Gathering and collecting data to track and report on sustainability and sustainable business performance is becoming a foundational part of corporate communications and disclosure. However, sustainability data collection can also be complex and challenging - particularly for large companies and diverse supply chains. Inside a company, sustainability is cross-departmental, often encompassing a wide range of metrics around a company’s operations, products, supply chain, resource usage, and more.

In a sense, sustainability data is one of the truest reflections of a company’s operational efficiency: how efficiently does the company operate and consume resources? Where do its products and raw materials come from? How optimized are its logistics? How does the organization anticipate and manage climate and biodiversity risk en route to achieving its mission?

In most cases, sustainability data gathering, stakeholder alignment, and decision-making also go hand-in-hand. Being able to make a strong, data-driven business case for sustainability is the best way to win internal executive buy-in for additional integration resources, circular business practices, and strategic prioritization, as well as positive external consideration from investors, analysts, rating agencies, customers, and other stakeholders.

In our work with across dozens of companies and industries, we typically recommend a 6-step approach to sustainability data collection:

1. Connect the dots between your business model, sustainability materiality, and sustainable business case

In order to understand what sustainability data your organization needs to collect, start with a clear sense of its double materiality.

In double materiality, a matter has double materiality if it's material from a sustainability perspective, a financial perspective, or both perspectives.

What this means in practice is prioritize the most important sustainability topics and risks a company has when considering data collection. For example, if an insurance or real estate company's investment portfolio is highly vulnerable to severe weather damage from climate change, that's material from both a financial and sustainability perspective. What climate risk data and sustainability KPIs should the organization track to monitor these risks and communicate them to stakeholders? Where does this data live throughout the organization (or even externally)? How will it be collected?

Your materiality themes and topics should reflect your brand and business model. For example, a retail apparel company might look at sustainable products, sourcing more sustainable materials, circular practices around end-of-life treatment or products, and supply chain sustainability improvements because those are most material to its brand. Look at your identity, values, business model, and value chain: sustainability should build on that foundation, reinforce it, and be a vehicle for positive social and organizational change.

Once you’ve identified your material sustainability themes, topics, and focus areas, design KPIs and start to map your ESG data sources and collection processes to measure baselines and track them over time. Established, third party sustainability reporting standards and ratings frameworks should also be used to inform your sustainability KPI and data collection approach.

ESG Data Collection & Reporting

Organizations like Campbell's, Havas, Nike, Starbucks, TIAA, and Unilever have all found clear correlations between robust sustainability implementation and employee morale, loyalty, and retention, and - in some cases - direct sales growth. But understanding these relationships require strong data foundations, infrastructure, and analytics capabilities.

2. Compare your KPIs to your operational, IT, and sustainability data maturity

Once you've established your company's material sustainability themes, initiatives, and measurable KPIs, work with internal departments, collaborators, and stakeholders to design a system and processes to gather and manage the necessary data. This may require upfront research, fact-finding, internal education, and capacity-building.

Work to understand:

  • What data does the business currently track? What data gaps exist compared to your top sustainability KPIs?
  • Where does sustainability data currently live? Is there an HR system that stores social sustainability data? Is there a facilities or financial system that contains important environmental data?
  • How are different types of sustainability data collected currently? Who is responsible for different aspects of data collection? What processes are followed?
  • When is sustainability data collected? In real-time? Monthly? Quarterly? Annually? It may be different for different departments, regions, and metrics

What's your current state, and what is your future ideal state? What investments, partners, steps, and capabilities will it take to move your organization toward a more efficient, accurate, transparent, and well-governed sustainability data collection system?

For example, its common for sustainability teams to collect and gather environmental data from finance, operations, and/or facilities, social sustainability data from HR, and perhaps climate risk data from the board, finance, legal, risk, and other parts of the organization. Sustainability data collection and management may require onboarding a dedicated sustainability reporting and data management system like Brightest, and coordinating that with IT and procurement. Support from consultants may also be needed. Sustainability data collection is truly an aggregation process, one that requires significant cross-organizational collaboration, communication, and stakeholder engagement.

While individual departments may be responsible for specific sustainability metrics and measurement areas, it's important for CEOs, CFOs, and sustainability leaders to create a unified, company-wide analytics approach. In order for sustainability to really drive business benefits, competitive advantages, and environmental impact, it must be part of the company's top-level strategy, supported by the C-suite, and adopted across the organization.

You can't delegate sustainability to a single department - it's a company-wide, strategic effort

Similarly, rather than trying to boil the ocean and collect data on everything, focus on collecting accurate data and measuring a few core sustainability KPIs first, then build from there.

