There are numerous ways that cities can monitor their sustainability progress. One example is ISO 37120-2014 Sustainable development of communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life. As the first ISO standard for city indicators, it covers the three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. The standard provides 100 indicators that include 17 areas, which are economy, education, energy, environment, finance, fire and emergency, governance, health, recreation, safety, shelter, solid waste, telecommunications, transportation, urban planning, wastewater, and water and sanitation. Cities of any size or location can choose which indicators to report.
What is in it for cities?
By using this set of standardized metrics, cities will see numerous benefits. Benchmarking performance and setting targets are a fundamental place to start. If you want to lower greenhouse gas emissions, you need to know what your emissions are. In addition, better management of city resources can be achieved with sustainability metrics. For example, keeping track of wastewater management initiatives can enable cities to manage more efficiently and effectively both financial and environmental resources. Urban planning can be facilitated by use of these indicators. These metrics can provide information about transportation, recreation, safety, and health to inform a city’s decisions about housing policies. In addition, comparisons with other reporting cities are possible on the World Council on City Data (WCCD) website.
An added benefit is the ability to obtain WCCD Certification. Certification levels depend on the number of indicators reported.
If you are involved with a city, this is worth looking into.
As a member of the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability, I will be working on applying this standard to the City of Bloomington, Indiana in the next several months. Stay tuned as I report about the process.
1.1 By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day
1.2 By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions
1.3 Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the
1.4 By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance
1.5 By 2030, build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters
1.a Ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions
1.b Create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support
accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions
These targets are ambitious, and businesses have an important role to play in achieving them! Many businesses are already doing so, and there are many examples.
So your next questions are why and how would my business get involved?
…we must invest in people – in education, skills development, health care. This will help equip people for decent jobs and incomes. It will boost purchasing power. The virtuous cycle between human capital, jobs and income is central to building healthy local markets and a healthy world economy. It is good for people and good for business.
Evaluating your entire value chain (i.e., the full lifecycle of your products and services) can help identify areas that can reduce your negative impacts and improve your business simultaneously. Your business decisions about things such as employee wages, working conditions, product pricing, or raw material sources have impacts on people in poverty.
You can measure your direct impacts on the local economy. What proportion of your spending is on local suppliers at significant locations of operations? To illustrate how UPS affects the local economy, here is an excerpt from its 2015 sustainability report.
In 2015, UPS spent approximately US$943 million in procurement with small and diverse businesses in the United States.
A third-party study on the economic impact of our spending with small businesses, as well as minority-, women-, veteran-owned, and other diverse suppliers in 2015, found that UPS contributed more than US$2.3 billion to the U.S. economy (U.S. GDP) and sustained more than 14,200 jobs in the supply chain and local communities. A breakdown of that US$2.3 billion includes US$941 million in direct economic benefit from suppliers’ operations and activities; US$639 million in indirect impact from the economic benefit and employment supported in the suppliers’ respective supply chains from procuring goods and services; and US$743 million in community impact from the wider economic benefits that arise when the suppliers’ employees and those in their supply chains spend their earnings. Overall, for every million dollars that UPS spends with small and diverse suppliers, 15 jobs are created with those companies in their local communities.
If supply chains are a significant part of your business, evaluating them not only on economic criteria but also on social criteria can be an effective risk management tool. Do you have policies to screen for suppliers that adhere to international and your company-specific human rights and labor standards? You can have a positive influence by demanding adherence to these standards. This is a proactive approach that is much less costly than a reactive one.
How you are investing in the economic well being of your employees has a direct economic impact on poverty alleviation. Lower incomes reduce access to adequate housing, quality education, social networks, and social status among others. Evaluating the wages paid along with how they compare to the minimum wages in the local area puts a focus on a company’s economic impact on workers. For example, Abengoa, a Spanish company that applies technological solutions in the energy and environment sectors, disclosed in its 2015 sustainability report the percentage paid to its workers above the local minimum wage.
How does your company change the productivity of organizations, sectors, or the whole economy?
Is your company involved in economic development in areas of high poverty?
Does your company’s economic impact in a particular location improve or deteriorate social or environmental conditions?
What is the availability of your products and services for those on low incomes?
