Digitalization and sustainability are the biggest challenges of our time - the topics are therefore at the top of the agenda in every post-COVID relaunch plan. But if organizations and companies really want to make progress, they have to weave both elements into one synergy: digital sustainability. Kobe Geryl and Jan Verdickt, Manager Sustainability and Service Lead BI & Analytics at KPMG Belgium respectively, explain how to facilitate this synergy.

Jan: "Digital sustainability is a hot topic. A recent report from the United Nations shows that we are struggling to meet our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Why is that? Amongst others, not using enough objective data to graft our actions onto and support our policies."

Start from the heart of your organization

Kobe: "More and more, organizations are raising the bar on sustainability, partly at the request of internal and external stakeholders. That's definitely a good evolution. But it forces companies to convert vague objectives into strategy and concrete action - and that's not obvious to everyone."

"So, how do you go about this? Start from the heart of your company. What is your mission? What do your customers consider important? What actions are priorities for your stakeholders? How does your company position itself in the market? You build your strategy on the basis of these questions. And that's no different with a sustainability strategy."

Connect relevant data

Kobe: "The next step: how do you translate your strategy into a concrete action plan? And data analysis is very important for this: with the right data, you can make the proposed objectives concrete. In this way, you can identify the obstacles and determine the most efficient measures and quick wins. An example? If, as a company, you want to limit your CO2 emissions, then you need to use science-based insights to know what reduction figure will really make a difference."

"Relevant data can be found all over your organization: from the IT and marketing departments to customer service. Sometimes, that data is part of software programs on which you can perform relatively easy analyses. But, it is also often less structured data, built up from experience and expertise. Or, the data is held by an external partner and is therefore not easily accessible."

Jan: "If you want to use that data intelligently, you have to connect it with each other. To do this, you will have to break silos and look beyond the departmental boundaries for valuable insights. Companies don't necessarily have to implement new complex systems to do this. It is more efficient to capture the right data from existing systems, link them together, and then validate them. Sound data governance and data management are crucial here."

From data to sustainability action

Kobe: "Companies often have tens of thousands to millions of records. If you're responsible for sustainability, I can imagine that it can be stressful to have to extract insights from so much data. But that's where technology makes a difference."

"For example: in many companies, each department is undertaking initiatives individually to reduce carbon emissions. But data analysis and visualization give you a global picture of the major pain points and quick wins for the entire company. In this way, you develop a consolidated picture from which you can make informed decisions. The key, then, is to optimize and align internal processes so that the data flows smoothly - even across departments. It paves the way for more useful insights and a culture of open communication."

Jan: "This consolidated approach can also make a difference in the purchasing department. Retailers often do their best to take sustainability characteristics into account during the purchasing procedure. But often, they have several buyers, each with their key accounts and their own points of interest. By transparently combining the knowledge and sustainability indicators of the various buyers, and centralizing the definition, KPI’s and targets on sustainable procurement, you develop the best possible method for making well-founded organization-wide decisions during the purchasing procedure."

Make transparency your trademark

Jan: "If you base your policy choices and action plans on data, you can also communicate about them more transparently and objectively. This transparent communication still scares off a lot of executives. Understandably, because data are objective parameters behind which it's not always easy to hide."

"Nevertheless, this transparency is a must. Firstly, because more and more stakeholders expect open communication. But also because transparency reveals the strengths and areas for improvement of your sustainability strategy and can therefore be an engine for improvement."

Bottom-up and top-down: supported decisions are a must

Kobe: "In any transition, it is important to get both internal and external stakeholders on board. Digitalization helps with that, too. Not only do you better substantiate your policy choices, you also use technology to map out trends and evolutions on dashboards. In this way, you provide your employees and external stakeholders with important insights - and you show that your actions are part of a broader story."

"Our motto is: business first, technology enables. Digitalization is not an end in itself, but a means to gain insights and achieve goals. In your story, however, use only the data with which you can truly make an impact. And don't just report at the highest level, but involve your entire organization."

Jan: "A focus on the big, substantiated story is important in annual reports and sustainability reports. Companies like to show off with pilot projects and sustainability actions. And that's fine, because with such stories you inspire the reader. But, they must fit within the overarching strategy; they shouldn’t be purely anecdotal."

"For example: two companies are investing in water-saving urinals for their visitors. One company is a chemicals giant that uses a lot of water in its production, the other is Brussels Airport. If you measure that action against the impact gained, then you see that the benefits for the chemicals giant are relatively limited. But, at Brussels Airport it's a different story: millions of people pass through there every year with a full bladder, so the impact is enormous."

Kobe: "You can use digitalization to support your global sustainability strategy - to provide direction or to monitor progress. But you can also use digital technology to address one well-defined need. Suppose you have a business in the food industry and your customers are increasingly asking about the origin of the food you sell. In this case, blockchain technology can provide the answer to communicate about this transparently. In this way, you can use digitalization on several fronts."

Starting your sustainability journey

Are you convinced that digital sustainability can also make a difference in your company? KPMG can help you on your way - from setting goals and implementing strategies to measuring results. Discover our full offer of sustainability services or contact our sustainability and digital experts.

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