What Sustainability Processes and Pelé have in Common

This article is about sustainability and how modern technology is redefining what we should value, measure and report regarding social and environmental impact.  

Let’s first start with evaluating exactly how formidable Pelé was for his time and whether his skills could measure up to advancements in today’s footballing skills and training. Then let’s apply the same school of thinking with sustainability measurement processes - are the adage innovative tools from the past fit for current demands? 

As you may know we recently lost the undisputed hero of the modern footballing era: Global icon and footballing legend, Pelé, the only person to ever win three world cups. Thank you, Sir, you were remarkable. 

Since his death, nearly every football expert has rushed to attest to his genius on the pitch, and all seem to agree that he was undoubtedly the greatest player of his generation. 

On the other side of the coin, debate also arose as to whether he was the greatest player of all time, to which I would say possibly ‘yes’… and also probably ‘no.’ The same train of thought could be applied to sustainability measurement platforms in the market today. Which could be hailed as legendary for its time? Did it create a movement that influenced others to develop more sophisticated methodologies?

To answer this effectively, you need to  have an understanding of what is being measured and what ‘being the best’ actually means. For one, you require an objective and empirical approach to defining what good, better, and best is without any emotional or subjective opinions. Secondly, you need the data, evidence, and a measurable scientific approach that looks forward and cannot be considered or accused of being a) revisionist, b) based only on qualitative indicators that are ultimately incomparable, or c) flawed because of excessive bias.   

The point is that we must analyse the process of how we currently measure and value sustainability and, what the finance world calls, ESG. It is about how we can objectively judge and trust the claims made by many businesses that they are ‘the best’ in terms of being sustainable and ethical. 

Adieu Pelé and thank you for everything. You were the best… 

When we compare the names thrown into the category of ‘Best Footballer Ever’ we usually hear: Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and of course, the legend who is so identifiable he has a single moniker - the indomitable Pelé. 

To my mind, Pelé was probably the best for his time. He stood further above his contemporaries than anyone ever has and could run rings around anyone he played against in a way that no other footballer has been able to do since. He was a master of his trade. 

In modern terms, however, he would not and could not touch Messi if he played the same way that he played in the 1960s. He would not have the speed, technique, adaptability, or fitness required to compete in the modern game. Why? Because the training, techniques, nutrition, and science used in the modern game are now so far ahead of where it was when Pelé played that it is incomparable.   

Therefore, Pelé is unfortunately not the best in terms of absolute skill and ability. That honour will almost always go to the best modern player at any given time. But arguably, Messi is nowhere near as far ahead of his contemporaries as Pelé was in his day. So perhaps in this regard, Pelé is the greatest, but Messi is, however, the best option for today's game. 

Now, this is my point when it comes to how we measure, manage, consider, and report sustainability and ESG. Currently, the market leaders in determining and reporting who is ‘the best’ in terms of being sustainable and ethical are platforms, organisations and brands that award companies a certification or score that is based on a periodic assessment of what they have done in the past. 

These ‘badges’, ‘ESG Scores’ and ‘awards’ then allow companies to stand up and say that they are in the sustainability ‘elite’ and that the products and services they produce are ethically and environmentally sound. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case when judged against today's expectations, and what we need to do to achieve globally agreed social and environmental goals. 

Why the most recognised sustainability badges are controversial 

The inherent problem with the approach taken by these certifications and ESG measurement companies is that what most of them look at, in order to judge whether a company is ethical and award the coveted title of ‘sustainable,’ nearly always happened in the past.  

The companies that then publicise that they are amongst ‘the best’ may well have been good when compared to their contemporaries a couple of years ago, but there is no way of knowing whether that is still the case, and that they are continuing to progress today, or more importantly intend to tomorrow, and next year and the year after?  

The big issue with certifying past performance and providing companies with the marketing tools needed to stand above others lies in the fact that none of us is anywhere near being sustainable just yet, and we don’t yet know what ‘being the best’ means.  

The truth is that no one is truly carbon neutral, let alone carbon net-positive, and no one has a definitive solution to inequality, poverty, discrimination, and environmental degradation. We are just starting to scratch the surface regarding building a more positive, sustainable, and equitable economy. 

Unfortunately, we have all seen the problems that are caused by this type of hubris time and again. Most recently a high-profile and celebrated ‘sustainable’ consumer brand we probably all know finally, after two to three years of tumultuous scandals, had to give up its claim to be a sustainable and ethical company following a large media exposé on its poor practices, and had to return the ‘sustainability’ certification that supported their claim to be part of sustainability royalty. Not something we should celebrate with a beer or two, I would suggest. 

Therefore, when we choose sustainable products and services, what we need to value, more than anything, is empirical evidence that a company has the right attitude towards tackling some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. We should celebrate what companies intend to do and how quickly they intend to improve - not just what they have done in the past three or so years that earned them a ‘gold star’. 

Now to truly judge ambition, we do need to know the baseline from which a company is starting, but to be honest, from a data science perspective, that is the easy bit. 

Sustainability is about continuously recognising and rewarding performance 

Exponents of our ‘beautiful game’ and the elite players in sustainability today (and those of tomorrow) should be able to demonstrate that they are continuously working to be better than the players of yesteryear in terms of absolute skill and performance.  

They need to use data, science, constant marginal incremental gains, and continuous learning and make sustainability an integral part of their business process and be supported in doing so. They should not celebrate what they did yesterday. They should value and report what they want to do tomorrow and work with experts to achieve their goals. We will only create a sustainable future through valuing and celebrating ambition and constant improvement over past glory.   

So, when looking for an online sustainability provider or an ESG certifier, always check to see if they can quantify intent and measure and report improvement against ambition on a continuous and ongoing basis. Also, check if they give you support and tools that help you achieve what you set out to do. If they do these things, then they don’t match fit and cannot compete in the modern game.   

To conclude my analogy, we undoubtedly owe Pelé a huge debt of gratitude for redefining what skill looked like in the 1960s, and for setting the bar for undisputed raw talent. He was the best player of his generation and in his time. However, today's players are better in terms of absolute performance, and tomorrow's players, if they look to the future and not the past, will be better still - but only if they define themselves by what they believe they can achieve, and not by what has been done in the past.   

Finally, let us not forget that we absolutely must give an enormous thank you to the organisations that developed the best-known sustainability certifications that have undoubtedly brought sustainability out of the shadows and into the mainstream. We all owe you a debt of gratitude, and you deserve a comfortable retirement.