Where to Start with an Emerging Sustainability Program

Amy Hou  |  February 5, 2018   |  Energy & Sustainability  


If your sustainability program is just starting out, you may have some questions. What are the first steps you should take? How do you measure performance? Which industry examples can you follow? Our new sustainability scorecard lays out a benchmark to distinguish emerging, growing, and outstanding programs, and the steps each tier can take to improve. In this article, we’ll zero in on best practices for emerging sustainability programs.

Download the full scorecard here.

What does an emerging sustainability program look like?

An emerging sustainability program — a “seedling” as we like to say — has very recently been planted. It has little to no data management in place and needs plenty of nourishment. Here’s where seedlings typically stand in terms of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards.

  • Environmental: Basic mission statement supporting sustainability, but not much action taken; slow and manual data collection process (if any)
  • Social: Sustainability leadership limited to one team or department; may be struggling to prove that a sustainability program should even exist
  • Governance: Without much data collected, few or no sustainability reports have been published

What are your next steps?

Seedlings need a lot of care at this stage in order to survive. But as long as you get a solid foundation in place, your program will have what it needs to flourish.


The first step is to benchmark your progress. Without data to quantify savings over time, there’s no way for you to justify continuing investment in the program. ENERGY STAR Portfolio ManagerⓇ is a great place to start — and it’s free! ENERGY STAR offers an easy-to-use quick start guide to help. Once you’ve established energy reduction goals, remember to track water and waste targets as well. The EPA now has a 1-100 water score in addition to its energy score.

Keep an eye on the horizon. The more that you invest in managing data at the outset, the easier it’ll be for your program to scale. You may not have many metrics to track for now, but as your program becomes more and more ambitious, your data will become more and more complex.

Learn how to go above and beyond benchmarking with ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager.


It’s up to you to start spreading sustainable values to the rest of your team. Make it clear how the success of your program ties in with the success of the organization. Data management is useful here, too. When you can show how the numbers are improving year over year, those who’ve engaged in these efforts are rewarded by seeing their impact. Then the rest of the team will want to join in.


The world of sustainability reporting can be overwhelming, but you’ll have to start somewhere. Between the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB), and more, you’ve got plenty of options when it comes to guidelines and frameworks.

But don’t be intimidated. Even if you think it’s unlikely that you’ll reach all of the goals you want to set, it’s still worth trying. SustainAbility’s recent survey found that out of all the reasons sustainability managers hold back from setting ambitious goals, the top two were that they lacked data or they didn’t know exactly how to achieve them.

It’s okay to not be fully confident about your targets. In 2008, Dow Chemical realized that they weren’t on track to meet their 2015 energy efficiency goal. With the recession, a fall in sales, and debt from a recent acquisition, Dow was left to either change the goal or accept failure. They chose to accept failure. Said Mark Weick, director of sustainability programs at Dow:

“We kept the goal because it expressed ambition and kept us accountable. We’ve decided that we want to be out there on the edge leading even if that means we might miss some things.”

As long as you’re transparent with your stakeholders and keep your goals updated as circumstances change, your program will survive a little failure. Setting high-reaching targets is the best way to push your little seedling to reach for the sky.

Looking for support to help your program grow? Contact a data expert today.

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About Amy Hou

Amy Hou is a Marketing Manager at Urjanet, overseeing content and communications. She enjoys writing about the latest industry updates in sustainability, energy efficiency, and data innovation.