Many businesses are increasingly realizing the need to meet not only their economic goals, but to become more sustainable by engaging in environmentally and socially responsible actions. Because we lack consistent global and national policies to guide organizations to make the systemic changes required to become more sustainable, responsibility to move this important work forward has fallen on local governments, private and public sector organizations, and individuals.

As a consultant who helps businesses become more profitable by strategically becoming environmentally, socially, and financially responsible, I am often asked how to build effective sustainability programs, and how to measure progress to ensure that the actions taken have the intended results and lasting impact. In this article, I will describe the stages a company visits during this journey to embedding socially and environmentally responsible practices and the metrics typically connected with each stage.

As an organization traverses the stages of sustainability maturity, it typically shifts from focusing solely on traditional measures of economic health (such as profit), to eco-efficiencies, then to broader governance, and environmental and social impacts. When people understand the stages better, they can then identify the metrics their organization needs to empower its individual path, goals and contributions.

This model of a “sustainability continuum” is based on the ideas of authors Coro Strandberg, Bob Willard and others.

Stage 1- Pre-compliance - An organization exploits resources for the sole purpose of profit. Companies in this stage may exist in places where they do not have environmental or other regulations or are not complying with them. Only traditional economic metrics such as revenue and profit exist in stage 1.

Stage 2 - Compliance - The organization spends resources to comply with the law, but does the bare minimum to avoid legal disputes. Companies in this stage view sustainability as a cost and the emphasis is on profit and risk management. In situations where there is limited visibility into corporate activity, an organization may engage in questionable practices such as reliance on toxic materials, or a supply chain with dangerous conditions for workers.

The metrics that companies use in this stage include traditional profit-based economic, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), and required labor metrics.

Stage 3 - Resource Optimization/Eco-Efficiencies - The organization realizes it can save money and improve its reputation by being more efficient with resources and increasing social responsibility. The emphasis is still largely on risk management and brand, and sustainability is mainly a “box-checking” activity in specific departments such as facilities, rather than vital to the core functioning of the business.

This is an important advance, and can lead to valuable projects, but the focus is on “do less harm” and “cost less” rather than “do more good”. Metrics in this stage include operations and output such as emissions, energy, water, waste, transportation, product materials and packaging, and supply chain impacts. The organization engages in regular sustainability goal setting, reporting, and accountability.

Stage 4 - Purpose-Driven Companies In this stage, sustainability is integrated into the company’s core business strategy, culture, and values from the top down. For most companies, this stage is the end goal.

Though the product(s) or service sold by the company can be broad-ranging, the purpose is business as a force for good - to have a positive impact on society and the environment. The core vision, mission, and brand are inseparable from this purpose. The value created is on a larger scale solving the most pressing social and environmental challenges.

These companies benefit from competitive advantage and long-term economic success more than traditional companies. Sustainability is a catalyst for growth and innovation, and in every department and aspect of the organization.

Reporting metrics have changed to include impacts on the environment (ex: impact on health of air/water/land/wildlife, full product life-cycle impacts), the community (ex: supplier relations, diversity, charitable giving), workers (ex: job flexibility, culture, compensation, hours training), and governance (ex: diversity of boards, ethics, accountability) in addition to standard economic metrics.

Stage 5 - Purpose IS the Product or Service – For these organizations, the product and/or service provided is one that positively impacts society or the environment, or solves our most pressing global problems. Most non-profits would fall into this category, and examples of such companies include those selling solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, reuse, composting and recycling materials and services, film/music/fine arts production, forest restoration, health, education, impact investing, or carbon sequestration.

But just because the product has a positive impact or solves an environmental or societal problem, it doesn’t automatically guarantee Stage 5. For example, a dentist's office has the purpose of improving dental health, however if they use and dispose of large amounts of plastic containing hazardous chemicals produced in factories harming those workers and their communities, they would still be a Stage 2 company.

Sustainability metrics need to be understandable and comparable. Good metrics enable organizations to be proactive and drive performance and competitiveness, rather than reactive to regulatory requirements, environmental risks, or even emergencies or unexpected events like COVID-19. Organizations can look to the many existing sustainability tools and frameworks in order to make progress on their own journey, and make the business world a little bit greener.

Karen Tempkin is a Certified Corporate Sustainability Manager and co-founder of NimbleTwist Consulting. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has postponed or cancelled many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community and a handful of compelling readings. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market will have online ordering for pickup at the market available throughout the season, starting May 23. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

June 1. New store hours at Home ReSource – open 7 days/week! Starting Monday, June 1, Home ReSource will be open 10am-5pm, 7 days/week! Customers will still be required to wear a mask and wash their hands before entering the store, and staff are still sanitizing surfaces regularly and limiting customers to 20 at a time. Visit the Home ReSource website for up-to-date information.

June 4. Online compost workshop. Join Garden City Harvest and Soil Cycle on Thursday, June 4 from 5:30-7pm for an online workshop covering all the basics of composting. Details and sign up here.

June 8. The Story of Plastic virtual screening & panel discussion. Climate Smart Missoula, Families for a Livable Climate, Ecology Project International, and Home ReSource have partnered up to offer a free virtual screening of The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Stick around after the screening to join in a conversation about the plastics crisis, its relationship to the climate crisis, what’s happening in Montana, and empowering ways to take action and make a difference. Tickets and more information are available here. has many virtual activities listed – they’re stepping up to help us all stay engaged.

What we’re reading (and listening to) this week: