How Bad Data Hampers Sustainable Best Practices

In the world of sustainable best practices, good intentions are no longer good enough. Sustainable projects with funding must be monitored and held accountable to meet compliance and business needs. Problem is, most sustainable projects work from shoddy data sources, or in many cases, have no data to work from at all.


A very recent and unfortunate example of bad data hampering sustainability projects involves the state of New Jersey’s environmental officials shutting down the state’s river herring fishery. Are the herring fisherman of New Jersey abusing the river or overfishing? Hardly. According to the Associated Press, the decision was made in part because the state doesn’t have the necessary personnel or funding to collect the data needed to prove the fishery is sustainable. The restriction also bars recreational anglers from targeting the herring, and if they happen to catch one, they must throw it back immediately. Officials say New Jersey was one of several states that didn’t meet the deadline.

Brandon Muffley, who leads the state’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries, said, “We don’t have the data. We don’t know what river herring’s abundance is or what our fisheries are taking. We haven’t had the resources to do the work.”

According to a new Ernst & Young/GreenBiz Group survey discussed on Triplepundit.com, sustainability reporting is growing, but the tools are “suboptimal.” Here’s more from Triplepundit:

A clear majority - 75 percent – of those who do produce sustainability reports indicated that they follow the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting framework. That’s the good news. The bad news – especially if you want rigor in your data – is that the tools used to capture data are “suboptimal,” said co-presentor Chris Walker, associate director of climate change and sustainability services with Ernst & Young.

Survey respondents cited Excel spreadsheets as the most common method for collecting data. The second and third most common means of data collection were via e-mail and telephone, respectively.

Data collection from e-mail and telephone? Seriously?

Inadequate data gathering methods can lead to the “irrelevant data, unsubstantiated claims, gaps in data and inaccurate figures,” a Leeds University team reported in its examination of more than 4,000 corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports and company surveys.

But even when data gathering and analysis is working well, the results may not be that pretty. Such is the case with automaker Chrysler. The Sustainable Business Forum has a nice breakdown of  the company’s first comprehensive sustainability report and offers a very candid view of how Chrysler has emerged a much different company based on all of the instability in the American car business over the past few years.

The report states that Chrysler’s 2010-2014 Business Plan was developed after months of “intense dialogue, discovery and gut-wrenching evaluations of where we fit in the automotive landscape.” And the company is also taking its materiality analysis to heart. The data here proved that fuel economy and vehicle emissions should be the most important material issues the company will face in its future. The report is worth checking out, as it offers a lot of great insight into a company that is looking to re-invent itself and become a major sustainability player.

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