Data-driven decision making plays a leading role in the 21st century private sector. Nevertheless, with the exception of a few, companies are slow to embrace data-led processes for improving anything other than their bottom line. By improving what and how they disclose data to the public, companies can be catalysts of sustainable behavior.
Eighteen thousand years ago, humans recorded data about the world on a bone. Although rudimentary, the Ishango Bone clarifies that humans have registered data to improve the conditions in which they live since the dawn of humanity.
Today, data ‘production’ is happening at a phenomenal rate, an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes (that’s 18 zeros) is produced daily. Although data and its benefits are ever-present, we need to consider how data (that often already exists) could and should be used to help tackle the climate crisis.
Open data plays a role in sustainable consumer choices
The good news is that open data (more on that term later) already plays a role in informing consumers of how sustainable their choices are.
The following examples use open data collected by volunteers to show the impact companies in different industries have on our environment.
- Eticonsum is a consumer comparison tool. With it, you can check the sustainable performance of companies in sectors such as food, fashion, and beauty.
- Apparel 100 shows through interactive maps and infographics who the top 100 apparel companies are and how much (or rather, little) we know about their environmental, social, and governance performance. This analysis revealed the scale of improvement required in transparency regarding their environmental impact.
- Emissions widget is a dynamic chart, developed by Zalando’s Tech4Good Guild, which compares the world’s 10 largest greenhouse gas emitters.
From our experience at WikiRate, there is no shortage of ideas and ambitious social entrepreneurs working to improve consumers’ sustainable choices by providing up-to-date, easy-to-access and accurate information about the environmental impacts of products when and where they choose to buy.
However, the hard part is getting companies to share the required data in a way that makes it comparable and easy to use. Despite a surge in interest in corporate transparency and how it can lead to increased sustainability, companies are still slow in opening up their data to the world.
Company data accessibility and interoperability are key
So what exactly is the problem?
Two of the critical issues are described briefly and in practical terms in a report from one of our data sprints that focused on renewable energy use by companies:
“Some of the key observations from the event focused on the accessibility of data. Many of the companies researched by the attendees did publish some data on their renewable energy usage and commitments but the data was patchy and difficult to get to — mostly hidden in hundred-page sustainability reports.”
Two fundamental problems are identified:
- Standardization of data - although companies are sharing some data it is often patchy. They publish different types and quantities of data regarding their environmental impact, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) to compare their performance.
- Accessibility of data - hidden in hundred-page sustainability reports, poor data presentation makes it challenging to find and extract at scale.
We call these issues standardization and accessibility in open data terms, respectively. Together they can make, or break, interoperability.
Interoperability is an important point, so let’s unpack it. There are two impacts to “hidden” greenhouse gas emissions in a lengthy text document. First, the number is hard to find in the document. Secondly, copying and pasting the number to a data analysis software program is time-consuming. When data is moved in large quantities and quickly (ideally in an automated way), it is said to be interoperable.
Open data is a crucial part of tackling not only the climate crisis, but also, for example, modern slavery and investor transparency. Companies currently not sharing enough data need to be compelled to do so. A forthcoming legislative proposal offers just such an opportunity if lawmakers are willing to seize it.
An opportunity to open up: Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive
The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive proposes that companies report sustainability information and make it easy to compare data from company to company.
Nearly fifty organizations ranging from the Clean Clothes Campaign to Ecosia are calling for the EU to ensure companies observe open data principles in reporting frameworks and requirements to unlock the legislation's full potential.
The organizations are calling for:
- Ensuring data produced is accessible to all stakeholders, rather than select groups, and
- Data is standardized, so collation can be automated, meaning accountability can be scaled across multiple sectors and reporting entities.
These changes would ensure multiple environmental benefits. The data would create a clearer picture of the scale of companies' impacts on the environment for consumers and governments to assess their sustainability. Also, it would benefit academic research and innovation with richer data providing more profound insights.
Humans are driven to use data to solve puzzles. The biggest puzzle facing us all is a life-threatening climate crisis. Companies can provide crucial pieces to the solution by improving what and how they disclose data to the public about their environmental impacts. This small step can be the catalyst to create lasting benefits for people and planet.