December 10, 2009

Gathering Green Data: Tools and Tips

A couple posts ago, I talked about the ways you can use green data — footprinting information on your products and services up and down the value chain — to create enormous value for your company. As they say, you can't manage what you don't measure. And those with the best information can cut costs, reduce risk, answer customer questions on environmental and social impacts, and help customers reduce their footprints.

But it's a fair question to ask how you might gather this data, especially when budgets remain very tight as the economy gradually recovers. Conducting a full, detailed lifecycle analysis (LCA) is likely to be a time-consuming, resource-draining affair. But luckily there are some shortcuts. Here are a few principles and guidelines for getting smarter about your footprint with the least resources possible:

1. Qualitative analysis is good. In fact, it's better to start with a more strategic view on your products or services than to dive right into detailed numeric analysis. Map out your value chain for a quick view on resource use. Then ask really top level questions that aren't part of the normal day-to-day thinking for most functions in a company, like what comes in the door, and what did it take for suppliers to produce it (are there processes energy or water intensive, for example)? What do we do with our inputs, and how much energy and resources do we use? How much energy and resources do our customers use? What happens to our products after customers are done with them?

You're looking for directionally-correct answers on where the biggest risks and opportunities are...or at the very least, where your data gaps are and how best to fill them.

2. "Back of the envelope" analysis is also okay. Top-line numbers on your own impacts and energy use, from departments like IT, facilities, and distribution, can give you sense of where cuts are most needed or valuable. The data may not be readily available at first, but it certainly isn't capital intensive to find it.

3. Use data that's already out there. A truly detailed LCA is, frankly, a pain. Following a product through every stage of its creation and use is difficult. Luckily, the resources available to help you are multiplying. Industry groups and academics have conducted LCAs on many products. You can extrapolate numbers from similar categories to save time and at least understand where the biggest issues lie. For example, let's say you produce food products, some of which have a big dairy component. The dairy industry has conducted an extensive LCA on a gallon of milk. That study can tell you that the methane produced by livestock may dominate your life-cycle carbon footprint as well.

Another option: public (or quasi-public) databases. See the wonky-sounding Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA) data at Carnegie Mellon, or the data collected by AMEE in the UK. Without going into too much detail, the EIO-LCA captures data on flows of goods in and out of all sectors of the U.S. economy, along with data on energy use in each sector, and allows for big picture estimates on impacts. It's a back-of-the-envelope calculation — on a very big envelope. But if you don't want to dig into databases yourself (and who does), then you'll be glad to know that some smart developers have embedded these data sources into handy software products, so...

4. Seek out tools to help you. There is also a wealth of options for software that can help you get a handle on your impacts, including those throughout your supply chain. There are a few now classic providers of product LCA software, such as Ecobilan's TEAM and GaBi Sofware. But new niche players and products that focus on a company's carbon footprint include offerings from both the usual suspects and new entrants: Carbon Impact (formerly Clear Standards, now part of SAP), Planet Metrics, SAS for Sustainability Management, Computer Associates eco-Software, and two open source solutions Carbon Counted and Earthster (in beta).

I've worked with, or been taken through demos of most of these players — all are offering good tools and expertise. But I'm sure I've missed many others so please send me tools you've found useful (

On top of these carbon modeling tools, companies are offering a range of other green data-tracking services: a sustainability dashboard from Microsoft, Google PowerMeter to measure energy consumption (for homes, but how far off are business-targeted versions), and a cool new product from AngelPoints (working with Saatchi S) that puts the Wal-Mart Personal Sustainability Project program into tracking software so companies can show employees what all their pledges of behavior change add up to.

Beyond these more self-help methods, there is an ever-growing number of consultants that can guide you (including partners of mine such as Domani). You may need to start small with my guidelines above and estimate if resources are too tight, but if you can, working with experts can provide you with a much deeper picture of your company's data-gathering capabilities.

Finally, a larger investment in getting smarter — building that internal capacity to understand footprints on an ongoing basis, and even real-time — will pay back in ways you can barely imagine. Those with the best data win.

This first appeared on Harvard Business online.

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On December 16, 2009 10:16 PM, Andrew Winston said:

As quick follow up to this post...
A couple of people have sent me some interesting tools as follow up.

Here's a description of a tool for property managers from Chris Thorman...

Another reader from Canada told me about a free product that's in French, no less, called Bilan Produit.

Thanks for these additional tools to check out.

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