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Environmental sustainability indicators

Given the situation of overexploitation of natural resources that has been taking place for decades on our planet, it is necessary to have a set of systems that allow us to understand the degree of impact of these actions on the environment, whether at an individual, company, regional, or national level.

Environmental sustainability indicators are tools that facilitate the measurement and evaluation of the impact of our actions on the environment. These indicators quantify the degree of environmental responsibility and sustainability of individuals, organizations, or communities.

Here are some examples of these indicators:

  • Ecological Footprint: Measures the amount of natural resources we consume and compares this consumption with the Earth’s capacity to regenerate them. It is expressed in global hectares and assesses the pressure we exert on ecosystems.
  • Carbon Footprint: Calculates the emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) generated by our activities. It includes both direct emissions (such as the use of fossil fuels) and indirect emissions (such as the production and transportation of goods).
  • Water Footprint: Evaluates the use of water in our daily activities. It includes both direct water (the water we consume) and indirect water (the water used in the production of goods and services we consume).
  • Social Footprint: Although not exclusively environmental, it is also related to sustainability. It measures the social impact of our actions, considering aspects such as equity, justice, and quality of life.

In addition, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development establishes 232 specific indicators to measure progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These indicators help make more conscious decisions and work towards a more sustainable future, covering topics such as poverty, gender equality, health, education, and the environment.

Some specific examples of these indicators are:

  • Amount of water consumed
  • Product lifecycle
  • Raw materials used
  • Carbon dioxide emissions in transportation
  • Sustainable waste management
  • Utilization of renewable energies
  • Minimization of environmental impact

These indicators are fundamental for measuring and improving the sustainability of organizations, enabling informed decision-making and promoting more environmentally responsible practices.

Ecological or Environmental Footprint

The ecological footprint, also known as the “environmental” footprint, is a way to measure the impact that humanity has on the planet. It is the ecologically productive area needed to obtain the resources consumed by an individual, as well as the area needed to absorb the waste generated.

It is used as an international sustainability indicator to measure the impact of our habits on the environment. The concept of calculating the ecological footprint arises from the following aspects:

  • Flow of materials and energy. Relative to those that come from ecological systems to produce any type of goods and services.
  • Ecological systems to absorb generated waste. They are needed, both during the production process and in the use of the final products.
  • Physical space. The production of goods and services, as well as the final product, require space that is also occupied by infrastructure, housing, equipment, etc., which also reduces the land of ecological systems; and also, not only in the place where the building or machinery is located, but they also have an influence radius that varies according to the type of activity.

Every year, the date of Earth Overshoot Day is advancing a little more. This date corresponds to the day from which humans would have already consumed the resources that the planet can produce in one year.

In 2024, the date of Earth Overshoot Day has been set for August 2nd. Earth Overshoot Day is related to the selection of a date (since 1970) that allows determining the amount of resources that humanity has consumed in one year, compared to what the planet is capable of producing.

It is calculated by the Global Footprint Network. It is obtained by dividing the world biocapacity (the amount of natural resources generated by the Earth that year) by the world ecological footprint (humanity’s consumption of Earth’s natural resources for that year), and multiplying by 365 days.

During the year 2023, the Earth entered an ecological deficit, because the demand for resources and services by the world population far exceeded what the planet had the capacity to regenerate in terms of natural resources. In this sense, it is projected that by the year 2030, another planet Earth would be needed to be able to supply such demand and meet the needs of future generations.

The calculation of the ecological footprint is obtained by subtracting the resources consumed by each individual from the resources generated by the planet over a year. The ecological footprint is expressed in global hectares (gha). Thus, on average, a European would need 4.5 hectares, while a North American would need 6.6 hectares and an African would need 2.7.

The results of this calculation on a global scale show that the planet’s capacity to meet the needs of its inhabitants is insufficient. We consume more resources and produce more waste than the planet’s biocapacity can assimilate. We have exceeded, on a global scale, the limits of nature’s resilience and created an ecological deficit.

There are several ecological footprint calculators available to users, which allow for quick and easy calculation. Among them:

Reducing the global ecological footprint is therefore everyone’s responsibility, so each individual must act on their own lifestyle in order to limit CO2 emissions and reduce their ecological footprint. It is therefore essential to adopt new habits such as:

Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint is a measure that represents the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the atmosphere from human activities, such as the production and consumption of goods and services. These gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Calculating it is essential to understand our environmental impact and take steps to reduce it. These are the basic steps to calculate the carbon footprint:

  • Identify and document the sources of GHGs
  • Select a calculation method
  • Collect activity data
  • Obtain emission factors
  • Calculate the emissions

The carbon footprint is divided into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct Carbon Footprint

The direct carbon footprint refers to the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that come directly from the activities or processes of an individual, company, or entity. Examples:

  • Home energy consumption: GHG emissions generated by the use of electricity, natural gas, or oil for heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances.
  • Personal transportation: GHG emissions produced by driving a car or traveling by plane.
  • Industrial processes: GHG emissions related to the manufacturing and production of goods.

