The delights of data collection

For businesses starting on their sustainability journey, there’s usually a driving factor: a commitment to making the company more environmentally and socially responsible; stakeholder and contractual demands; or creating differentiation against competition. They are all good reasons, and as an overarching goal, they make it clear what the intent is.

But where do you go from the broad aim? Simple strategy theory dictates four stages:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get there?
  4. How do we ensure success?

In this first of a series of four Thoughts, we’ll look at the starting point — where are we now?

Build a baseline

Data collection is core to understanding your current position. From here, you’ll be able to build a picture of your baseline, highlight where you may have gaps, and start to formulate a plan for the future. Data can help identify areas for improvement, from cost savings to risk reductions; and as a tangible metric, it’s easier to communicate.

Begin with the basics

It can seem daunting to look at a blank spreadsheet, but it needn’t be. Start with the basics where you have some degree of influence or control. For example, utility readings (electricity, water, gas) are available from utility suppliers, or landlords. If your business generates commercial business waste (including recycling confidential paper), then you are required by law to have waste transfer notes from your waste collection operator that detail the volumes and kinds of waste collected. Look at your systems for people management, procurement, travel booking, shipping, and even expenses.

Other environmental areas to consider are:

  • Business travel (air, rail, taxi, metro, boat)
  • Company vehicle use
  • Manufacturing supplies (raw materials, components)
  • Outbound shipping (items sent by courier or logistics suppliers)
  • Packaging volumes (palettes, boxes, wraps)
  • Paper and printing consumables
  • Kitchen and cleaning supplies (e.g. single-use plastics)

For social elements, you could include:

  • Diversity in your organisation (gender and age, at a minimum)
  • A breakdown of diversity at all role levels
  • Breakdown of full-time, part-time, flexible working roles
  • Number of learning or training hours
  • Number of internal promotions
  • Number of apprenticeships or internships
  • Levels of returning employees after parental leave
  • Number of small businesses in your supply chain
  • Community engagement measures (donations, volunteer hours)

Not all areas will apply to all companies, so include the most relevant ones for your business. Define the scope of what you will collect initially. Some data could be collected at a company level, some at a local level for two to three sites, for example. There is always room to grow the programme once the processes are in place.

Engage with data owners

Communication plays a vital role in data collection. Talking to data owners provides reassurance that no-one is being ‘audited’, and could lead to new types of information you hadn’t considered. Some data reports may already exist or could be adjusted or automated to provide the information you need.

“Take some time to explain to the holders of data what you are doing, and why.”

Building good relationships can help you understand the data you receive, its variations and trends, and develop recommendations for improvements. As you start to explore the data available, you’ll begin to get a feel for the quality of data and where the gaps are. How can these be addressed? Do you need to engage with different people in the business or suppliers? You may face some challenges, so having a degree of executive support will be helpful.

From data to information

It’s worth going back for two to three years when collecting data, to start to identify trends. These might be operational, growth-based, or even occupancy-based. If your information is organised on a quarterly basis, compare the same periods for the previous year. What are the differences? You could normalise energy consumption against the number of units created; employees at the time; or square metres of floorspace involved. Consider the number of learning hours by age or career level. Are there patterns that are appearing? These will help you make sense of the data you have and start to build some context.

Once you’ve undertaken the data collection and analysis, you’ll have a baseline from which to define your next step: ‘Where do we want to be?’ — covered in a forthcoming post.

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