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How to use sustainability data to drive change

Being a data practitioner who cares deeply about truly sustainable solutions in the tech industry is… difficult. In a field where the only intelligence companies’ value needs to be prefixed by the word business, pushing for truly sustainable technological solutions can get quite complicated. I mention this at the start of this article because of my belief that no solution aimed at sustainability in tech will have any real impact as long as these solutions are driven purely by the need for growth and profit. As long as incentives stay the same, progress in “sustainability” is nothing but the decreasing or increasing of pointless proxies. All this being said, I believe there can be models for development within sustainability. Models that can lay foundations for further work and exploration within data and sustainability. One such model that I have developed mainly for my own sanity or lack thereof is the data- and sustainability pyramid.

A definition of data

A short note on definitions: In this article, I define data as any solution that utilises data engineering, data science, analytics engineering, data analytics, or similar in the field of IT. The word sustainability has almost lost all meaning after much greenwashing. I’ve chosen to stick with a more basic definition that goes down to the roots of the word – the ability to sustain. In most cases the thing companies and organisations want to sustain is their own growth. Sustainability usually comes in as an attempt to have this growth occur decoupled from the climate-changing impacts that are necessary for growth. This serves as one definition but my main definition is turning the definition above on its head. I instead define sustainability as our ability to conduct whatever business activities we need to conduct while maintaining or improving our ability to sustain the complex and vital ecosystems that provide humans and all other organisms with the ingredients of life.

Making good judgments and acting wisely when one has complete data, facts, and information is not leadership. It’s not even management. It’s bookkeeping. Leadership requires the ability to make wise decisions and act responsibly upon them when one has little more than a clear sense of direction, proper values, and some understanding of the forces driving change.

This model of thinking about sustainability for businesses and organisations is a work in progress. Its main purpose is twofold. Firstly, it serves as a framework for discussing where the organisation currently is or, in other words, what its current pyramid looks like. Secondly, it is meant to always push toward the top of the pyramid. What does this mean in practice and why should one be striving for the top of the pyramid?

A first question to focus on

The first question to start answering when assessing an organisation’s data & sustainability pyramid is how things currently are. Looking exclusively at the present moment, what data is being collected? What data might be missing? Is the data structured properly? Is the data centralised to one system or is it decentralised and messy? To build as high a pyramid as possible you require a broad base. This base is typically dependent on the completeness and structure of the data that encompasses all or the majority of the organisation’s processes. By processes I mean every step that goes into the organisation’s value creation chain. This can include manufacturing, extraction of materials, computing, transport, refinement, cloud services, chemical treatment, land usage, heating, and much more. Since ecosystems are complex systems there can be no clear answer on what’s needed data-wise for these processes. The boundaries for what needs measuring will most likely be decided by which standards and certifications the organisation or the market values. Along with the organisation’s data on their own processes there typically needs to be a connection with external data sets that include the climate impacts of those processes. An example of this would be an internal data set on the processes for manufacturing a cotton t-shirt that includes how much cotton is needed per t-shirt, where the cotton is grown, if it is organically grown or not, how the cotton fiber has been made into a fabric, how that fabric has been treated chemically, as well as the transport distance and transport type for the t-shirt. Each and every step should then be connected to its corresponding impact number, be it estimated CO2e, water usage, or something else.

Now, few organisations might currently track their climate impact data with this level of detail. The point here is simply to see where there might be gaps in the base and see what low-hanging fruits exist to make sure the base is as stable as possible. The point of the pyramid’s base is to reach a holistic understanding of the organisation’s present climate impact.

Traversing up the pyramid we can explore the organisation’s ability to extrapolate its data into the future and see where they are currently headed. This gets increasingly important for organisations with constantly changing and (fingers crossed) more and more ambitious goals from global institutions. The base shows where you are and the middle shows where you’re headed.

The top of the pyramid is what actually matters. If you have a fairly accurate idea of where you currently are as well as a decent look into where you’re going in the future, the top of the pyramid gives you the ability to model new solutions and interventions and change your direction. This is where the organisation can shape its landscape and its own future.


If I could have my way I would actually prefer that most or all organisations put all their effort into the top of the pyramid. The truth of the matter is that most signs point to the fact that this pyramid is more of an iceberg. This metaphor works in two ways. First of all, the worse things get the more it melts away and we might not get a chance to get a grasp of either the present, the future, or the possibility to take action. Second of all, the only way to stay above the surface is to spend time at the top of the pyramid or iceberg. The more time we mess around with obsessing over the base the higher our risk of metaphorical and, potentially, actual drowning.

In conclusion, this model is something that I have in the back of my mind when assessing organisations and their claims regarding sustainability and their future in the world. Maybe it can be useful for you too.