A framework allows you to understand the relationship between sustainability's 3Es (environment, equity, and economy). Often the 3Es of sustainability are depicted as three equal, interlocking circles.
There are many frameworks (also known as programs, protocols, standards or guidelines) that a company or small business can adopt to track and report environmental risks, such as climate change, and sustainability initiatives. A company that implements a sustainability program, standard or protocol, can then choose to report its sustainability activities and/or accomplishments to a third-party organization. There exist several well-established organizations to which companies can report their sustainability activities or metrics, referred to as Registries. Registries are organizations that companies can report their sustainability data to, but do not necessarily provide a framework that companies can use. Sustainability frameworks can be used to either measure one key indicator such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy use or building design, referred to as Single Attribute Programs. Sustainability frameworks can also be used to measure multiple environmental indicators such as Water, Waste, Emissions and Energy, or multiple categories such as Planet, People, and Profits, referred to as Multiple Attribute Programs.
Companies can get recognition for its sustainable initiatives by submitting their sustainability data/reports to organizations that publish sustainability index, rankings, ratings and awards. Sustainability Indexes help private and institutional investors to benchmark the performance of their sustainability investments and to invest in companies that set industry-wide best practices. Rankings and Awards generate public awareness of the companies with best sustainability practices.
Eco labels, Seals and certification marks can be used by companies to make credible claims about themselves or their products when selling or advertising. Some single and multiple programs also function as labels or certification marks.
There is no established or widely accepted definition for Sustainability Frameworks or Registries or Programs. This is just one way for a company to think about the sustainability landscape and its various players. In classifying a sustainability framework as a Registry or Program, its primary purpose was considered – does it primarily help a company establish and execute sustainability initiatives or does it primarily provide a mechanism for reporting its sustainability activities and accomplishments? There are overlaps too. Some Programs offer Registry services and some Registries offer technical assistance, but usually one is emphasized more than the other. Then there are some Registries or some Programs-that-are-also- Registries, that are not intended to be Seals, but many participants use it as such, for example ISO 14001, WWF Climate Savers, Newsweek Rankings, etc.
For most programs, companies can choose to have their reporting verified, certified and/or audited by companies authorized to do so, though it is generally not yet a requirement. Two prominent organizations, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Carbon Disclosure Project, ask for some level of independent verification as part of their assessments. There are a number of companies and consultants who will audit and/or certify a report for a fee. According to the KPMG International Survey of Corporate Responsibility Survey, 46% percent of the global top 250 companies currently use assurance as a strategy to verify their CR data, which is a slight increase over the 40% rate of 2008. In India, 80% of the companies use assurance, which is the highest among all countries. US lags most other countries, such as South Korea, UK, Australia, Brazil, China and Germany among others. Continuing this trend, verification and auditing of sustainability reports is likely to become increasingly prevalent, either on a voluntary or mandatory basis. Just as it is unimaginable to think of companies filing unaudited financial reports, so it may become with non-financial and environmental reports.
There are also a number of companies that create and sell software programs and companies that provide services that help companies measure, track and record all the metrics that they measure under the various sustainability programs. Then there are organizations that facilitate and manage Carbon Trading or Carbon Offset Credits or act as registries for GHG emissions reduction projects. This section does not cover organizations in these three areas of Verifiers/Auditors/Certifiers, Software/Service providers for sustainability tracking, Carbon Trading/Offsets.
A common complaint among companies are that there are too many reporting requests from organizations for the purpose of rankings and indexes. There are also too many frameworks and guidelines, making it confusing to choose the “right” approach. Although, the sustainability landscape does have numerous players, the field has started consolidating and rationalizing. This trend will continue. A good article that can help you choose an appropriate framework for your company’s sustainability initiatives is “Your first CSR report - 4 tips for getting it right” by GreenBiz.
SSV researchers are recommending that companies commit to reporting to an established organization like The Climate Registry, Carbon Disclosure Project or Dow Jones Sustainability Index, using a well defined reporting framework such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which can also be used as a sustainability planning tool, or Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability. Adherence to ISO 14000 family of environmental standards, including Life Cycle Assessment can help make measuring and reporting easier. Companies should also consider signing onto the UN Global Compact, endorsed by chief executives. The UN Global Compact recommends the use of the GRI framework and provides practical support, tools and resources for the development, implementation, and disclosure of sustainability policies and practices. In addition to or as an alternate to the UN Global Compact, a company should sign up for one or more specific “Commitment to Action” with the Clinton Global Initiative. The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) convenes leaders to drive action by helping members connect, collaborate, and make effective and measurable Commitments to Action. By the end of 2013, the Integrated Reporting Framework will be released and will likely become the gold standard in sustainability reporting.
There are many tools available to companies to help them with their sustainability initiatives: the Sigma Project has many useful tools including one for GRI, the A- B-C-D method of The Natural Step is a tool for the sustainability planning process. Very recently, WRI released its Sustainability SWOT guide, a planning tool for creating corporate sustainability strategies, which has been “road- tested” already by companies such as Target and Delphi.