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What International Development Can Teach Businesses about Sustainability Metrics


Since 2000, the International Development (ID) community's battle to end (or substantially reduce) poverty by 2015 has played out on the world stage. There have been delays, defeats and some solid accomplishments. In doing so, the development community's thinking has evolved about what best constitutes effective aid and how to know whether it's working.

We find significant lessons for the sustainable business world in the story of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the groundbreaking shift towards metrics that occurred with the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. The ID community has been considering questions of direction towards greater levels of sustainability and how to measure their actual effectiveness over 13 long years of debate and trial and error. We could learn from their longer experience with sustainability goals and metrics.

Just as the MDGs are evolving to become Sustainable Development goals, encompassing a deeper and more comprehensive sense of sustainability, we too should seek to frame and express the company's goals as statements of what's important. As the ID experience has shown, the discussion itself has value (which is not to say it has to take so long, or be quite as contentious). But it is important to surface and question any prevailing assumptions that: (a) Sustainability is fundamentally just "business-as-usual" for our company; (b) "success" at the end of the day is just what it's always been; and (c) now, we're just being asked to simply measure it. The process also should encourage discussions about the question:  "Are we missing something really important?"

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