Evaluating Sustainability Tradeoffs

2Gather Life-Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Data

Begin by gathering objective, research- or experience-based data on the practices or policies to be evaluated. Information on potential impacts can be found from various groups identified in the Resources section at the end of this document. A commodity or trade association may have analyzed a specific practice, or if the subject is of broad interest, may agree to conduct one as a service to its members. Universities, trade associations, government agencies and for-and non-profit organizations are all potential sources of information or can suggest other resources to aid in your analysis.

Keep in mind the credibility of the source and information. The gold standard for research is publication in a peer-reviewed journal. This means the research has passed the rigor of review by other experts in the field and meets the standards for publication by the research journal’s editors. Research of this caliber takes time and resources to conduct and may be very narrowly focused but can be considered very credible when available. An analysis or literature review of existing research on a topic can also be very informative when done objectively and comprehensively. “Cherry picking” which studies are included to favor a particular point-of-view can be a temptation when conducting this type of research so be alert for this type of bias when evaluating such studies, or when approached with study results from an organization advocating for a specific position. Your own internal experts’ knowledge and experience, in conjunction with or in lieu of outside research, may provide the most accurate and relevant information on how a decision may impact your company. Their in-depth understanding of your systems and processes can identify possible unintended consequences of changes that aren’t apparent to those outside the organization.

Once you have gathered the available information you can begin weighing the inevitable tradeoffs. Recognize that there is often tension between economic and environmental or social dimensions, particularly if technological solutions have not yet been developed for an issue. A practice that is better for the environment may be more expensive, at least initially, and may negatively impact the economic attribute of profitability or social attribute of food affordability. Strategies to address this issue may include establishing return-on-investment criteria (prioritize break-even or positive ROI projects) or committing to invest in improved processes or in research to develop more cost-effective solutions.

Efficiency is generally considered an economic consideration but, in reality, can have environmental and social benefits. A good example is land use. Green Revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation. Farming intensification is economically positive in most cases, using less land, water, and energy to produce a certain yield. However, every system has a tipping point where additional gains are no longer practical (the Pareto principle) so the goal should be to optimize rather than strictly maximizing efficiency.

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