Rob Bell investigates a software tool that promises to increase the practicality of sustainability reporting and transform it into a tool for changing businessSustainability is rapidly becoming a mainstream business issue," says Peter Braithwaite, global business leader on Arup's Corporate SPeAR, an auditable and transparent software tool which measures progress on sustainability and can be used to help guide policy.
For Braithwaite, sustainability has to be a living, changing process - and not simply a glossy report to keep NGOs off a company's back. "A lot of CSR reporting lacks robustness," he says. "What we are aiming to produce is a robust, independent assessment method." Visual representation
The user inputs results into a series of spreadsheets representing sustainability indicators - based on the Global Reporting Initiative, although there is a limited capacity to introduce sector-specific indicators (this is however limited to less that 10% of the total to maintain integrity).
The software then generates a circular diagram, split into four segments - environmental, social, natural resources and economic. Good performance is represented towards the centre in green tones, areas of poor performance towards the outside in red. This means progressive assessments can be used to track improvements in projects, plans, product developments or company performance. Jaguar used SPeAR in the redevelopment of its plant at Halewood. Environmental affairs manager Deborah Blackburn says: "It was an ideal time to assess the way the plant had been run from a sustainable development point of view and look at the improvements we'd made - and the things we needed to do better."An overall picture
"We work with corporates to understand how their business works and identify weaknesses in their operations," Braithwaite says. "It also helps cascade sustainability down from a boardroom concept to where managers can understand the thinking and begin to develop targets."
The software also demonstrates that sustainability isn't just about environmental issues, Braithwaite believes. He cites the case of Arup's offices near Solihull, a project that was assessed with Corporate SPeAR. Built on a greenfield site with no bus or train links, the resulting diagram showed poor performance in the land use and transport policies.
"Environmentalists would condemn us for building on a greenfield site, but by doing so we have been able to produce a much more sustainable building than we could have in a city," Braithwaite says. For example, the office utilises natural ventilation, which would have been impractical in smoggy cities, and recyclable wooden cladding that would not have received planning permission downtown. "The discipline of sustainability accepts that there's more to sustainability than the environment."Tracking improvements
Arup has introduced a green transport plan at the site, encouraging car-sharing and bicycling, and buses now service the estate. The company can track these improvements in the site's sustainability using its software.
This flexibility - along with the visual representation - makes sustainability easier to understand, especially for sceptical managers who see it as a management fad. "In explaining what Corporate SPeAR is, we are explaining what sustainability is," Braithwaite says. "People start to realise there are tangible results and that they have been doing a lot of it already in areas such as health and safety - they just haven't put it all in this one basket called sustainability."
Blackburn concurs: "The diagram means it can be used at board level to show where improvements have been made and highlight areas where the company needs to do better. But it can also be used at a working level to talk to people about the way they do things. It is very versatile."