Indirect Carbon Footprint

The indirect carbon footprint refers to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with products or services that an individual or entity uses, but are not directly produced by them. Examples include:

  • Food production and transportation: GHG emissions generated during the production, transportation, and distribution of the food we consume.
  • Products: GHG emissions related to the manufacturing and transportation of goods we purchase, such as clothing, electronic devices, or furniture.
  • Electricity: GHG emissions from the generation of electricity in power plants that supply energy to households and businesses.
  • Emission factors: Emission factors represent the average amount of GHG emitted. They are expressed in units such as carbon dioxide equivalents (COâ‚‚e).

Example: The emission factor for bricks is approximately 241.8 kg of CO2e per ton of bricks.

To calculate the emissions from this material, we multiply the quantity of bricks used by this factor.

Emission factors are obtained from official sources and government databases. These factors include not only CO2 emissions, but also emissions of gases such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

The activities that generate the highest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions vary depending on the sector, region, and specific policies of each country, such as agriculture and livestock, transportation, air conditioning systems, industry, etc.

It is essential to consider both direct and indirect emissions to effectively address climate change.

Water Footprint

The water footprint is the term used to indicate the direct or indirect use of freshwater by humans on the planet. It is a widely used indicator in environmental and sustainability studies to measure the total volume of freshwater used in the production of goods and services at both individual and societal levels, in order to understand the use of this precious resource and optimize its efficient management.

The water footprint is calculated by summing the volume of water consumed, evaporated, or contaminated per unit of time or per unit of mass at a specific point, such as a factory or a river basin. This indicator is key because the impact of human activity on water systems is often related to human consumption, which frequently leads to problems such as water scarcity or contamination.

The definition of water footprint was introduced in 2002 by Professor Arjen Hoekstra of the UNESCO-IHE Institute, as an alternative indicator of water use.

Subsequently, cooperation between leading global institutions in this field led to the creation of the Water Footprint Network in 2008, which aims to coordinate efforts to develop and disseminate knowledge about water footprint concepts, methods, and tools. Additionally, the new ISO 14046 standard unified concepts globally in water footprint and became the international reference for companies, processes, and products.

An example is the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a daily habit like a 10-minute shower consumes 200 liters of water. As a result of this and other activities, an average person consumes 1,385 cubic meters of water per year; however, the most commonly used references are those of the water footprint of food.

The UN states that, depending on the diet, the daily food consumption of a person is equivalent to the use of between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water for its production. Furthermore, it has calculated that 70% of the global water footprint is related to what we eat and warns that global water demand could increase by 50% by 2030.

Other examples of food water footprint are:

  • 13,000 liters of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef
  • 17,195 liters of water to produce 1 kg of chocolate
  • 3,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of rice
  • 117 liters of water for 1 glass of 125 ml of wine
  • 50 liters of water for 1 orange
  • 1,000 liters of water for 1 liter of milk
  • 900 liters of water for 1 kilo of corn
  • 1,300 liters of water for 1 kilo of wheat

Food waste is equivalent to wasting water, as the water resources allocated to its production are not being taken into account. The current environmental problems, such as persistent droughts, remind us that we cannot continue consuming water at this completely irrational rate.

It should be remembered that this resource on which all forms of life on Earth depend is becoming increasingly scarce due to climate change, water pollution, and population growth. It is also necessary to note that water extraction and management also have an impact on CO2 emissions due to the energy required for treatment and distribution.

Types of Water Footprint

Regarding the components of the water footprint or types of water footprint, it consists of three components that have been named according to the colors usually assigned to water:

  • Green water footprint: contains the fraction of the footprint expressed as flow (volume/time) that comes directly from rainwater or snow and that is stored in the soil in surface layers accessible to plants, and that is evaporated in the production process or incorporated into a product.
  • Blue water footprint: refers to the volume of water that comes from or is captured from natural surface or groundwater bodies expressed as flow (volume/time), through infrastructure or facilities operated by humans for the production of a product or the provision of a service. Irrigated agriculture, industry, and domestic water use can have a blue water footprint.
  • Grey water footprint: refers to the volume of water contaminated in the processes and that is subsequently necessary to treat to comply with the parameters required by the sectoral regulations of the channel or receiving body of the final process discharges.

The measurement of the water footprint is done in a modular way, that is, by adding the water use and consumption needs of each production stage from the origin to the final consumer. Its unit varies depending on the sector to which the water footprint is measured.

For example, the water footprint of a meat product can be measured in m3/kg, representing the amount of water needed to produce one kilogram of meat throughout the supply chain; while the water footprint of an individual can be measured in m3/year, representing the amount of water consumed over time.

