall “sustainability” can mask egregious performance in certain areas through exemplary performance in others. Voluntary data reporting, while welcomed, can be unreliable.

Another challenge with sustainability measurement is identifying accurate measures that tie social performance to economic performance. While the value of making sustainable choices is not always immediately clear to business and consumers, empirical studies show a strong correlation between responsible business practices and excellent financial performance. Guertler proposes that businesses can account for more value by adopting value-selling and quantifying for both customers and business partners how sustainable solutions are good for both end-users and the planet. 

Guertler stresses that business leaders today need to be part of the solution by helping to establish worldwide data standards and setting an example with accurate voluntary reporting.

The takeaway from this panel strongly aligns with the lessons taught in the School of Management. As Noelle San Jose, current President of the Simmons Net Impact chapter explains, “At Simmons, one thing students are taught is ‘what gets measured gets done.’ As principled leaders, we need to have the data to get initiatives accomplished. This panel demonstrated that we not only need to measure, we need to critically evaluate the information we are given.” 

Audrey Markarian

Audrey Markarian '15SM is a Simmons School of Management MBA Candidate. She is pursuing a double concentration in marketing and entrepreneurship. She has spent the better part of the last decade working in non-profits and has been actively involved in increasing employee engagement and community outreach.