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Metrics for sustainability

Hello everyone, I decided to create this page for us to discuss about the metrics for sustainability and work together this time! Here are my thoughts about the metrics for sustainability, it will be interesting to see what you have in mind! I felt that it would be best to start with the foundation.

Best regards, Henri Mikkola

The foundation

What type of metrics would you consider to be useful in terms of sustainability? At least to this day the metrics are not that clear and therefore sustainability is somewhat a loose concept. Obviously lifecycle of products is useful in some terms but does it represent sustainability enough? It can be used with products and services but what about sustainability altogether. What do you guys think could we begin to create the metrics for sustainability by starting with our planetary boundaries? Of course these are huge concepts but in my opinion if they are taken further these could be the foundation for sustainability metrics, or what kind of opinions you have?

The planetary boundaries are the following; climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, Nitrogen cycle (part of a boundary with the phosphorus cycle), Phosphorus cycle (part of a boundary with the nitrogen cycle), Stratospheric ozone depletion, Ocean acidification, Global freshwater use, Change in land use, Atmospheric aerosol loading and Chemical pollution. Now I don’t think these are comprehensive enough and we should add up food, electricity, population growth et cetera in some ways. Also these are just our planetary boundaries that we have to safeguard in order to sustain our lifestyle within this planet. Perhaps this could be the foundation for sustainability metrics? How would you guys go forward from these or what perspective would you take to defining metrics sustainability? Also as sustainable development is formed from three pillars or elements; environmental, economic and social – these boundaries only answer to environmental pillar leaving the two aspects at least to some extent out.

Anyway we need a concrete foundation to start building up the metrics for sustainability and I think that the planetary boundaries could be something to start with. Our planet is anyway the place where we live and in order to be sustainable we need to safeguard our planet, there is no purpose of being economically or socially sustainable if our planet is “destroyed”. What kind of ideas does this raise? Could we begin to build the metrics on top of planetary boundaries and dealing with economic and social aspect as separate before combining all of these together?

Henri Mikkola

I agree with you that to some extent the concept of sustainability is not very clear and it is somehow a loose concept. Meanwhile, in my opinion we could start to create metrics for sustainability by considering our planetary boundaries and ensuring that there is a clear analysis and measurement of the following sustainability elements that comprises the environmental, economic and social pillars of sustainability : Energy usage, water usage, employee well-being and benefit programs, recycling, community involvement and support, forest product usage n(paper, packaging and wood), social issues and causes (health, education and others), solid waste reduction, waste water discharge, chemical waste minimization, human right (child labour), greenhouse gas emission, response to potential climate change and habitat protection.

Odukomaiya Funmilade Tola

The problem of metrics is one of the main critiques of sustainability and it makes the comparison between companies difficult. Today it is almost impossible to define which company is really acting in sustainable way and which is not. The metrics could enable companies to set their primary goals and also determinate the value of the business through sustainable actions. It seems that because sustainability is so wide concept, it allows the measurements be wide as well. In previous researches there have been multiple ways of measuring sustainability such as carbon footprint, customer satisfaction and other indicators. But the lack of fixed set of metrics makes the comparison difficult and it is hard to tell which companies really are sustainable in long term. Environmental sustainability could be analysed through the planetary boundaries as Henri mentioned, but that only covers one part of the sustainability concept. For the economic sustainability there have been some indicators used for related to measure for example value, profit and investments. Social sustainability on the other hand has been the most difficult to measure. In general I think that even if the scientists and experts could come up with a fixed set of metrics, global implementation would be a huge challenge and the outcome would still have big variations because the problem of strong and weak sustainability.

Heidi Korhonen

To determine the metrics for sustainability, in my opinion, we need not only boundaries of a particular field (like planetary boundaries), but at least preliminary database for the aspects, that can be measured firstly, and compare with each other secondly. Here I see the answer to the question 'why ambiguity of sustainability exist today?', because it is extremely difficult to identify each unit that can be included in this determinant. Moreover, there are some metrics and indices exist, however they cannot be applied in all countries all over the world because 1) they differ from each other in terms of units and fields from country to country and 2) the life-cycle stage of countries as well as for products produced by them is not the same. There is a possible solution, for the arisen problem, for example, we could narrow the boundaries till 'energy usage', identify the basic minimal coefficient for the energy consumption by the country, and on the basis of the statistics exists calculate the weighted variable value. The following database could show us the most inefficient countries in terms of energy consumption, an the final picture could lead to the common measurable metric, which will show in numbers weather the country (system, company, simple user etc.) is sustainable enough or not. Here we can get a great field for comparison between the network actors too.