There are two main methodologies for calculating the water footprint:

  • The Water Footprint Network methodology is based on calculating the water used, directly or indirectly, by a producer or consumer of products or services.
  • The UNE-EN-ISO 14046 methodology consists of adapting the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology of ISO 14044, focusing the inventory analysis and environmental impacts on water.

To reduce the water footprint as a consumer, it is recommended to:

  • Follow a sustainable diet and reduce the consumption of foods that require more water, such as meat.
  • Support sustainable and local agriculture, livestock, and fishing.
  • Opt for responsible consumption and the circular economy.
  • Recycle what you consume and avoid using single-use products.
  • Reduce food waste.
  • Buy energy-efficient products.

And, regarding business activity, it is recommended to:

  • Implement an environmental quality system.
  • Promote recycling, reuse, and ecological consumption within the company.
  • Hire suppliers committed to reducing the water footprint.
  • Digitize as much as possible to save, for example, on paper.
  • Implement measurement and adaptation procedures to generate efficient water use throughout the production process, aiming for maximum production with minimal water consumption.
  • Look for local supply chains and raw materials to reduce indirect consumption caused by transportation.

The Social Footprint

The current globalized environment increasingly motivates companies to manage risks through self-assessment in order to implement, improve, or correct actions and strategies that generate a positive social impact, not only in economic terms but also in terms of connection with society. This is known as managing the organization’s social footprint, which refers to the impact that an organization has on the community in which it operates.

The social footprint quantifies the impact of a company’s activity in human, labor, and social matters. Factors such as job creation, excessive resource consumption, resource distribution, and excesses in the productive sector are taken into account when determining the social footprint.

Through responsible investment policies, many investors request information from organizations regarding Diversity, Human Rights, Labor Practices, Occupational Health and Safety, and the protection of local communities. Hence, it is important to be able to measure the social footprint of our companies.

The social results enhance the relationship between companies and all their stakeholders: team members, customers, investors, public administration, and the community. Additionally, it becomes a strategic and beneficial factor when designing the company’s social policies and strategies.

The social footprint has two objectives. Firstly, it reinforces the company’s performance, which can lead to potential investments and brand positioning compared to competitors. Secondly, it allows the company to distribute resources more efficiently, taking into account their effects. Depending on our scope of action, the social impact of our activity can be on a geographical area or a sector.

There are different methodologies to assess the social footprint of organizations, including IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards) and SROI (Social Return on Investment).

IRIS is used to define, monitor, and report the social, environmental, and financial performance resulting from impact investment. Its goal is to provide reporting standards that inform investors about the social and environmental impacts of the firms in which they invest.

We use the SROI methodology to measure and assign value to the well-being created as a result of our activity, contributing to society. This methodology can also be used to assess changes in relationships with stakeholders and identify ways to improve social investment performance.

Calculating and managing the social footprint faces various challenges. Firstly, indicators need to be constantly redefined. For example, it is not enough to know how many people with disabilities we integrate into our company in our region, but rather how we are connected to disability through other factors, such as the education of people with disabilities in our areas of impact and how we can improve their employability.

Finally, the commitment of top management is necessary to develop a model that clearly defines resources and limitations, processes, results, effects, and impacts that enable the progress of the organization in social matters.

Summary

Humanity uses the resources of nature to satisfy its primary and collective needs. These actions have generated negative effects on the environment at an accelerated rate. It is estimated that in the early 1970s, the critical threshold of excessive consumption of natural resources was exceeded, resulting in the following consequences:

  • Release of carbon dioxide particles and greenhouse gases, leading to negative climate change.
  • Deforestation.
  • Loss of species, with many of them being endangered or extinct, among other effects.

Humans have consumed more resources than the planet can regenerate. It is urgent to raise awareness and educate the population about adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. This will contribute to reducing resource consumption and mitigating environmental degradation.

The creation of environmental sustainability indicators has allowed the establishment of guidelines and limits to raise awareness among the population and social movements about the urgent need to harmonize with our environment. This requires changes in individuals’ and social groups’ lifestyles and the use of sustainable systems for communication, transportation, food, energy, etc.

Over the years, concern for the environment has increased. Companies have a lot to contribute, especially in reducing their negative externalities. They must do so through their plans and strategies, but it is necessary to include an adequate measurement method to determine if the actions taken are successful.

The first step is to establish sustainability indicators, which will be based on a materiality analysis. This is a process that helps the company determine which areas to focus on. It leads the company to prioritize objectives while addressing the concerns of stakeholders. Thus, it provides a solid foundation to cover the rest of the stages.

Furthermore, the application of urgent policies is required to change the production and consumption model. This will achieve a more sustainable relationship with our planet.

Sustainability indicators are essential for creating a solid plan. Without them, it would be unclear whether progress is being made in the right direction or if the objectives are being met.