Earthster: A Metric Tool for Leaders in the Age of Transparency

The age of ecological transparency is nigh. Business leaders now must learn to embrace “externalities” (like pollution) and work to lessen them, as Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby argued in the Harvard Business Review last month. If this is our emerging business reality, here’s a hot tip: look into www.Earthster.org.

Earthster represents an emerging generation of information systems that uses the metrics of life cycle assessment (LCA) to track sustainability impacts throughout a given product’s supply chain in their entirety, making visible the externalities with precision. This metric gives companies the tool they need to manage – and reduce – eco-impacts and assess a products sustainability footprint from cradle-to-cradle in the new competitive arena.

While no one can say with certainty if such information systems will play a critical role in an ecologically transparent business world, signs from the government are beginning to point in that direction. Last week I was at an EPA-cohosted meeting about these information tools for an audience of key players from a handful of Federal agencies. As one attendee put it, “We’re tired of all the eco-labels, where you don’t know what’s truly green or greenwashing. The only solution will be an open-source LCA-based system. . That way we can give reliable assurance and transparency to consumers.”

The GSA, meanwhile, is looking for just such a screen that the Feds can use for their half trillion dollars in yearly purchasing. One reason: an executive order, now under review at the White House, that will mandate how specific ecological goals – like reducing resource use – are evaluated by vendors for procurement.

The ripples from this metric mandate could take tidal proportions. The rule-of-thumb is that what the Feds do will be modeled by States and municipalities in their purchase policies. And Walmart, of course, has already set the stage for the same movement among retailers. Like WalMart to its own suppliers, the GSA might say, “You play this, or you don’t play at all.”

Mark Tulay of Earthster.org has been leading a series of meetings featuring Earthster for environmental groups, asset owners and asset managers looking for ways to minimize sustainability risk, and companies wanting to manage their eco-impacts better – and looking for a seat at the table ahead of the pack. One attendee at the EPA meeting was Jeff Rice, at the University of Arkansas, and leader in the Sustainability Consortium set up by Walmart and other retailers to work out a product sustainability measurement systems and tools.

Rice said he saw the ascendence of resources  like Earthster as creating a marketplace for LCA data far greater than exists today, telling me, “Today LCAs area niche industry, but if thousands of companies start pursuing LCA data it will create a vibrant data marketplace, for companies big and small”.

Representatives from data storage nodes of the Federal Government are assessing whether they could act as collators for a massive data commons on eco and social impacts – in effect a new information utility that could be enormously useful to industry as companies scramble to asses their externalities and find ways to reduce them. Earthster 2.0, now under development, has been named as a model platform for such a commons.

What’s so great about Earthster in particular?

  • Open source. Unlike today’s standard LCA, which is a proprietary study done for a company, Earthster operates as a sustainability wiki, with everyone reporting into a data commons that companies build together. This allows, for instance, the establishment of sector averages for a given process or product and enables even the smallest companies to assess sustainability impacts
  • Trackable. Participating companies can protect their proprietary processes and ingredients, but report their outputs – like emissions into water, soil, and air – establishing their baseline to demonstrate improvement against. The head of the agency’s Sustainable Product Network saw Earthster as a potential tool for the Government to measure product improvement.
  • Certifiable. While companies can post data from their own LCA efforts, they cannot enter the data into the Earthster system until it has been independently audited.
  • Salient. In an analysis he did for the EPA, Gregory Norris found that “80 percent of a company’s cradle-to-gate impacts are in its supply chain, not within its own facility.” Making changes like energy and fossil fuel reduction within a plant are all to the good, but barely begin the job.

These are key elements of any sound ecological transparency information system. Earthster itself is at a critical stage: beyond proof-of-concept but not  yet fully launched.  Stay tuned.

Daniel Goleman’s full interview with Gregory Norris, developer of Earthster, is an audio download; there is also a version condensed for distribution to Walmart house brands suppliers.

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