Consensus on Standards That Matter: Global Footprint Releases 2009 Footprint Standards and Comments on Stigliz Report

Global Footprint Network, our collaborator on the Summit of Ecological Creditor Nations, has just released its 2009 Ecological Footprint Standards, building on the 2006 standards (the first set of internationally recognized footprint standards), and including more than five substantial revisions.  You can download the Ecological Footprint Standards 2009 but be advised that the report is not for a general audience, lacking extensive, introductory material on analysis or communication.  Reading the report, however, is not necessary for non-experts to get excited about the evolution of consensus not only on Footprint standards themselves but on their increasing importance to sustainability and thrivability.  Good standards matter.  We agree with Global Footprint Network on why standards are important to calculating Footprint:

imageA growing number of government agencies, organizations and communities are adopting the Ecological Footprint as a core indicator of sustainable resource use. As the number of Ecological Footprint practitioners around the world increases, different approaches to conducting Footprint studies could lead to fragmentation and divergence of the methodology. This would reduce the ability of the Footprint to produce consistent and comparable assessments across applications, and could generate confusion. The value of the Footprint as a trusted sustainability metric therefore depends not only on the scientific integrity of the methodology, but also on consistent and transparent presentation of results across analyses. It also depends on communicating results of analyses in a manner that does not distort or misrepresent findings. To meet these goals, Global Footprint Network initiated a consensus, committee-based process for the development of standards governing Footprint applications, and for an ongoing scientific review of the methodology. Ensuring that Footprint results are both credible and consistent will encourage even more widespread adoption of the Ecological Footprint, increasing its effectiveness as a catalyst for a sustainable future.

Consensus on emerging standards has also been an important issue in corporate social responsibility for decades.  There weren’t always organizations like Global Footprint Network or B Corp to help shine light on which standards really matter, which practices really result in the intended goals instead of, for example, simply green washing.  And building this consensus has been a slow process.  Debate about the inadequacy of Gross Domestic Product as a standard by which the wealth of countries is judged is also decades-long, although today it’s much harder to successfully argue that money spent on things like building prisons and alarm systems actually adds to a country’s wealth–but the debate on standards had to actually (and painfully slowly) penetrate to the level of a collective questioning of what wealth really is for consensus to begin to swing toward new standards.  And such a debate is meaningless unless set in the context of consensus about the physical limits of our planet’s ability to regenerate itself and to therefore sustain our quality of life.

Which is why Global Footprint Network’s response to the Stiglitz report from the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which has focused on one challenge–how we can move beyond GDP to broader measures of a nation’s economic, social and environmental well-being–merits significant attention:

The report synthesizes the complex field of economic performance and social progress indicators and substantiates the voices of early pioneers like Hazel Henderson and Hermann Daly. With this report, there is now wide agreement that humanity’s success in the 21st century depends largely on robust navigational tools. The report has built a productive platform for further discussions. However, there is still much work to do. The report points out that there is no consensus yet as to which indicators provide the greatest value, and how they should be applied in guiding public policy.

First, it is crucial to build on the important work of the Commission – and perhaps its most significant finding is the need to track distinct policy goals separately: economic, performance, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. We agree that combining these various aspects of well-being would dilute clarity and provide numerical results with little practical utility. However, there still remain some misconceptions about the Ecological Footprint and the overall significance of ecological constraints, as reflected in the report.   Environmental sustainability is an area that we believe affects all others – from the well-being of a nation’s economy to the well-being of its people. For this reason, we believe it is important to directly address some of the issues about the Footprint raised in the report.

The Commission created by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and chaired by Nobel Prize-winning economists Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University and Professor Amartya Sen of Harvard, has opened a debate about human well-being in the 21st century. To succeed, we must ensure that the debate remains open, comprehensive, and relevant to emerging trends.

We’re strongly encouraging the Commission to work with the Global Footprint Network to build on this work, so critical to creating and accelerating the consensus that can lead to widespread adoption of standards that matter.

Download the Stiglitz Commission Report
Download Global Footprint Network’s Response to the Report