Espacios. Vol. 35 (Nº 11) Año 2014. Pág. 6

Identification of Sustainability Assessment Tool in Literature

Identificação das Ferramentas de Avaliação da Sustentabilidade na literatura

Simone SARTORI 1; Lucila Maria de Souza CAMPOS 2

Recibido: 29/06/14 • Aprobado: 28/08/14


1. Introduction

2. Literature Review

3. Methodological Procedures

4. Results - Identification of tools for corporate sustainability evaluation

5. Discussion

6. Conclusions


The importance of tools to evaluate sustainability has been recognized throughout the last decades. The tools can help clarify and refine sustainability-related concepts, improve our understanding among components of sustainability in practical terms, and thus promote the science and practice of sustainable development. This theoretical-conceptual study aims to analyze the tools for assessing corporate sustainability. We also intend to highlight the purpose, characteristics and shortcomings of tools relative to Triple-Bottom-Line and operations management. As a result, the literature presents some gaps in terms of addressing sustainability in operations management and the integration nature-society.
Keywords: Sustainability Assessment, Triple Bottom Line, Tools for Sustainability.

A importância de ferramentas para avaliar a sustentabilidade tem sido reconhecida ao longo das últimas décadas. As ferramentas ajudam esclarecer e aperfeiçoar os conceitos relacionados à sustentabilidade e melhora a compreensão das complexas relações entre os componentes da sustentabilidade em termos práticos. Este estudo teórico-conceitual tem por objetivo identificar e analisar as ferramentas de avaliação da sustentabilidade empresarial e destacar a finalidade, características e lacunas das ferramentas em relação ao TBL e a gestão de operações. Como resultado, a literatura apresenta uma série de lacunas em termos de como abordar a sustentabilidade na gestão de operações e a integração natureza-sociedade.
Palavras-chave: Avaliação da Sustentabilidade, Triple Bottom Line, Ferramentas para sustentabilidade.

1. Introduction

The growing concern with climate changes and environmental degradation, the sustainable production and the effective use of resources are becoming popular issues in studies about sustainability, as well as in corporate and industrial areas (Gaussin et al. 2012). Reaching progress towards sustainability means to simultaneously consider the balance among economical, environmental and social issues (Elkington, 1994). The economic performance reflects the organizational success in the market and with the shareholders; the environmental performance shows compliance with the government legislation and administration to a group of environmentally conscientious clients; and, the social performance shows the stakeholders management, especially with the workforce and local community (Sridhar, 2012).

The sustainability evaluation was emphasized at Rio92, when the need for development was discussed, as well as the identification of sustainability indicators for registry and support in decision-making regarding the sustainable development (CNUMAD, 1992). Even though the concept of sustainability is intuitively comprehended, it is difficult to express it at an operational level (Labuschagne et al. 2005). According to Samuel et al. (2013) the use of indicators does not ensure sustainable operations, but it guarantees the performance monitoring and transparency in the disclosure of environmental, economic and social sustainability dimensions. Thus, the main role of sustainability measurement is to indicate the progress or retrocession regarding its goals, in order to inform and guide the actions of managers and the public in general (Parris, Kates, 2003).

Since then, the sustainability measurement has received attention from the academy that is involved in a relevant number of researches, as well as from organizations, which are mostly debating on how to achieve better business practices (Parris, Kates, 2003; Labuschagne et al. 2005; Searcy et al. 2007; Ramos, Caeiro, 2010; Lozano, 2013; Samuel et al. 2013; Parisi, 2013).

As a consequence, a series of indicators, methods and tools have been developed in different disciplines and for multiple proposals (Böhringer, Jochem, 2007; Hasna, 2008; Lozano, 2012). However, there is still lack of understanding of how the numerous approaches treat the different environmental, economic and social dimensions that compose the sustainability and, also, how such initiatives contribute with the corporate sustainability assessment.

Sustainability has been the subject of serious debates and studies, but the literature does not provide much guidance in terms of how operational managers think about all three elements of sustainability collectively, and hence provides little guidance as to how or if these managerial cognitions influence operational performance outcomes (Pagell, Gobeli, 2009). With this context, the present study aims at identifying the corporate sustainability approaches found in the literature and highlighting some of the tools' purposes, characteristics and gaps regarding the Triple Bottom Line and the operations management.