Anastasiia Gusakova

To define sustainability more clearly, or to define the metrics for sustainability, we not only have to work with the three parts of sustainability - economy, environment and ethics - but also have to look into details of each of the parts and their inter-relations. Let me give an example - economy of a system works very closely with its consumers' life-style, social situations, politics, energy management of the particular country, natural resources, industries, technological innovation etc. other sectors. So when we talk about economical sustainability, it is a complex thing of many other parameters.

In addition to this, sustainability of one system can affect many other systems. Even it can, sometimes, hamper the sustainability of some other systems. In such an intertwined situation, it is really difficult to define the metrics of sustainability. But we believe, it is possible through a different kind of perspective to the whole system. Rather than looking at the overall scenario from the bottom, which is very complex, we have to look at it with a top-down view with a higher level of abstraction. In the following part, I will try to make it clear.

One thing is very clear that economy, environment and ethics (people's comfort) all these parameter has one parameter as common: energy system. This is the reason why all current definitions of sustainability often work with energy. Industry - the basis of economy - always needs energy, life-style of the consumers depends on the economy i.e. energy and the energy production process emits GHG (Green House Gas) and other substances which pollute the environment. So it is obviously the most influential parameter, but not the only parameter. And because of ignoring other parameters, sustainability could never be defined completely.

We want to consider sustainability as a function of many inter-related terms, one of them is energy. It might be the case that energy plays the most significant role, but unless and until we consider all of the parameters, it will never bring fruit-full sustainability. Bus as there are hundreds of parameters looking from the bottom, it is almost impossible to define.

Let us look at the complete scenario from the top, where there are just a few parameters because of higher level of abstraction. We will define all of those, find out the relation among each other and then we will go in deep of each of those parameters and will try to define them. There are the parameters from my observation, you are free to edit those: Energy, Industry, Environment, Comfort and Innovation.

I agree with Heidi: “Environmental sustainability could be analyzed through the planetary boundaries as Henri mentioned, but that only covers one part of the sustainability concept”. Henry covers the environmental part very nicely and with more detail work. We can keep that for environmental part. We have to now find the detail metrics for other parameters as well.

If we want to find the metrics of Energy, Industry and Innovation, we have to think that those are very related to each other. The following document will explain why and how they are interrelated and explain the abstract parameters of Energy, Industry and Innovation.


Md Anowarul Abedin (The draft and the attachment is still under modification phase. I will complete it by tonight)

<08 April, 03:00 AM> Hello, After 4 days of work, at last I could complete my write-up. It would be nice if you have a look at the following document and discuss on it, here or in the next meeting. Please ignore my previous comment and previous file.


Md Anowarul Abedin

Those are a good basis to start to build the metrics Funmilade, anyhow I think that the biggest issue is the scale and size of sustainability itself. Therefore the metrics should be a constantly developing analyzing tool that evolves over time. New elements can be added throughout time and old ones can be improved. Nevertheless the three pillars are a good solution. In my opinion the planetary boundaries represent also economic and social pillars to some extent because the social pillar or social sustainability is also related to our environment where we live. At the same time this applies to economic pillar as well, therefore I suggested the planetary boundaries being the foundation for everything because it is not only environmental sustainability that can be measured through planetary boundaries. The subject is vast and complicated as we can see.

I think that the economic value, as Heidi said, could be measured through monetary metrics; return of investment, the profitability of different sustainability solutions such as cleaner technologies or overall economic performance of sustainable solutions. Whereas social aspect could be measured through stakeholder satisfaction and abuse of different laws and regulations related to stakeholders. These stakeholders can be customers, employees, supervisors, communities, governments et cetera; those people who can affect or are affected through corporate actions. I don’t think it is only scientists and experts responsibility as you said Heidi, instead I think that the metrics really require countries and corporations co-operation with the scientist and experts.

Anastaasia you have good points in your text, but I think that planetary boundaries are only one part of the metrics but a highly important one since our planet creates the boundaries for our living. There is no point with economic or social sustainability if the planetary boundaries suffer or are crossed (as they have already been but thinking in long-term). I think that the metrics should be unified and not set country by country because this creates questions, issues and disagreements. Unified metrics would be fair since they are same to everyone, obviously developed and developing countries is a question but I think that the measuring should not differ from country to country. In this case some countries are more sustainable than others, also countries size also differs but I don’t this creates any issues for measuring. Energy usage as a metric is a good one but I think that we should measure how the energy is created rather than how much is used. In my opinion using energy is not the issue, we can use as much as we want to if the energy used is created through sustainable solutions. Obviously at this moment the energy, which we use is unsustainable majorly and saving energy is the simplest solution to tackle this issue but it is only a short-term solution since energy consumption and need increase constantly.

