Metrics at work: Influencing consumer behavior to improve the environment

A new nonprofit organization, ClimateCounts, just launched their website today (and there are a few kinks by the way) to give consumers comparative information on how individual companies are doing at addressing climate change (see NYT article). Their goal, of course, is to influence buying behavior...thinking that if they can demonstrate, for example, that HP has a better enviromental conscience than Dell (which I'm making up because their site keeps giving me errors!!) an enlightened consumer might just go with HP for their next laptop purchase. One can evaluate their methodology, the sample they included, etc but what's amazing to me is that small efforts like this demonstrate that there ARE ways to compare performance and more importantly, to make data digestible to the common consumer (or philanthropist).

Efforts like this provide some hope to those of us who have slugged it out in the "accountability" trade for a while now (see also the NYT article from 6/15 on progress toward changes to the 990) and they demonstrate a couple of key tenets that I think are valuable for any organization trying to pierce the "it's all good work" veil:

- It must be clear what behavior you hope to change by gathering and analyzing data. There needs to be focus to the effort, otherwise, to quote a former colleague: "you end up boiling the ocean."

-Presentation is everything. ClimateCounts has come up with a cool little graphic in their scorecard that shows whether a company is Striding, Starting or Stuck. Presentation matters when you want action, rather than study.

- The methodology for what gets measured, weighed, reported can be imperfect and incomplete as long as it's transparent what that methodology is. No methodology is ever perfect. Ever. Some won't buy into what you did; others will. Others will make useful suggestions on how to improve it. The point is that reasonable, thoughtful people design an approach and get started. It can be improved over time. It's up to the consumer to decide whether they like the approach.

- There is a valuable role for third-party aggregators and analysts, like ClimateCounts, in getting this information to the surface. First, they provide context by being able to compare results. Second, they are more willing to make a comparison, i.e. to declare that the work can be compared. Third, they are invested in stimulating action, which means they'll go after the data that's needed.

I'm heartened. Little examples, like this one, keep popping up to suggest that the taboo against comparing "the goods" and using that information to unabashedly influence behavior is lifting ever so slightly (albeit, in this case and others, it seems to be taking root in comparing for-profit, rather than non-profit entity performance). This is progress. Hopefully, to use ClimateCounts' lingo, we'll be "Striding" soon. Right now, we're just past "Stuck."

Nancy DeFauw

Posted at 5:04 PM, Jun 21, 2007 in Accountability | Environment | Permalink | Comment