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Why Strong Data Is Key to Any Sustainability Effort

Image Credit: Edie

It’s increasingly clear that becoming more sustainable is a business imperative. And it’s not enough to “go green”; companies and industries need to factor in the social and economic impacts of their decisions locally and across their supply chains.

Indeed, a recent Unilever survey found that one-third of consumers are making purchase decisions based on a company’s environmental and social impact. Need more proof? It’s not just consumers asking: Shareholders and financial markets are asking questions about a wide range of non-financial business drivers (e.g., human rights, labor rights, anti-corruption) and looking for this information to be included in annual reports. Moreover, there is a growing list of exchanges that have adopted environmental, social and governance disclosure rules.

Companies — indeed, industries, too — must not only embrace the idea of sustainability, but also walk the walk.

A number of individual vinyl manufacturers across product sectors have rolled out sustainability initiatives, but these efforts have been piecemeal. As a result, the industry came together last summer under the rubric of the Vinyl Business and Sustainability Council (VBSC) to commit to an industry-wide sustainability initiative that encompasses nine separate market segments.

Your sustainability journey starts with data

Objective, factual, evidence-based data is always important.

When it comes to your company, you think you know what people care about. But do you, really? And do you know what they’re saying about you?

For example, you might have innovated on the factory floor to mitigate chemical emissions or invested in more sustainable packaging. Perhaps you have a carpooling initiative or a telework policy to reduce your company’s transportation footprint. You’ve written the story on your blog, put out a press release, and maybe even gotten some media placements about your efforts. But are your customers paying attention? More importantly, do they even care?

You need to know what your stakeholders — customers, vendors, activists, nongovernmental organizations, the general public — really think about your brand.

You need to do a materiality assessment.

The importance of mapping hotspots

A materiality study is a process for obtaining an overall snapshot of how your company or industry is doing in the environmental, social and economic spheres — and where it could do better. The aim of such a study is to identify the “hotspots” — changes (e.g., emissions, wastewater use) you can put in place quickly to have the biggest immediate payback.

Step 1 in a materiality assessment is to identify the major categories of importance to your company. Think of it as a spreadsheet with columns for the major steps in your supply chain and rows broken down by category. Step 2 is research. This research should start with a literature review to understand what has been published or said about you by your many stakeholders. As you do this, you can start to count the number of times that people focused on “emissions to air,” for example, versus “water use.” Following the literature review, it’s important to interview key internal and external stakeholders to get fresh insights into how different audiences perceive your business and to test your hotspot assumptions against the literature review and what others tell you does and does not matter to them.

Your materiality assessment will give you the data your company needs to make informed decisions about how to prioritize your sustainability efforts. Without it, how can you move forward?

Led by the VBSC, the vinyl industry is currently undertaking our first materiality study. Because it’s an industry-wide initiative rather than a company-specific one, our materiality assessment will give us both a broad snapshot and detailed insights across market segments from flooring to automotive. We need this data to understand the nuances of how people not only view “vinyl” but also perceive how we’re doing in each of the diverse vinyl product areas.

The VBSC is hoping to have preliminary results this fall, and we’re counting on this materiality assessment to give us a clearer picture of our hotspots and where to focus next. Once we do, we’ll create a clear sustainability strategy and communicate to all our stakeholders on our progress.

Cristian Barcan leads the Vinyl Institute’s overall campaign to advance the vinyl industry’s sustainability commitment and progress, and builds positive relationships with key influencers. Cristian has over two decades experience in the chemical industry, working for BASF and UL in… [Read more about Cristian Barcan]

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