In Sustainability, data isn’t everything…
Data, data, bloody data.
I’ve spent the first part of this morning proof-reading something I’ve written on life cycle assessment (LCA) and the word I seem to have typed most throughout is data. One of my projects is currently being held up due to the unavailability of data. One of my other clients mentioned recently that his team spends 5 months of the year compiling data for the various accreditations and reporting structures they comply with.
Don’t talk to me about data!
Here’s the rub. Gathering data does nothing to improve your Sustainability performance; only how you respond to it. In fact many practitioners and/or their organisations fall into the trap of ‘paralysis by analysis’ – constantly reanalysing the same subject over and over again in pursuit of unachievable perfection. Unachievable because, as many LCA practitioners will tell you, the results of eco-analyses are often predicated on the unpredictable e.g. how a product will actually be used in practice.
While data gathering is unavoidable, there are many ways you can take effective action without more than the most cursory analysis beforehand:
- The bleeding obvious: if your company manufactures plastic packaging, then it is obvious that plastic waste, whether from your operations or at the end of life, must be one of your priorities. Likewise, phasing out persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) substances from your operations is a no-brainer – just do it!
- Crib from others: if you are a car manufacturer and a rival has published a life cycle assessment, then you can use that to identify eco-hotspots in your own value chain. Likewise, Governments commission analyses after analyses and these can guide your decisions.
- Qualitative thinking: many of the most important Sustainability principles are qualitative. For example, the circular economy is the circular economy – you recycle everything, no need to gather much data. Even a apparently quantitative goal such as ‘zero carbon’ often doesn’t require much more analysis than a look at your fuel and electricity bills before you start working on solutions.
- Stakeholder priorities: some things you need to do whether they are significant or not because of public perception. Single use coffee cups in the canteen will rarely bother the ecological footprint of a steelmaking plant, but it is important to be seen to be taking action due to the heightened awareness amongst employees and other stakeholders.
- Learn by doing: try stuff on a small scale and see what works, before scaling up.
Obviously in these examples you will need to collect some relevant data as you go along, but the momentum can start without compiling spreadsheet after spreadsheet of data, much of which will turn out to be irrelevant to what you are trying to do. In other words, the analysis becomes part of the action rather than a resource draining stumbling block on the start line.