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What is the best way to measure sustainability? 

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Communicating sustainability has become increasingly important for food companies, and third-party assessment services have multiplied. Which are the most robust and effective, and how can companies choose the best option for their business?

A growing number of consumers chooses brands with their social and environmental impacts in mind, and 91% of global consumers expect businesses to address these issues, according to a 2015 study. A Unilever survey of 20,000 consumers across five countries (UK, Brazil, Turkey, US and India) found that one-third chose brands based on social and environmental factors, and the European Commission has also found that protection of the environment is personally important to 94% of Europeans. 

Reliable measurability has been a major part of quashing accusations of greenwashing, and services include life cycle assessments, carbon footprint measurement, B-Corp certification, and many more. For food and beverage companies, a range of additional certifications could indicate organic production or fair trade, among others. 

Providing trust and credibility 

Chief marketing officer of the Green Business Bureau, Bill Zujewski, said: “Third party sustainability certifications provide credibility. Certifications from respected third parties reinforce and amplify a company’s sustainability efforts and are clearly viewed as the most trustworthy source of green credibility for business…If you are a product-centric business, then a certified green product seal may be the most advantageous.” 

Some of the most popular and credible certifications include organic labels, Fair Trade certification or the Rainforest Alliance Network seal. Alternatively – or in addition – companies can certify the sustainability of their entire business, including operations. Popular green business certifications include: LEED, which covers buildings; ISO, which focuses on manufacturing; Green Business Bureau, which can be particularly useful for small businesses as it provides an online eco-assessment procedure; and B-Corp, which covers corporate governance, as well as environmental and social responsibility. 

Toward higher goals – and higher sales 

According to Zujewski, the benefits of sustainability certifications go well beyond a rating or certificate of proof. 

“The process itself becomes a journey to create a green corporate culture and a more sustainable, socially responsible business,” he said. “A sustainability certification programme engages employees and drives company-wide commitment and purpose.” 

Some companies may also consider that sustainability certifications could help boost sales in certain markets, but their effect on sales is difficult to quantify. Green Business Bureau reports that some companies have increased sales by 10% to 50%, but Zujewski highlights the less tangible benefits of sustainability that could have a very real impact on turnover, including increased transparency and trust, competitive differentiation, and higher staff morale. 

“Companies that are greener tend to be perceived as more ethical, reliable and responsible,” he said. “Letting people know your business cares about the environment and society will associate ‘good’ with your brand and improve your overall brand identity. Sustainable businesses are also perceived as being more honest, with higher quality products and services.” 

He added, “Being known as a green business will attract new customers, specifically consumers and companies who seek out sustainable businesses, products and services.” 

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How to measure 

When it comes to the most effective ways to measure sustainability, he suggests that companies with a physical product should carry out a Life Cycle Assessment, but that all companies should measure how sustainable their business operations are. 

“There are two ways to do this, either calculate your carbon footprint, or complete an EcoScorecard,” he said. “In most cases, doing both gives the most complete picture.” 
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