Q&A with Mark McElroy, Founder of the Center for Sustainable Organizations

We had the opportunity to ask Mark McElroy, founder and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Organizations, a few questions recently.  We hope you enjoy his insights and responses as much as we did!

What led you to start the Center for Sustainable Organizations?

I wanted to create a development platform for doing applied research in corporate sustainability management (CSM) that would allow me to focus very narrowly on a particular approach to CSM called context-based sustainability.  The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) had been calling for the inclusion of sustainability context in measurement and reporting for years, but had not defined it to a practicable extent (and still hasn’t), and so I really wanted to fill that gap.  Why?  Because it was clear to me that CSM has to be context-based in order to be meaningful, and so researching and developing a solution for how to do it is what I set out to do.  That was in 2004.

You talk a lot about "context based sustainability." In practical, layman terms, what does that mean?

Context-based sustainability, or CBS, is a distinctive approach to sustainability management, much in the same way that, say, one type of the practice of medicine can differ from another.  The school of thought we subscribe to in CBS is one that views the sustainability of human activity as a function of what its impacts are on vital capital resources, like water, the climate system, ecosystem services and a whole range of human and social capital assets (e.g., healthcare systems, schools, government services, transportation, etc.).

This orientation to sustainability management gives rise to the idea that there are standards or thresholds for what an organization’s impacts on vital capital resources must be in order to be sustainable.  To be sustainable, an organization’s use of water resources, for example, should not exceed a certain level.  Why?  Because water resources are always locally limited.  For social sustainability, the logic reverses – impacts on, say, the safety of the workplace should meet certain minimum expectations, not maximum ones.

So when we refer to context, or what GRI calls sustainability context, we are referring to a particular mix of circumstances that give rise to specific standards or thresholds for what an organization’s social and environmental impacts in the world must be in order to be sustainable.  The particular mix we refer to includes (a) who an organization’s stakeholders are, (b) what the organization’s impacts on vital capital resources should be in order to help ensure stakeholder well-being, (c) what the status of the resources involved is, and (d) who else might be responsible for creating or preserving the same resources (i.e., other parties who share the same responsibilities).

Thus, unless such context is taken explicitly into account when attempting to measure, manage or report the sustainability performance of a company, sustainability management cannot be effective.  Why not?  Because in the absence of context, there is no way to tell whether or not an organization’s impacts on vital resources in the world are above, below or at levels required to ensure their sufficiency or continued existence at required levels.  Even dramatically improved levels of eco-efficiency might still be unsustainable – without making thresholds explicit, there is simply no way to tell.

Where do you think most companies fall short in terms of sustainability context?

Most companies don’t address context at all.  Even companies that attempt to follow the GRI guidelines for reporting will have difficulty doing so, because GRI doesn’t provide sufficient guidance.  Sustainability context therefore tends to be defined in ad hoc and inconsistent ways by reporters, if at all, and rarely in a way that results in the identification of thresholds as discussed above.  And without thresholds to serve as standards of performance, there can be no real sustainability measurement and reporting, only reporting of other kinds – like eco-efficiency reporting, reporting on trends in performance, reporting against arbitrary goals, etc.

What we recommend is that companies at least begin to experiment with CBS by first taking steps to understand it, and then testing it on a pilot basis one metric at a time.  The first step (understanding it) is the most important one, since context is such a broad and ambiguous term and yet sustainability context is not.  To help get practitioners through the learning curve, I just completed a new book on the subject with a co-author in Holland in which we explain how to practice CBS from start to finish.

Can you provide an example of a company that you think is doing a good job of sustainability context?

In my new book, there is one company, in particular, we cite as a major case study for CBS: Cabot Creamery Cooperative, or just Cabot.  Cabot has been practicing CBS principles in its sustainability program from the beginning, and has one of most advanced implementations of it I know of.  Here, for example, is an article I recently wrote that explains how we approached the measurement of Cabot’s water use from a context-based perspective.

Beyond water, our implementation of CBS at Cabot has cut across all aspects of the triple bottom line, with all stakeholder categories being identified, and all thresholds for what its impacts on vital capital resources would have to be in order to be sustainable also being identified.  For the past four years, we have been systematically designing context-based metrics there, and measuring and managing impacts against the social and environmental thresholds involved. 

Other companies that have applied CBS include Ben & Jerry’s and their use of our Global Warming Social Footprint, Mars, Incorporated, and the more than 100 companies that have used a context-based greenhouse gas emissions metric developed by Autodesk (known as C-FACT).  I’m sure there are many more, of which my own knowledge is certainly incomplete.  These would include any organization that has ever used the Ecological Footprint Method, which is one of the earliest implementations of CBS I know of.

If there were one practical piece of advice that you would give to companies, what would it be?

Be an early mover in this space and differentiate yourself in the marketplace by doing so.  And get started now.  Learn the approach, and then start to apply it internally, if only on an experimental basis.  The pressure to operationalize CBS in your programs is only going to increase.  GRI will almost certainly take steps to enforce it in the future, and other standards such as those in the capital markets aimed at rating the sustainability performance of publicly-traded companies have already announced their similar intents.

About Mark McElroy

Mark W. McElroy, Ph.D. is an accomplished researcher, consultant, teacher and award-winning author in the area of tools, methods and metrics for measuring, managing and reporting the sustainability performance of organizations.  He is the founder and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Organizations in Thetford Center, VT, and a leading advocate and practitioner of context-based sustainability.  Mark is the lead author of the book, Corporate Sustainability Management (Earthscan, 2012), the world’s first book-length treatment of context-based sustainability.

About the Center for Sustainable Organizations

The Center for Sustainable Organizations (CSO) is a Vermont-based non-profit founded in 2004 to help promote the advance of corporate sustainability management.  Of particular importance to its work has been the development of tools, methods and metrics for how to operationalize context-based sustainability in organizational settings.  To that end, much of CSO’s work is performed with forward-thinking companies interested in evaluating context-based sustainability within their own environments.