The final step in understanding your impact is focused on analyzing the information gathered through the data collection process. The goal is to establish a complete understanding of the organization’s overall impact, as well as a deeper understanding of each individual source of impact measured. There is no prescriptive approach or formula for analyzing data given each organization’s uniqueness, but most organizations make the mistake of rushing through this step. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as part of making sense of the data collected.
Consider Seeking Expertise: naturally, having access to the support of an expert familiar with this kind of analysis can be very helpful. External support may not be necessary throughout the data collection process, but is likely to return the greatest benefit when applied to analysis, the most complex and ill-defined step involved.
Remaining Unbiased: it is critical that analysis be executed without bias toward any particular areas of impact or solutions. There are countless organizations committed to sustainability that tend to focus on aspects like building efficiency, resource consumption, and waste management, without the data that would confirm those are the best strategies for achieving program success. A narrowly focused approach (or hiring an expert that applies one) is a risk that can limit the breadth of opportunities that are identified and diminish the benefit of the set of projects eventually adopted.
Assessing Relative Size: one simple approach to analysis is to examine the relative significance of each source of impact compared to the organization’s total. That is likely more easily applied to analyzing environmental sustainability data because all information is comparable once converted into carbon equivalent emissions. Combining related sources of impact into larger groups can provide a valuable perspective as well. For example, to understand the broader areas of impact that contribute most greatly, an organization may group individual emissions sources into larger categories like waste, electricity, purchasing, transportation, etc. Whether by assessing individual sources of impact or examining major areas, it is common for organizations to find the size of some to be surprisingly large or small.
Examining Overall Sustainability: in addition to focusing on the significance of each individual source of impact included within scope, it is valuable to consider overall sustainability. That may help to determine which pillar deserves focus and which specific areas of impact to address with urgency. For one organization it may become clear that, say, 73% of their environmental impact is generated by suppliers who ship their inventory from overseas. Considering the bigger picture can provide invaluable context and shape how soundly areas of opportunity and specific projects are prioritized.
Looking Beyond the Numbers: during data collection, we described the importance of gathering as much contextual information as possible. Analysis should also be considerate of the context surrounding the data collected so as to more completely understand what the data means.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate what data analysis might look like in practice. Assume a fleet of cars has proven to be the largest contributor to an organization’s carbon footprint. What questions and discussion might arise from this point? Perhaps the vehicles being driven are oversized for the kind of work being performed? Are the vehicles older, less efficient models or are they poorly maintained and functioning inefficiently? Are there other alternatives? For how long is the company committed to using the existing fleet? Does a lease expire soon, for example?
Again, the point is to gain a deep understanding of each source of impact, so our discussion should focus on building a complete perspective.
Collecting More Data if Necessary: it may become clear through this process that additional data will be needed to support deeper analysis. In cases where gathering additional data isn’t possible, the data collection plan for the following year should be adjusted as much as constraints will allow.
The value of having solid data and understanding of the organization’s social and environmental impact is that we can now identify potential projects (and assess those potential projects) based on comprehensive and verifiable data. We can avoid assumptions, replace faulty biases, and, hopefully, eliminate bad decisions based on incomplete data. Ultimately, good data will empower a credible and effectively executed program.