Sustainability Data Collection Indicators

3. Implement your sustainability data collection plan and process improvements

There are several steps and best practices any company can follow to effectively collect operational sustainability data:

  • Start with the most important and relevant sustainability data: It's important to focus on your company's most important and material sustainability KPIs. This includes metrics like energy usage and Scope 1, 2 & 3 emissions. By focusing on the most relevant data, your company can track and report on its most material metrics, while also establishing data collection structure and know-how that can be expanded to other data in the future
  • Determine the primary sources of your sustainability data: Once you know what you're measuring, outline where and how to get it. Is your data in IT systems? Spreadsheets? PDFs and documents? Third party data sources and benchmarks? All of the above? Determine what processes are needed to safely and accurately collect and centralize all these documents and data (particularly from an audit perspective)
  • Engage and educate your sustainability data stakeholders: Make sure you have buy-in with with your data collectors and collaborators. Do they understand how to collect the data you need? Do they understand how to efficiently provide it to you? Do they understand why this matters and how sustainability ties into the company's overall strategy?
  • Establish processes for collecting and storing sustainability data: To ensure your sustainability data is accurate and auditable, it's important to establish clear processes, schedules, and accountability for collecting, reviewing, and storing it. This should involve designating specific individuals or teams to be responsible for collecting and organizing specific sustainability data, setting up systems for centrally storing the data, establishing data quality checks and data hygeine standards, and establishing worklows and processes for audit and data review
  • Consider your data outputs: Once you've collected and centralized your data, what are they key outputs and usage areas? This typically includes an annual sustainability report, survey responses, setting science-based emissions targets (SBTs), as well as internal business intelligence processes and systems to inform data analysis

In many cases, implementing sustainability data collection improvements will require organizational change management. Be sure to harmonize stakeholder expectations, then build a solid business case for why sustainability data quality is so important for organizational risk management, reporting, and decision-making. Above, organizational alignment, resourcing, and executive support are critical for efficient, effective, long-term sustainability data collection success.

4. Establish secure sustainability data collection systems and workflows

Most sustainability professionals understand the relationship between strategy, operations, data, and reporting. The challenge is creating a consistent, secure process to efficiently get the data you need to measure results, report on success, and reinforce the positive transformation sustainability can have across your business.

A good sustainability data collection system should be able to gather data across a company's operations, supply chain, disclosures, third-party data providers, and publicly available information. The system should also be able to organize and analyze the data in a way that is meaningful and useful for stakeholders, such as investors, customers, regulators, and employees.

Data security and compliance are also critical considerations when it comes to sustainability data collection. If you operate in a region with higher levels of sustainability and environmental regulation like the European Union (EU), are a publicly listed firm, or work in a regulated industry like healthcare or finance, your organization will need a sustainability data management solution that supports capabilities like:

  • GDPR compliance
  • Standards compliance (SOC 2, ISO 27001, HIPAA, etc.)
  • Audit logs and workflows
  • Approval workflows
  • Data archiving, retention, storage, and backups

In addition to other strong compliance and security controls. Make sure to work with your IT business partners to evaluate the security and controls of your sustainability data collection workflows and any software solutions you integrate into your processes. Sustainability data should always be collected and stored on secure, encrypted servers to protect the data from unauthorized access.

The more you simplify, centralize, and streamline your sustainability data collection and management process, the more time you'll have to focus on program work, affirming your outcomes, completing reporting and disclosure in a timely manner, and celebrating success.

5. Engage sustainability data partners

While you know your internal stakeholder and capabilities ecosystem, along with what's best for your business, often your partners (ex: suppliers, third party experts, consultants, independent standards organizations, industry associations, or sustainability technology providers like Brightest) can provide helpful best practices when it comes to collecting sustainability data. Be honest in your self-assessment of sustainability data collection and management maturity, and bring in external help to address key gaps and additional resource needs.

Sustainability Data Collection Technology & Workflows

Brightest helps collect and centralize sustainability data across all of a company's systems, teams, and data sources

This is one of the main reasons we invest so much in supporting cross-organizational data collaboration inside our unified sustainability platform. Whether it's coordinating data collection across multiple offices and facilities, or working with suppliers on sustainable sourcing, the theme's always the same: it's always some combination of hard, slow, or an incomplete picture doing it alone or in silos. Positive internal and external relationships - supported by quality data - promote sustainability data collection excellence.

Be sure to listen, collaborate, and engage your partners in the measurement conversation.

6. Your next steps with sustainability data collection

Effectively understanding and communicating sustainability performance to stakeholders is one of the most important responsibilities of any sustainability professional. The effectiveness of those efforts will only be as strong and reliable as the quality of your sustainability data collection. Quality data underpins overall sustainability performance and disclosure.

Wherever you are in your sustainability data maturity roadmap, sustainability data collection is a continuous improvement effort, and we wish you all the best as you continue making progress on better and better data capabilities and workflows. If we can be helpful at all (at any step in your process), please get in touch. A central part of our mission here at Brightest is empowering more efficient, transparent, and well-governed sustainability data.