Baselining and Benchmarking: Charting the Route Towards Sustainability

Beginning the corporate sustainability journey requires an initial check-up. Baselining and benchmarking offer business leaders an objective analysis of existing organizational operations to help run a tight ship and save money.

The path towards a sustainable future starts with the father of management, Peter F. Drucker, who famously quipped, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Evaluating today’s standing is a prerequisite for tracking progress towards any new destination.

Drop the Baseline

When it comes to sustainability, we industry nerds call this baselining. Much like a health check-up before a new workout regimen, baselining helps gauge a current level of health against a fitter, future self.

If not already doing so, businesses should track and quantify all resource inflows. These represent literal dollar bills entering and leaving (including waste) your organization. Most common forms include utilities, water, raw materials, fuel for fleet vehicles, or any other resources required for uninterrupted business operation. Baselining financials helps businesses calculate their unit of consumption per unit of production.

Baselining also helps determine what’s already measured and, just as importantly, recognize what is not. For example, if your business isn’t already tracking water consumption, it would be impossible to vet savings following water efficiency upgrades.

If you haven’t performed a comprehensive baseline assessment, make sure it’s at the top of your list. Tools such as the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager can get businesses started on the right track to future savings through energy management. The EPA also offers resources for companies interested in performing a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory.

Benchmarking: How Do You Compare?

Baselining also allows companies to compare consumption against peers in the region and industry. This comparison is called benchmarking. Understanding how your organization stacks up against competitors can help identify opportunities for improvements. 

Think of benchmarking as “keeping up with the Joneses”. But instead of feeling a need to park a shiny new SUV on the driveway, your peers’ behavior may drive more efficient resource consumption to remain competitive.

To normalize, compare resource consumption on a unit-per-square-foot index. For example, how much energy or water did a facility consume per-square-foot of floor space last year? Other comparisons could include consumption per employee or unit of production. Most companies pay close attention to their competition in other areas (i.e. sales or market share) but don’t know where they stack up when it comes to resource consumption.

When it comes to benchmarking energy consumption, the Energy Information Agency (IEA) maintains a database of building energy-use by sector and geographic location throughout the U.S. The document is pragmatically titled the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). IEA performed the most recent survey in 2018 and will publish detailed results by summer 2021.

Materiality Mapping: Discovering Hidden Treasure

Is your organization thinking about all the areas for improvements? Have you considered key sustainability challenges and opportunities specific to your industry? 

Materiality maps offer business leaders key insights into the greatest sustainability opportunities based on the unique challenges their industry presents. For example, a food and beverage manufacturer will experience different sustainability challenges than an insurance company. Materiality maps help leaders understand the opportunities. Ensure you’re considering all opportunities relevant to your industry.

Materiality assessments also help identify the sustainability topics that may matter most to your investors. They provide investors with a useful framework that links sustainability initiatives to effective business practices.

Make sure you’re starting any sustainability journey with detailed baselining, benchmarking, and materiality mapping first.

Check out the next article in this series for tips on continuing your sustainability journey.

You just read article number three in a ten-part series titled Nine Beacons to Chart Your Business Towards a Sustainable Future. To start from the beginning, check-out the first 3-minute article in the series. For the entire picture, download the full publication (PDF).

Are you ready to start integrating sustainability into your business? Could you use help with your baselining efforts? Contact Solutions in Sustainability today to get started. We’d enjoy discussing which Solutions in Sustainability may be right for you.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at

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