Abedins solution going from the top to the bottom might be a good one for creating the metrics since the bottoms scale and size, as I stated previously, is vast. But where lies the top? For me it is confusing to define the top since there lies also many factors, what you suggested would not be enough. Perhaps the planetary boundaries could be the top? As I have discussed planetary boundaries are the basis for our living and if these are not obeyed we will do no good with saving energy or measuring the economic sustainability. As I stated previously I think its too narrow thinking to state that planetary boundaries form the environmental pillar of sustainability because social and economic matters are related very much to planetary boundaries. If we look at the climate change, it is pretty much because of industrial revolution and corporate actions. Then again global fresh water usage or change in land use; these affect to social pillar and economic pillar as well. Corporations use a lot of water and land because of production of raw materials as just one example. All in all the three pillars are very interrelated and I think we have to consider them as one to some extent because they have a strong affect to each other. I don’t think that focusing to energy, innovations or industry is enough. In my opinion this thinking is not enough to measure sustainability.

What do you guys think about my views on this topic? Could the planetary boundaries be the top what Abedin is discussing about? Here is the full text concentrating to planetary boundaries for those of you who are interested! “Identifying and quantifying planetary boundaries that must not be transgressed could help prevent human activities from causing unacceptable environmental change, argue Johan Rockström and colleagues.”

@Abedin; I will read your metrics for the sustainability and give comments about those!

Update: I made an own topic for the comments since they were eventually too long to post in here. Abedin's text was very interesting and I found a lot of things to comment.


Henri Mikkola

Defining Sustainability and Its Metrics – comments for Abedin

Thank you, Henri. Your feedbacks are really good. I am expecting similar or more 'critical' feedbacks/opinions from others.

@ Henri, I will get back to your feedbacks and your draft as soon as I can.

Md Anowarul Abedin

My view on the metrics of sustainability is rather focussed on Individual himself i.e Ourselves. Let us all remember that Humanity is what surviving at the end of the day.

I agree on Henri´s point on planetary boundaries where he mentions the three pillars. We should also give a thought on this great planet which is mainly developed and nourished by US i.e human beings. Social, environmental and economic sustainability is all because of Human beings and their involvement in various aspects associated with it. I believe we must focuss on a individual and his consious effect in making himself more sustainable. We all talk about Internet of Things and Industrial internet as the future. But let us remember that the internet of Things is all about “Inclusion of everyone”. Let me invite you all to have a look at this video

With all due respect to the author who published this , i want to requote his comment:

Living a sustainable lifestyle includes creating harmony, interconnection, and relatively high levels of awareness in one's values, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as maintaining an increasing control over one's physical, emotional, social, philosophical, environmental, and intellectual life. The general skills that lead to individual sustainability are awareness, motivation, and the ability to engage in intentional self-development. As well, individual sustainability includes possessing a well-developed and demonstrated value system that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all global biological systems and our appropriate place in the Natural World.

This video really inspires and motivates us to change each of our individuals behaviour in order to achieve sustainability. So i believe the onus is on us to be more mature and act without any haste.

The points mentioned by anowarul abedin is also quite impressing. I am going through this document more critically.

Prasanna Kuchimanchi

@Prasanna, could you please give feedback on my document in the link shared by Henry? It would be better to summarize then.

Abedin (April 15, 00:17)

Great ideas, as expressed by everyone. Prasanna, I really love your video link; the first part before the Individual Sustainability part encapsulated my thought process. To start with, I think we are all bunch of great thinkers. My opinion on this matter is very simple and straightforward. No doubt, Sustainability has always been expressed as being complex, loose and lacking in concreteness with respect to metrics.

Taking a new look at what Sustainability is all about; I have this to say. Sustainability is about the “people” tending the “planet” no matter their “practice”. Some would say people, planet and profit. Like Abedin mentioned, it could be ethics, environment and economy. The beautiful thing about Sustainability is that it is seeking to harmonize and harness the links and relationship amongst these three aspects or pillars. Rightly so, it has been able to establish that their exist an intertwined relationship amongst the three. For example, the environment is composed of both living and non-living things people inclusive. The living interact with the living and non-living for their sustainable existence. So also non-living with non-living and living to stay relevance in the existence of things.

With regards to metrics, we should not forget that each of these separate aspects or pillars are a discipline or field of study in their own right even before Sustainability become one. All of these have their existing metrics for measuring different parameters. For example, life cycle assessment (LCA) was originally designed for environmental assessment and evaluation. The advent of Sustainability however added other dimensions such as cost and customer satisfaction consideration. Hence, the task of sustainability is really not to seek new metrics but to be able to add all aspects or dimensions of Sustainability to existing metrics thereby improving the metrics and or replacing them with alternatives.

Talking about metrics harmonization worldwide, I think that should be left to the study of Globalization. Thank you for reading. Please, post your comments here or email my at Thank you

Shehu, Saliu Ibrahim (April 23, 2015)