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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Four Dimensions of Sustainability

Reducing negative impact on climate change is a challenge many corporations are trying to tackle. Many organizations are up for the challenge but many are unsure of where to begin among the myriad of activities on the table.

Due to these challenges, I’ve developed a white paper which I hope will provide more insight on how to navigate these challenges. The Four Dimensions of Sustainability evolved from my trying to put BT’s and other company’s many sustainability activities into a logical set of categories for a presentation I had to give.

I wanted to categorize these companies in a way that would be comparable across sectors and be applicable to companies at any stage in their CSR evolution. I wanted a framework that would encompass everything from lobbying on CAFÉ standards and green advertising through employee engagement to sustainable product strategies. . I presented it a number of times and received a very positive response so I was encouraged to put it together as a white paper.

The resulting framework that I developed can be used to address social and economic sustainability although I have used environmental examples to illustrate the framework in this first version of the paper. I plan to put together a future version of the paper focusing on social and economic examples. I hope this framework will go some way to helping companies understand the full breadth of areas they need to consider when developing a sustainability strategy and also provides a common lens through which outside observers can judge a companies credentials.

I am opening the white paper up for direct comments and suggestion – good or bad. The paper has been posted on a wiki so that you can suggest amendments and additions and collaborate in whatever comes next.

To download a PDF of the white paper, click here.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    I was on the Net Impact conference call today. I enjoyed your presentation and your framework. I like the multidisciplinary aspect of your work. You're looking at the whole life cycle of the business and identifying opportunities -- from methane reduction to product design to social impact.

    I had a thought that crosses the "inherently unsustainable" product with the food industry: McDonalds. Would you consider the health consequences of the super sized lifestyle to be an enabled impact?

    Obesity, diabetes, and increased health insurance costs are all consequences of heavy usage of McDonalds products. It seems justified to me to take those into account in part because their marketing trades on the positive "enabled" impacts of their product -- happy families and happy friends. Similarly, Coke's brand messaging is centered on enabling joyous, shared moments.

    From a systems perspective, where do you draw the boundaries of positive or negative enabled impacts?

    Justin Adams
    MBA / MS Class of 2011
    Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise
    Stephen M. Ross School of Business
    School of Natural Resources & Environment
    University of Michigan

  2. Reducing impact on climate change is a challenge many corporations are trying to

    1st sentence: add "negative" as in:

    Reducing negative impact on climate change is a challenge many corporations are trying to tack

  3. Kevin:

    I attended your Net Impact ”Issues in Depth” call this afternoon and I wanted to let you know that I thought it was brilliant. The basic structure of the Four Dimensions of Sustainability is very good and your ability to further explain through the use of both BT and other company examples was excellent. Presentations such as yours are critical to assisting both students and business-people in understanding the realities of sustainability in business. Keep up the good work.

    Jeff Cooper
    Managing Director
    Sustainable Advantage LLC

  4. Thanks all for your comments.

    Mike, beautiful website at Eyethink and thanks for the edit - I have made the change. Would you do me the honor of taking a look at the Wiki and adding your edits there too ?

    Justin, I plan to write a sequel to the paper with a social and economic sustainability focus. I will try and place examples like those you raise and address the delineations you are identifying. Would welcome you adding your views directly to the wiki.


  5. Hi Kevin,

    I like your framework because it can provide some structure around a topic that presents prioritization challenges to corporate leaders.

    Here are few suggestions:

    1. Your framework is evocative of the GHG protocol's scope 1/scope 2/scope 3 framework, yet different. It might assist the reader to acknowledge the existence of other frameworks and briefly explain why you are proposing this as distinct from the others.
    2. Consider your example of apparel as a product with zero in-life emissions. Food for thought: the "maintenance cost" of apparel varies depending on the fabric. Clothing that can be washed in cold water uses less energy in-life than clothing requiring hot-water washing. Quick-drying fabrics use less energy in the drying process than fabrics that retain moisture. Just a thought.

    3. While I think your inform/influence dimension is valuable to include, not every company should feel they need to perform on that dimension. Transparency in their sustainability activities and progress, yes. But I don't think it's appropriate for every company to get into the business of influencing public opinion about these issues. This may or may not be compatible with the brand attributes a company is seeking to emphasize.

    I also fear a backlash as consumers become inured to repeated messaging from across the product spectrum, including from unlikely and not terribly credible corners.

    So I would simply suggest that all companies embrace the "inform," understood as transparency, but that companies be very deliberate and cautious about the "influence."

  6. Kevin,

    While I applaud your effort and enthusiasm, I see little value in introducing yet another framework and model.

    What is engaging is the gap that you've identified in your effort to bridge business needs, practical implementation, and the still "fuzzy" practical aspects of sustainability.

    I feel your energies would be better leveraged working with existing efforts that also support bridging the gap you've so clearly identified. For example, as a member of the GHGP technical working group tasked to provide guidelines and guidance for Scope 3 emissions, I know that many, if not all, of his concerns expressed through your framework are being discussed and resolved.

    A better use of everyone's time would be supporting the efforts of NGOs such as the Global Reporting Initiative, Environmental Defense Fund, and other groups given their shift in strategy from adversarial relationships to constructive engagement.


    George Gosieski
    Managing Director
    Sustainability, Workplace, Change Management

    300 Park Avenue
    New York, NY 10022

  7. David, George, thanks for your considered comments. I see a couple of distinctions with what I am trying to do with The Four Dimensions of Sustainability compared with other frameworks I am aware of.

    My overall intent is to expand the view of the breadth of activities in a corporation that have a significant impact on sustainability. Although I use carbon emissions to illustrate the dimensions, my intention is that it applies equally to other spheres of sustainability such as social and economic. I hope to produce a sequel paper that covers examples in these spheres. When I present the framework in person I speak much more broadly about its application across the full breadth of sustainability.

    Specifically with reference to GHG Protocol and how it compares to the Four Dimensions; I would see Scope 1 and 2 emissions falling into my 'direct dimension'; Scope 3 I think falls into the 'Direct' dimension for a company's bought products and the 'in-life' dimension for its sold products products. I don't think the 'enabled' or 'inform' dimensions are covered at all. Would be great to hear if you agree ?

  8. Kevin,

    Regarding GHGs, Scope One relates to direct emissions such as combustion processes and chemical processes. Scope Two represents indirect emissions in the form of purchased energy such as electricity.

    As for Scope Three, as a member the the GHGP technical working group charged with defining this Scope, I can say that we are currently evaluating models that look at upstream, midstream, and downstream impacts. We are also considering a segmentation that would address: What you own, What you buy, and what you influence. There is also discussion related to providing sector specific guidance.

    I believe this addresses some of your comments regarding enable and inform.



  9. Kevin,

    It was a pleasure and a privilege meeting you at the Ethical Sourcing Forum in NYC yesterday.

    There is good reason why your "Four Dimensions of Sustainability" blog entry has generated discussion. I too found the framework extremely useful in thinking about C(S)R. It provides a slightly different view and a useful model onto which to attach existing initiatives at our company. I will be meditating on how to leverage this to energize or recast existing and new initiatives.

    Thank you for sharing your insights with the CSR community. I think you have created a valuable resource here, and it serves the mission you seem to have set yourself well.

    Boschidar Ganev
    Environmental Resources Manager
    JPMorgan Chase