What should you do with your answers to these questions and your evaluation of your business? You can incorporate these issues into your business strategy. You can set targets for improvement. You can publish a sustainability report to measure your progress.
Baxter International is an example of a company that has set targets and reported them its sustainability reports. In its 2015 report, Baxter pledged to increase it spending with diverse suppliers by 50%, from 4% of relevant spending in 2015 to 6% in 2020. These published targets are public commitments that reveal the company’s sustainability strategy and implementation plans.
To be a part of the solution to end poverty, your business can be involved; it can measure its impacts, set targets, and report its progress in a sustainability report.
The next blog will examine how your business can help achieve SDG Goal 2 Zero Hunger.
In my last blog, I wrote about VWs limited assurance report on its latest sustainability report. I think limited assurance makes sense for sustainability reports after a high level of assurance has occurred. In VW’s case, this high level of assurance never had occurred.
How do we get companies to have their sustainability reports assured at a higher level? I suggest that high level assurance be done every other year with limited assurance to be performed in the years in between. This idea has some parallels to financial statement audits.
Every year public companies publish full financial statements, which are audited once a year. In an audit, considerable testing is performed on the systems that provide the data and the data itself. This testing includes gathering corroborative evidence such as checking calculations, obtaining third party confirmations, inspecting assets, and comparing valuations to external markets.
In the accounting profession, a “review” engagement of financial information is limited assurance and is often done in the interim period between the publication of full financial statements. In the interim period, companies issue financial information but not complete statements. During a review engagement, testing or other corroborative procedures are not done; instead, the auditors make inquiries and flag and research inconsistencies. After these limited procedures, the auditors state that they are not aware of any “material” modifications that should be made to the interim financial information for it to be in accordance with the relevant accounting principles. “Material” means it is big enough that it would affect your decisions about the company.
To illustrate, this is an example schedule for audits and reviews.
Audit, big deal done every year
Review, first quarter
Review, second quarter
Review, third quarter
And back to the audit
When these review engagements are done between audits, there is in essence an audit benchmark. During the audit, the data systems and controls have been evaluated; extensive testing has been done. The audit provides reasonable assurance that the information is not misstated in a major way due to errors or fraud. Limited assurance can be done in between audits because the audited financial statements serve as a benchmark upon which to assess subsequent financial information.
This could work for sustainability reports where limited assurance (review engagement) occurs between high level assurance. The costs would be less than doing a high level of assurance every year. As demand for assurance on sustainability reports increases, this would be an important step in achieving higher level assurance.
VW cheated and harmed us all. Some of us are more harmed than others. If you own stock, you have seen your net worth decline. If you own one of the affected cars, your troubles are just beginning. If you work for VW, your job may be jeopardy. If you live on the planet, your air is more polluted.
VW’s story is one of fraud, but why is it so troubling? All frauds are troubling, but VW’s lies seem particularly egregious. VW cast itself as a sustainable company. In their 2014 sustainability report, the company declared the following:
“For the Volkswagen Group, sustainability means that we conduct our business activities on a responsible and long-term basis and do not seek short-term success at the expense of others.”
Could the fraud have been prevented or detected earlier? Perhaps. I contend that assurance of sustainability reports could make a difference. In audits of financial statements, the auditor’s opinion states whether reasonable assurance has been obtained that the financial statements as a whole are free from material misstatement, whether due to fraud or error. Following professional auditing standards, auditors obtain this reasonable assurance from substantial testing of data systems and underlying information.
Audits do not provide absolute assurance; nothing can. Frauds will occur and have always occurred. Detecting fraud is difficult when multiple people collude to hide it. We can make it harder for them to do.
Was VW’s sustainability report assured? Yes, but it was a “review” or “limited” assurance. What does limited assurance mean? The procedures were limited to inquiring of key personnel, understanding the company structure, documenting systems, visiting sites, performing data comparisons, and examining internal and external documents. Limited assurance is just that, limited.
If we are going to depend on the information in sustainability reports, we need more than limited assurance. We need “reasonable assurance.” This can be done using procedures similar to that of an audit of financial statements. Will this cost money? Sure, but the fallout from fraud is much more costly for all of us: company, employees, customers, suppliers, and the environment.