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Is Your Company Leaving Value on the Table?

What if Steve Jobs had only considered cost and ignored aesthetics, functionality and other issues? He would never have sparked the innovations core to Apple products. “Think different,” was fundamentally about expanding the set of factors that mattered in designing the company’s products. Of course, cost and other factors mattered immensely.

Few question the importance of expanding the opportunity space to consider how products or companies can benefit people. Yet few relentlessly pursue the space where product and corporate value is created due to a generation of not one, but multiple returns—for customers and investors as well as for societies and the natural environment.

There are a growing number of cases where companies create multidimensional return on investment, or ROI. For example, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, asserted, “The more our products meet social needs and help people live sustainably, the more popular our brands become and the more we grow. And the more efficient we are at managing resources such as energy and raw materials, the more we lower our costs and reduce the risks to our business and the more we are able to invest in sustainable innovation and brands.”

Imagine if businesspeople consistently examined decisions in terms of prospects for total value generation: financial ROI as well as measurable local community and societal returns, and also environmentally beneficial outcomes. Corporate decisions could be thoroughly assessed for a 360-degree view on risk and opportunity. Investors, shareholders, business decision-makers and employees would all have more insight with which to make decisions.

This idea is no longer far-flung. A growing set of corporate leaders—as varied as Dow, SwissRe, Unilever, Interface and others—actively consider multiple dimensions to decision-making. Corporate case examples of multidimensional factors being brought into decision-making and value creation have been laid out by BSR, the Corporate Eco Forum, the Natural Capital Coalition, the Shared Value Initiative, Social Value Portal, the Nature Conservancy and others. Many of these cases illustrate corporate “shared value” creation as well as the business “benefit multiplier” of investing in nature.

More info about corporate risk and opportunity offers an expanded range of insight, better decisions and management.

The rationale is simple. More information about corporate risk and opportunity offers an expanded range of insight, which translates into better decisions and management. This broadened range of sight will also serve companies well in an era of greater corporate transparency, as environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are increasingly queried by investors and shareholders who wish to understand risk in a climate-changing, water-challenged and socioeconomically unequal world.

Note Bloomberg’s work on a water risk valuation assessment tool as well as the S&P Global Indices UK Limited’s pending purchase of TruCost, an environmental data and insight firm. Many of these business risks also represent opportunities—to cut costs, increase efficiencies, improve products, spark customer loyalty, anticipate regulation and enhance brand.

It is timely, therefore, for business leaders to assess the range of frameworks and tools for measuring corporate value creation along multiple dimensions, including in terms of financial returns as well as social return on investment (SROI), corporate community investment measurement, shared value, social impact, social impact assessment (SIA), social value, enhancements to natural capital and also maintenance of ecosystem services flows.

Yet, despite increasing maturity of approaches to measuring value creation, many of these tools remain focused on one additional issue, such as value to society or positive environmental impact. There is a gap in approaches that integrate across rigorous measurement of metrics, such as financial returns, societal benefits and natural capital maintenance (or even enhancement).

This gap—in rigorous tools for effectively measuring multidimensional ROI—is not just a missed opportunity. It is a failure to capture the full set of returns that are being realized from business decisions and investments.

As a result, corporate decision-makers are challenged to see the business and community or societal benefits of investing in operations, products or collaborative initiatives that avoid or mitigate impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services, including those related to climate change risk and water risk management.

Similarly, corporate community engagement teams do not have a straightforward approach for assessing the community-relevant returns from corporate environmental actions, though they exist in very material ways, such as related to water availability and even water quality, as well as buffering from flooding and numerous other issues.

The current disjointed set of business value-creation measures represents a failure to show how value creation can be robustly measured across multiple dimensions that can inform decisions within a well-run business.

Within this context, BSR’s Natural Capital & Ecosystem Services Working Group convened a roundtable that brought together thought and practice leaders who are focused on the seldom cross-pollinated areas of work related to “shared value,” blended value, impact investment, SROI, community and social impact, natural capital valuation and ecosystem services measurement.

The intent was to start a conversation about how to measure, in a joined up approach, the various ways in which businesses are producing value, with a particular focus on both ecosystem services and local community impact measurement approaches, metrics and systems.

The rationale is that corporate decision-makers are more likely to act on business models focused on “shared value”—which include decisions that avoid or mitigate impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services—if they have robust and credible measures with which to assess whether (and how) improving flows of ecosystem services also creates social or community value as well as financial returns.

Stemming from the discussion, the pathways forward for business decision-makers are clear. The opportunity to apply robust multidimensional value generation frameworks exists through linking up various approaches, including:

For measuring societal and community returns: Acting on leading principles and best practices from shared value, social impact, SIA, social value,  SROI, corporate community investment measurement and related fields that focus on business delivering both financial and societal returns.

For assessing positive impact on natural systems, upon which human communities also rely: Early on in corporate decision-making processes, reviewing lists of ecosystem services and functions with which to identify impacts and consider avoidance or mitigation through ecological restoration.  Examples include environmental factors laid out in Abt’s work for the U.S. Department of the Interior on socioeconomic metrics to measure climate resilience projects, as well as the EPA’s on “Final Ecosystem Goods and Services” or European Environment Agency’s “Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services.” When appropriate, businesspeople can apply ecosystem services measurement tools to gain a detailed understanding of costs/benefits of various scenarios (for example, the Ecosystem Services Identification & Inventory Tool).

For placing financial values on natural systems positive actions: Applying widely vetted, tested and reviewed approaches, such as the Natural Capital Protocol or project-specific valuation through ecological economics tools and applications or natural capital accounting methods.

The most robust business opportunity assessments and measurement of multidimensional returns will combine currently siloed frameworks. The result will be an integrated approach to examining financial, as well as community, societal and ecological, results, such as bringing together traditional financial measures of return on investment with leading societal and community returns work, and also approaches to measuring positive impact measurement on natural systems.

The opportunity is clear. Thought and practice leaders are already acting. Now is the time to jump in and engage with the new era of value creation.

This piece first appeared on GreenBiz Insights.

Sissel Waage

Director, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at BSR

Sissel Waage is Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for BSR. She has more than 20 years of experience working on sustainability issues in North America, Europe and Africa.

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