Accelerate your sustainability career by embracing big data

In this article, Philipp Paul Schwarz takes a close look at how ‘big data’ is going to influence the Corporate Sustainability space. The fundamental question will be: How are these two fields linked and how could this link impact people, who are looking to build a career in either one of them?

Let’s start our investigation by agreeing on what corporate sustainability is all about. Independent of where this category ranks in the organizational hierarchy, its inherent goal is to ask critical and previously ignored questions about the company’s business practices, footprint and supply chain. These questions are increasingly asked from a cost-saving perspective rather than purely from a “How can we impress the consumer?” one. Many of us are familiar with the old as well as the more recent stories about large companies saving millions of dollars by putting on a sustainable thinking cap. Sustainability and energy efficiency are not only topics of discussion among corporate teams, but are shaping the world as we know it. The smart grid and a changing global accounting system (1) are two examples of how entire industries are being impacted by an increased focus on sustainable development.   

As managers are taking a fresh look at everything from the minutest process to entire business models, they are faced with new challenges and need to ask tough questions, such as: “Where in the organization lies the biggest cost saving potential?” or “Which production process eats the most amount of energy?”. Data Analytics, in general, and big data, in particular, help to answer these and more complex questions. Companies would like to have the ability to present statistics and numbers that support their argument for why a particular energy efficiency project is the best use of the sustainability budget. This, in itself, is nothing new. Millions of consultants have been number crunching and visualizing for their clients for decades.

Why is big data different? 

There are two major developments that have both only come about in recent years. Firstly, the velocity, volume and variety of information today are all at higher levels than at any point in history. Secondly, new data processing technologies, namely In-Memory databases, allow computers to handle the same amount of data at ca. 1,000 times the speed. The ubiquity of information combined with enhanced computing capabilities creates the potential for real-time applications, such as the often-cited scanning of tweets on the Social Networking platform Twitter. Here, companies hope to predict economic developments and consumer behavior based on the sentiment of millions of users.

How is this relevant for Corporate Sustainability? 

The hope is that this improvement in data analytics will make it easier to answer questions about where to save costs, reduce risks and how to increase revenues. This is exactly what sustainability managers are striving for. Let’s get more specific and look at areas where big data already plays a role:

CSR Reporting

In the age of total media transparency, firms, whose products have been made in the most sustainable manner, can hope to increase their customer base and therefore their revenues. The question is how they can prove that they are indeed the ‘greenest’ of them all. Sustainability reporting standards, such as the GRI, are supposed to answer this question, but an ever-growing number of reporting standards for a variety of corporate responsibility parameters are emerging. A company, called CSRHub, is using big data technologies to unify these diverse data sets into one single rating (2).

The Smart Grid

The anticipated mass deployment of smart meters will be a huge addition to the flood of energy data that already exists in the utility networks of today. Smart Grids are characterized by a more decentralized power network with many new connections and by the added feature that communication between the end-user and the utility is now a two-way street. This means that millions of nodes, i.e. consumers and energy producers are going to “talk” to each other at the same time. The only way this can actually be turned into a grid that is indeed smart, is through the advances of In-memory computing, a.k.a. big data. A report by Memoori estimates that global smart grid sales have already reached a volume of $36.5billion, in 2012.

Connected Cars

In Germany, T-Systems and major German car companies are working on a cloud-based system that aggregates live data of millions of on-road cars. The hope is that the resulting analysis can be fed back to individual drivers and thereby make traffic more efficient. This technology is accelerating a field, called “Green Telematics”, which, according to a 2009 Frost & Sullivan report, will grow to a market size of $700 million by 2015. The goal is to monitor driving behavior and fuel consumption to make entire fleets more efficient and thereby to reduce total CO2 emissions.

Factory & Building monitoring

Another fast-growing area, referred to as M2M (Machine to Machine) or “the Internet of things”, is connecting everything, from individual screws to building components and machines, to the internet. This will spur higher transparency and ‘smartening’ of factories, processes and buildings and will produce swaths of previously inaccessible data. An optimized smart building will decrease the energy need, which in turn, decreases the environmental footprint and increases the bottom-line. Read the interview with Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist, Rob Bernard, about how the company uses big data to increase efficiencies on its campus.

According to the State of Green Business report of 2013 (4) Commercial and industrial buildings are already being harnessed with thousands of sensors able to monitor, control and optimize pretty much everything down to the component level — a plug, light switch, heating and cooling vent, data terminal, refrigeration unit, etc. — increasingly making predictive “decisions” that anticipate energy needs without human intervention.

What next for aspiring Sustainability professionals?

 Chances are that there will be many more applications of big data in addressing sustainability questions, which we may not even be able to foresee today. One thing is certain: Whether you want to select the most sustainable supplier, uncover waste reduction potential or find the best possible vendors, data analytics will drastically augment the corporate decision-making process. Hopefully, the key message we take away from this, is a sense of excitement about the vast structural shifts that are lying ahead of us and the resulting sea of opportunities each of us can jump into. In the future, those of us, who have the ability to not only interpret, but also extract the right data are going to find it easier to be thought leaders in the field of sustainability. Keeping this in mind, let’s go out there, ask the right questions and teach ourselves some data analysis basics. Here is a good place to get started right now; an introductory course on big data and web intelligence, delivered for free by the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) University.


(1)        A development that has been termed “Integrated Reporting”. This link is the homepage of the industry body leading the way

(2)        Here is a series of 3 articles on how CSRHub is using big data to arrive at the most accurate sustainability performance metric 

(3)        Green : Interview with Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist Rob Bernard

(4)        Green : The ‘State of Green Business’ report 2013

(5)        The Smart Grid Business 2012-2017 


About the writer:

Philipp Paul Schwarz is based in Munich, Germany. He studied Financial Economics at the University of Oxford after reading Electronic Engineering at the University of Warwick. Since those analytical degrees, he has not lost his passion for numbers. In his two previous roles, first as a Consultant in Dubai and then as an Entrepreneur in India as Co-Founder of En Route Media, he continued to create and monitor metrics out of thin air. His background lies in business modeling and project management. Currently, he is pursuing two distance-learning degrees in Sustainability and Big Data while working on his move to Singapore. He loves debating and shaping the future of Corporate Sustainability and is keen to engage with thought leaders in this field.


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