Six ways to make your data count

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Not everyone loves spreadsheets and calculations as much as I do. So how can you turn a mountain of sustainability data into engaging, useful information?

I spent the last couple of months checking and analysing more than 1,500 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for international home improvement retailer Kingfisher’s sustainability report; ‘This is personal’. After emerging, blinking, into the sunlight, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. Think of it as a tool for internal change  

There’s no point in reporting for reporting’s sake. Collecting and analysing data is key to knowing what’s going on in your business, checking which activities have impact and which don’t, scaling up successful initiatives – and then communicating that. Data gets really exciting when it reflects a big, or swift, improvement. A good example of this is H&M, which has recently announced that an impressive 78% of its global energy use now comes from renewable sources, compared to just 27% in 2014.

2. Be (or aim to be) a leader 

Even better if you can use your data to show real leadership and not only inspire customers and employees but other businesses too. A trailblazing example comes from Kingfisher, which reports that 96% of timber used in its products is now sustainably sourced. Or take Adidas: since 2012 the sportswear company has saved a staggering 100 million litres of water by using DryDye, a polyester fabric dying process that uses no water, 50% fewer chemicals and 50% less energy than the traditional fabric dying process.

3. Use different data to persuade different audiences 

Different audiences have different interests, and wildly varying attention spans. Good sustainability communications means providing different data, in different formats, to different audiences. So you could sway your board with the financial benefits of your sustainability initiatives – in 2015/16 Kingfisher generated £2.9 billion or 28% of revenue from products that help its customers create more sustainable homes – while your millennial customers might need something a bit easier to digest. Heineken invited vocal artist Kevin ‘Blaxtar’ de Randamie to transform its report into a rap!

 4. Use disappointing data to gain trust 

Sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t come off. Using disappointing data to help you explain why things haven’t gone as well as you’d hoped will win you trust among your stakeholders as well as helping others to learn from your experiences. For example, Kingfisher is open about the difficulties it has had in collecting data on timber used in construction. Another example comes from the transport sector, where a lot of work has been done to improve fleet efficiency but the next step will be to reduce emissions through use of alternative fuels. Unilever talks about some of the difficulties and solutions in finding alternative fuels for its road fleets on its website.

5. Open up, so you can drive wider change 

This point will probably appeal to fellow hard-core data geeks: how can we break through the barriers to opening up sustainability data, so it really starts to drive change? One of the Global Reporting Initiative’s top five recommendations on the future of sustainability data and innovation is the creation of a public global repository of sustainability data to enable transparency, comparison, benchmarking and better decision makingi. Kingfisher has made a sound start in this by publishing a full data appendix. SABMiller is pushing the boundaries of transparency with its online country-by-country reporting tool. It’ll be interesting to see who follows suit.

6. Remember what it’s all for 

It’s easy sometimes when poring over spreadsheets to lose sight of the reason we’re doing this. But it is vital to remember that we only have one planet and we need to act now to create a better world. Extreme weather events are growing ever more frequent, and closer to home – the recent flash flooding in the UK being just one example. Gathering, analysing and presenting data in different formats is critical to helping us make the urgent progress we need.

This blog was originally published on TriplePundit on 27 July 2016.

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