How can we measure sustainability? Focus on indices and indicators

How can we measure sustainability? Focus on indices and indicators

September 13, 2018

How can we measure sustainability? Focus on indices and indicators

From the definition of sustainability to the creation of sustainability indices: there are many ways of establishing whether businesses, cities and countries are complying with the principles of sustainable development and with what results.

What does sustainable development mean? According to the United Nations, it is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. And to put this principle into effect, the right balance has to be struck between the various factors: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. “All these issues are interconnected and are fundamental for the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole,” the United Nations experts explain, reminding us that sustainable development demands concrete actions to build a future of inclusion and resilience for all the world's population. 

Sustainability indices

Although there is a fair degree of agreement concerning the definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, the same cannot be said concerning the best method for measuring these parameters and finding out whether we are really moving in the right direction to guarantee economic and social growth while protecting the environment. A large number of indicators have been used for this purpose, including various aspects of society and the economy (such as per capita income, gender differences and food waste), which generate specific sustainability indices. In this context, BCFN has joined forces with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to develop the Food Sustainability Index, a tool intended to assess food sustainability and thus provide a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the food system, highlighting best practices across the various countries and monitoring the progress made. Produced for the third time in 2018, the index classifies countries, using 55 different indicators to assess three fundamental pillars of food sustainability: sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges and food waste.


GDP alone is not enough

One thing is certain: wellbeing and sustainability are not the same as economic wealth, and therefore they cannot be measured by the same methods. This is why the gross domestic product (GDP), a measurement often used to assess a country's "health", is not really a useful measurement of sustainable development. “There is a need for suitable sustainability indices  which consider the modern challenges such as climate change, poverty, the over-exploitation of resources, heath and quality of life," the European Commission explains. It was the Commission's experts, together with other international partners including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), who in 2007 launched the “Beyond GDP” initiative, to identify the best indices for measuring progress. However, moving back a step, as early as the 1990s the United Nations had already introduced a first attempt to go "beyond GDP" by creating the Human Development Index (HDI), with the idea that people and their skills are the criteria which should be used to measure a country's progress and prosperity. 

From businesses to countries

The Financial Times defines sustainability indices as “share indices of companies that are managed in a way which respects the environment and the future interests of society and does not try to obtain immediate profits". Today there are a large number of indices that do not only assess a company's performance on the basis of profits: the well-known Dow Jones Index, for example, includes several sustainability versions (Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, DJSI), while the Gender Equality Index (GEI) launched by Bloomberg early in 2018 helps to measure the gender differences that still restrict women's development and independence in many sectors. In some ways, this can be linked to a version which extends beyond the business to the country, managed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). 

Shared aims (and measurements) 

When discussing sustainability and sustainable development, mention must be made of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals included in the United Nations 2030 Agenda. A specific index, the SDG Index, has been built up with regard to these goals: “Governments and civil society alike can utilize this index to identify priorities for action, understand key implementation challenges, track progress, ensure accountability, and identify gaps that must be closed in order to achieve the SDGs by 2030," the United Nations explains. The annual report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Bertelsmann Stiftung, supplies a clear account of how the various countries are moving towards the final goal, and helps to complete the information provided by the official sustainability indices of the 17 goals and the reviews provided by various countries on a voluntary basis. 

The third edition of this report, published in July 2018, includes all 193 United Nations member states and was produced after the addition of new indicators for more accurate coverage of all the goals. The results show that many G20 countries have started to work towards the sustainable development goals, but if the trends remain the same, none of the countries analyzed will be able to achieve all the goals by 2030, due above all in the slow rate of progress in strategies for tackling climate change but also with regard to sustainable consumption and the improvement of production systems.

The Food Sustainability Index will be amongst the topics to be discussed on 28 September 2018 in New York, during the BCFN Foundation International Forum on Food and Nutrition.

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