Building Sustainable Metrics

keep calm metricsWith some exceptions, the learned, hard-working professionals of any industry usually wish that the American populace knew more about what they do and why they do it. Artists long for a time when a greater portion of the population to be schooled enough in art to join the larger discourse. Farmers and factory workers would take pride in more people having a first hand knowledge of what their daily routines require in order to arrive at the fruits of their labor that we all use. And architects, consistently claiming that few people understand what it is they actually do, struggle to communicate effectively with the vast majority of Americans.

Metrics provide a means of packaging and conveying professional, industry-specific knowledge to a non-professional public. I recently reflected on sustainability’s need for reassessing its means of communication and finding new ways to reach a broader audience in a positive way. Part of that transition can include further development of more sustainable metrics that condense large quantities of complicated information and inform a larger portion of our daily decisions.Specialization in any field brings about the inevitable result of an essential knowledge base, most of which is not essential to the daily lives of your average countryman. Intra-communication within a world of study brings about the creation of languages that foster a right of passage for professional practice and rise to a credential that underscores proficiency and talent. The more knowledge that is required the more intricate the language grows, some more esoteric than others, spawning new dialects and localized rules-of-thumb all over the world.

It is here that sustainability realizes one of its largest hurdles because sustainability is not represented or described by any single one of these languages. It spans across social, economic, cultural and professional boundaries, interfacing with virtually every part of our lives to become a language of languages. Such a vast cultural influence can be daunting or even overwhelming to those not use to speaking in these terms over such a broad range of topics. On the path to actionable results there are plenty of pitfalls for everyday folk like “too much information to process,” or “problem is beyond my ability to effect” or just plain “don’t care enough about it.” We need to continue to search for easy ways to convey the problem statement(s) followed by condensed metric systems that rate different choices in their ability to solve the problem(s).

Bridging the Gap

sustainability labelToday, many of the metric systems that have to do with sustainability or being more ecologically responsible are more of a stamp than a metric, presenting an “In or Out” model of participation. Whether it’s Greenguard, EnergyStar, FSC or USDA Organic, a given product is on one side or the other. Things are not rated on a scale, but rather granted the title of satisfactory or not; green or not. These kinds of classifications are perhaps best suited for benchmarks that create a line in the sand, beyond which lies the certification of “better than most.”

At the same time the inherent simplicity runs the risk of confusing “better than most” with a sustainable end game. There is much more to sustainability than “green” and everything else–especially given where we are starting from. Is this tannish bottle of “XYZ Natural Miracle Fluid” really green or just greener than the one that comes in the yellow bottle? Without gradients of progress it is hard to know where our actions and their repercussions fall in a greater continuum daily choices or how to continue to move forward. How do we continue to promote awareness of improvement while calibrating our choices from one action to the next?

Systems like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Cradle to Cradle take an important step towards a true metric. There is no shortage of controversy about LEED and I am the last one to claim it is a perfect system. However, I think many people underestimate the value of what the creation of a metric has brought to sustainable design in the U.S. over the course of the past decade. With multiple levels, LEED approved components and results can be compared against one another to convey which efforts are at the forefront vs. those that are just better than the status quo. Thanks to LEED, people far outside the realms of architecture, engineering, landscape design and construction have been brought into the conversation enough to alter their choices for the better. Judging from the success that LEED and green building in general have found throughout the recession, having the metric seems to be working.

One key thing that is missing is that all of these metrics are only rating what is considered to be good. It is one thing to rate a great product and say it is Cradle-to-Cradle certified, but how can people compare that back to the non-great product with any understanding for how much improvement there actually is?

A New Source of Metric Maps

So what if we could develop new metric systems that were measured through the common variables of lifecycle costs and could span across company lines for all products and services? Better yet, beyond just the convenience in being able to calibrate in a common language, each product analysis could be graphically represented and accessed by bar code via smartphone app to display the lifecycle behind it.

Enter Sourcemap: a group that has developed software for visually mapping lifecycle components—similar to how I try to visualize energy processes through connection diagrams here on Intercon. In reaching out for further information, I had some correspondence with Leonardo Bonanni, the CEO and co-founder of Sourcemap.

The group exists as a spin-off from the M.I.T. Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With the original goal of creating a tool to calculate carbon footprints, the mechanisms for Sourcemap were born and tested on M.I.T.’s eager young minds of tomorrow. Since then it has matured into a piece of open-source software that thousands of businesses and individuals have used to map product lifecycles. Of course, the real goal is not just creating the information for its own sake, but that its creation can inform people in a supply chain and highlight points for sustainable improvement. As Bannani puts it, “The idea was simple: if designers had realtime feedback on the impact of design choices, they could make more sustainable products available to the rest of us.”

Sourcemap USA

An example of one a Sourcemap, created for charting components of the recycled paper industry

According to Bannani, “another unmet need [is] communication channels that engage suppliers in lifecycle assessment so that they can work together to build sustainable supply chains.” He went on to walk through a series of examples where businesses had used Sourcemaps for improving not only the ecological stewardship of their operations, but at times, also their bottom line. Where it was hotels sourcing their supplies or recycled paper for OfficeMax, Sourcemap allows for a detailed charting of resource streams to help identify possibilities for stemming carbon use. As an architect, I can empathize that when trying to convey information to others, the data alone is often not enough and the professional language can get in the way. Having a tool that can visually guide the explanation process can be vital. I was not surprised to learn that Leo Bannani was also an architect.

I operate under the premise that it is ignorance, not apathy, which most greatly hinders sustainable development. How to educate people enough to allow them to make informed decisions is the core component of why Intercon exists. Bannani proved to be of a similar mindset. “Today there is too little information to support sustainable decision-making; after all, if designers and businesses don’t have access to eco-design tools, how will sustainable products every make it to market?”

True, but one of the difficult problems that sustainable business has had is the final step of educating and convincing consumers. I had to wonder if there was an opportunity to completely bridge the gap and inform businesses and consumers alike about the latent energy and resources that a given product utilizes by creating a metric that could find its way to the side of every package, or service, or building material. So far, this is the piece that’s missing and time will tell if it can get there. Sourcemap is still in the process of development and refinement, but it offers a glimpse into a consumer metric that serves as a digital window to a more transparent marketplace.

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