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According to Merriam-Webster, sustainability is defined as “being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” With all the reporting, discussion, and opinions on the state of sustainability as it relates to big business today, this definition seems pretty straightforward and simple. However, we recently came across an article from CSRWire that begs the question, how can sustainability be measured? What yardstick is being used? Just because a company claims in their reports that they have cut their use of resources by 30%, does that mean this initiative is more sustainable? Or were they simply just using more resources than they were entitled to in past years?

One approach that we find particularly intriguing is context based sustainability, which calls for a different way of viewing sustainability initiatives. Rather than trying to determine whether or not a program has actually done enough to be considered sustainable on a global basis, context based sustainability is an approach that “explicitly takes local content into account when attempting to measure, manage or report the sustainability performance of an organization.” In this respect, context is defined as the social and environmental conditions that a company’s operations impact, not just in the present, but into the future.

When Cabot Creamery, a Vermont based family dairy cooperative, wanted to revamp its sustainability campaign, it did so with a context based approach. The use of water resources is a critical area of impact for the creamery. The only way to answer the question of whether or not the rate of their use of water resources was sustainable was to look at the availability of water resources at the location where the creamery is located. Cabot’s sustainability director Jed Davis says, “It’s possible that we could be reducing our water each year and still be far away from what would be sustainable in our particular watershed for, let’s say, the next couple of generations.” Cabot is developing context based metrics not only for the benefit of their own sustainability initiatives, but for the future of the dairy industry as a whole. By starting within the context of their own environment, they are able to optimize their results while communicating to the local community their dedication and commitment in a truly authentic way.

Cabot in particular has strong ties to its surrounding community based on its reliance on farming and watersheds. For global corporations, this is may be a less feasible notion. However, rather than placing high level statistics in an annual report with no real context, for some companies it might be worth thinking about measuring sustainability on a more local level. By doing this, companies not only help to maintain their community in the present, they help maintain their community for the future.