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[This piece was posted at WorldChanging this weekend, in my biweekly Sustainable Sundays submission, and will go out to the New Bottom Line list and up on the Natural Logic web site in the next day or two.  An experiment in cross-posting instead of just cross linking.]

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States. Originally
instituted to pay tribute to war dead, it has taken on — like most
American holidays — a decidedly secular cast with picnics, sports
events, and bargain shopping.

Coincidentally, I’ve encountered a
timely confluence of thoughts and events regarding measuring and rating
“sustainability” of both products and companies.

1. Product metrics

WorldChanging has run several pieces on this topic, but it’s worth continued discussion.

We’re
hearing increasingly from companies who are concerned about
sustainability product metrics. Most of their efforts to date – some
very sophisticated – have focused on process metrics — the efficiency
by which they turn resources into value, the effectiveness by which
they minimize the harm created while creating value.

Many are now
focusing more on the challenge of product — since in many industries
the life cycle impact of the product will be far greater than the
production impact. They’re looking for the leverage points: how do you
design products that deliver greater value — to both customers and
shareholders — with smaller ecological footprint? What do you measure to both guide your designers and gauge your progress?

One
point of emphasis is “materials of concern” — developing black lists
and grey lists of materials to be eliminated immediately or gradually.
The lists can be set by regulators, customers or socio-ecological principles.
There’s a strategic confluence possible here of course. The CEO of an
innovative clean tech company reports that when they decided not to use
a particular component, due to environmental concerns, despite
uncertain impacts on price, their supply chain came up with better
alternative — safer, cleaner, better performing, less expensive. Win-win-win-win.

(I’ve been railing in recent speeches
at the pervasive, deeply held and utterly wrong-headed assumption,
shared by most business, government AND environmental people — who
disagree with each other on so many things, yet agree about this —
that environmental quality costs money. Examples like this are an
important reminder than innovation is key. (It’s increasingly
hard-headed management, not wooly-headed environmentalism, to attend to
physical reality rather than try to dismiss it as an “externality.”)

Another
point of emphasis is the life cycle impact — the upstream and
downstream impacts. Product performance efficiency can be key here; the
life cycle greenhouse gas impact of a computer product in use during
its lifetime, according to an analysis we’ve conducted, could be five
to ten times the impact of its manufacture.

Some companies use
Life Cycle Analysis tools (like Pre, GABI and others) help companies
through complex evaluation of potentially massive bills of materials,
and tackle the difficult — some would say impossible — task of
comparing the relative merits of competing materials to find the least
bad solution. Others emphasize “life cycle thinking” to drive a less precise but arguably more powerful class based approach to materials of concern.

2. Cradle to Cradle

Still others reject the fine tuning approach with a much more aggressive stance. Michael Braungart of McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry
asserts that “Instead of designing cradle-to-grave products, dumped in
landfills at the end of their ‘life,’ MBDC transforms industry by
creating products for cradle-to-cradle cycles, whose materials are
perpetually circulated in closed loops.” In other words, work from the
goal: guide design by the conditions of satisfaction that define
healthy living systems, rather than the gradual removal of the threats
to health that characterize modern industrial systems. Braungart will
offer a two-day course in Cradle to Cradle design in Silicon Valley next week. (I don’t see design metrics on the agenda; I’ll be there, and plan to raise these issues.)

3. The nature of measure (prelude to a forthcoming essay)

Measuring
all this is a challenge — in part because of the complexity of
industrial systems, in part because of insufficient completeness and
comparability of data resources, but in part because nature itself (our
model for sustainability, right?) doesn’t measure. Nature communicates
and couples, and “measures” only fitness. Fortunely, nature’s
evolutionary, trial and error processes without long term consequences
like industrial society’s innovation of persistent, bioaccumulative
toxic material. (Yes, heavy metals are “natural,” but they are largely
isolated from biological cycles — hence the model for RoHS deeming
them unfit for economic cycles as well.)

Measurement is an
abstraction. At the physical level humans work exactly like any other
living system — with direct coupling, not abstract measure: molecular
keys fitting into molecular locks, nutrients passing through membranes
or being disassembled by the particular, organisms attacked and eaten
by organisms and molecules evolved to fit that function. At the social
level — which is where the human economy lives — we are quite
different, since we deal substantially through symbolic,
representational communication, not direct coupling.

Money is an
abstraction too. This is a problem of another order, and a discussion
for another time — in my forthcoming book. (Though I’m reminded of my
friend Jan Hanhart’s observation, in his wonderful monograph,
“EcoFeedback,” that living systems exhibit the quality of “satiation,”
while economic systems do not. There’s a challenge for sustainable product designs and sustainable company leaders to consider.)

4. Finally, a word on sustainable companies.

There
are dozens of “green product” rating systems in the world — 67 last
time I counted, and no doubt many, many more. But we have heard an
increasing clamor from leaders and purchasing agents of companies and
government agencies with environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP)
policies that they need more: “We’re buying better products that are
more supportive of our value, but what about the companies that provide
those products? How do they rate?”

There are a growing
number of company rating schemes, each tailored to a particular
industry: green hotels, restaurants, marinas and even golf course. But
few address industrial companies, and none that we’ve been able to find
have presented a universal, rigorous set of rating criteria, applicable
and comparable across the board.

The Global Reporting Initiative is comprehensive, but is a reporting system, not a rating system. The LEED
rating system is, well, a rating system, but applies only to the built
environment. What’s needed, it would seem, is something that blends the
best of both. That’s what we’re now building.

“We” in this case is StopWaste.Org, the sponsoring agency, Natural Logic and What’s Working, with the support of the new California Sustainable Business Council.
We’ve been working for more than a year at this daunting challenge,
have begun a stakeholder vetting process, and will discuss the
Sustainable Business Rating System at a World Environment Day even this
week. (See below.)

The core mission of the
Sustainable Business Rating System (SBRS) is to provide a unified,
market-based, broadly applicable, and transparent approach to assessing
a company’s environmentaland social practices and performance, and to
fuel market demand for leadership companies. The system will enable the
comparison of companies consistently regardless of their size, sector,
or geography. The SBRS will serve as both a tool for companies to help
them understand and improve their sustainability performance, as well
as a rating system that will enable interested parties to assess the
full measure of a company’s sustainability performance: their
operations, products and services, and relationships with a range of
stakeholders…. SBRS’s mission is to help grow markets for sustainable
business practices by creating a widely accepted standard for what
constitutes a “sustainable business.” Like LEED did for green
buildings, SBRS will create a level playing field — a unified calculus
for companies that will help them — and their customers, investors,
regulators, suppliers, and others — answer the challenging question:
“How good is ‘good enough’?”

The SBRS, still early-stage, will be a core topic at a U.N. World Environment Day event titled “The Sustainable Business Phenomenon: Leading Initiatives in Redefining Business,” to be held at 2:30 pm [note — time changed] on June 2, at The Metreon, 101 Fourth Street in San Francisco.

Speakers at the event include Rory Bakke of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority/StopWaste.org, the event’s sponsor; yours truly; and Joel Makower. The session will be moderated by Alison Wise, Executive Director of Sea Change.

We’d be delighted if you can join us. To reserve a space, e-mail Alison Wise or call 510-708-2398.