With guidance on supply chain reporting by the GHG Protocol just around the corner, companies will soon have more clarity on how to manage “Scope 3” emissions. At the same time, companies like HP and others in BSR’s Energy Efficiency Partnership are working on climate change with a growing number of suppliers. As a result of these developments, minimum expectations for climate reporting on the supply chain are rising.

If it hasn’t already, now is the time for your company to embrace transparency. Investors and partners, who increasingly see transparency as an indicator of a company’s competence, are more likely to perceive your business as trustworthy. It will make outstanding achievements more credible. And it may even soften potential criticism, which is valuable in an environment where just about everyone, from journalists to employees, is inclined to write, blog, and tweet about your business.

But such transparency doesn’t come easily.

For one, almost every interest group, from consumers to investors to governments, has different information requirements, making reporting on climate impacts less about creating a single, comprehensive document and more about sharing granular information. And differences are growing. Consumers, for example, are using Good Guide to screen for criteria that are most important to them, in effect creating their own “personal” certification.

Another challenge is the increasing demand for more specific information about companies’ suppliers (and their suppliers), when there is a lack of standards on what should be reported, when, and how.

A third challenge is the sheer expense of transparency, which takes substantial time and effort to effectively monitor and communicate.

To overcome these hurdles to transparency, we recommend a practical, three-part approach that involves monitoring your impacts, translating that data into actionable information, and promoting governance standards that catalyze progress.

Monitor in Order to Measure

Satisfying demands for granular information about climate impacts requires good measurement. Fortunately, most greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts boil down to energy, which is easy to measure.

Unfortunately, many suppliers whose impacts you want to report don’t have the monitoring equipment that’s needed to do so. It is unusual for suppliers in many countries, especially China (which matters most for many companies), to manage their energy use at all, both because they perceive it as a way to keep overhead low and because they don’t see other suppliers doing it.

Therefore, working with suppliers to install portable energy meters can be one of the most cost-effective ways to get more data. The basic versions of these monitors are available for less than US$10; more sophisticated options offer remote sensing and allow the uploading of data for analysis with software elsewhere. Over the course of a few months, companies can use a handful of meters to triangulate the most energy-intensive processes and pieces of equipment, and in doing so, show suppliers how they can take control.

In 2008, Nike was one of the first companies to report using remote energy meters. Today, Walmart is working with EDF to install energy meters in China, and BSR has recommended using energy meters to the 80 China-based suppliers who attended the recent launch of our Energy Efficiency Partnership.

In addition to enhancing transparency efforts, monitors open up new doors to companies in search of finance options. One of the main things holding up loans for the many energy-saving projects in China is verifiability. Monitors can potentially provide this assurance and therefore help companies in their efforts to gain finance from capital markets or private investors.

Count What Matters Most

Gathering granular data of the type provided by energy meters is useful in responding to the varying demands of different stakeholders, but it also creates a challenge in itself, often overloading you with information. To zero in on the important issues about your company’s climate impacts, it’s necessary to prioritize.

There are two ways to do this: Invest in intelligence tools that will help you glean more from the data, and use the right proxies to indicate how successful your company will be in meeting its quantitative targets.

Let’s look at intelligence tools first: Companies should consider how they can go beyond spreadsheets—the traditional mechanism for tracking GHG information—to using tools such as climate software packages (PDF) to glean more from data. These tools complement energy metering equipment by allowing you to compare energy use at different points in time and on different time scales, which can help you identify cost-reduction opportunities and situations requiring maintenance. They also contextualize the energy meter information by putting it in terms of production output volume or other indicators your company is already managing. This helps embed analytics into existing business processes and continuous improvement initiatives.

Using proxies can also help you focus on the most important information. When starting energy management, it can be challenging in the short run to find a pattern in the most obvious and easily measurable data—energy actually used. That’s because things like weather and business variability make it difficult to see improvements in energy efficiency through electricity bills. However, you can use proxies as good predictors of success. These include, for example, whether a supplier has developed an energy action plan, what kind of target (say, to achieve 30 percent energy reduction) it has committed to, and how many energy meters it has installed.

Similarly, shortcuts are available with verification. For BSR’s work with Walmart, we designed a tiered approach to gathering data about suppliers’ energy impacts that included requests for narrative descriptions of energy projects and the names of team members working on energy efficiency. Those types of questions are easier to verify than accounting numbers themselves, and company representatives can use the information gathered to look for physical evidence of these things when they conduct supplier site visits.

Promote Action With Better Governance

Even when you have done your due diligence to gather granular data and translate it into actionable information, one of the biggest barriers to progress in transparency remains: a lack of governance standards used by your peers. These shared systems are needed both to give stakeholders confidence in claims, and to create more clarity on where companies should focus their action.

What follows are some areas that are likely to present development needs for some time to come:

Technical standards on how measurements are made: Even with more requirements, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandatory reporting rule (PDF) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) interpretive guidance, many conventions are undefined. For example, how to characterize progress on energy management, how to cost-effectively verify such results, and how to convert many local energy sources to GHG impacts. (See sidebar for a more descriptive list.)

Shared systems: The process of interacting with suppliers and other partners to obtain information takes a commitment of people and resources. Suppliers and partners, in turn, are under pressure to respond to greater numbers and types of requests, meaning they have less time for your company’s request. A pioneer industry group, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, was formed in part to develop a central repository for suppliers to report into and buyers to read from, significantly cutting down on administrative expenses. This and other kinds of “cloud computing” solutions offer important opportunities for sharing information.

Communication among diverse stakeholders: The development of new governance requires participation by a range of stakeholders, including technical experts, civil society representatives, and industry peers. In addition to observations being made and analysis done, subjective issues matter. These issues include the types of people who want the climate information (e.g. whether they are customers or project financiers), what action the measurement is meant to encourage (e.g. energy management decisions or something else), and how much “uncertainty” is tolerated and how it is accounted for (e.g. what disclaimers are used for making estimations).

With this in mind, companies that want to improve the impact and recognition of climate transparency should join existing programs or groups such as the EICC. If such groups are not available, consider starting a new one with industry peers by sharing metrics, publishing useful internal studies, and sharing insights about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of a certain key performance indicator. Companies can also suggest that their existing working groups and associations facilitate standards.

In summary, more climate transparency will be good for business—it can improve credibility, win trust, and make discussions about climate change more meaningful. While the solutions provided here will take work, they are likely to lead to better incentives to find efficiencies and lower costs, and ultimate progress on climate change.

Note: Research for this article was funded in part by Oracle.