2. Literature Review

During the last 20 years, there has been a growing pressure over the companies into giving more attention to environmental consequences due to services and products they offer and the implanted processes (Kleindorfer et al. 2005). A symptom of this pressure is the movement towards sustainability, in other words, about the relationship between profit, people and the planet (Triple Bottom Line) (Elkington, 1994).

Therefore, discussions about sustainability are moved by the basic notion that a company's performance must be measured not only by the profit, but also by the amount of damages/improvements to the ecologic and social systems (Schneider, Meins 2012). A sustainable company is the one that, at the end of the accounting period, was able to main an intact biosphere (Elkington, 2012).

Pagell and Gobeli (2009) identified two important issues regarding the operations development and the TBL: (i) how do operational managers (either within a larger company or in similar roles at suppliers) think about the elements of sustainability? and (ii) do operational managers' cognitions regarding the elements of sustainability matter in terms of operational performance outcomes?

Yet, for this transition to sustainability to happen, the goals must be evaluated, and this has imposed important challenges on the scientific community in terms of providing trustworthy and efficient tools (Ness et al. 2007). As a response, the sustainability evaluation area has quickly developed, along with the evaluation tools (indicators and indexes, frameworks, standards).

The tools are intended for providing a structure to evaluate the sustainability and its results (Becker, 2005). According to Lozano (2012), the sustainability evaluation tools have two main purposes: to evaluate the organizations' progress and, to communicate the stakeholders about the efforts in economic, environmental and social dimensions.

Defining and measuring the sustainability involves decision making as how to define and quantify the developments, what is being supported and for how long (Parris, Kates, 2003). In this perspective, the possibility of comparisons is, usually, vital for sustainability; comparisons between the current and previous developments, the progress of certain development goals or comparisons between companies, regions and countries. 

The purpose of sustainability evaluation is to provide a global evaluation to decision makers in terms of nature-society integration in short and long term perspectives, in order to help the establish actions that must or must not be taken towards creating a sustainable society (Ness et al. 2007). Still in this context, the sustainability evaluation enables people to estimate the conditions and trends, to give warnings towards avoiding economic, social and environmental damages, to formulate strategies and communicate ideas (Berk, Manta 1999).

3. Methodological Procedures

This study is composed of four main stages: (i) identification of the selected articles; (ii) analysis of the selected articles' content; (iii) description and classification of the identified approaches; and, (iv) identification of the approaches' limitations.

At the initial stage, the scientific articles were identified by means of a search for key words on the databases Web of Knowledge (ISI), Wiley, Science Direct and Engineering Village. Key words as "indicators'', ''methods", "modeling", "performance evaluation", "corporate"; "Triple Bottom Line" were combined with "sustainability"; the terms "economics sustainability", "social sustainability", "environmental sustainability" and "sustainable operations" were also searched.

The key words were used to recover editions containing at least one of the words in the title, abstract or key words. The 19.639 editions were analyzed regarding the following aspects: (i) Repeated articles; (ii) English language; (iii) Journal Article; (iv) Articles titles related with the sustainability evaluation research theme; (v) Abstracts related with the research theme; and (vi) Articles' text related with the research theme. There was no time limitation for the editions. The software used for registry and selection of articles was EndNote X5®.

For the following stage, content analysis, 235 articles were considered to contain some kind of sustainability measurement tool. 26 theoretical and empirical proposals were identified and categorized based on two perspectives (Table 1): sustainability as a corporate level and sustainability at a regional/national/international level. This paper only presents the analysis of the Corporate level.

Table 1 - Sustainability evaluation tools










Sustainability Evaluation


Regions, Nations and Planet

Corporations (Sources)

Barometer of Sustainability;

Bellagio Principle;

Dashboard of Sustainability;

Drivers Pressures-States and Trends-Impacts-Responses;

Ecological footprint method;

Economic Input-Output Life-Cycle; Assessment Environmental Performance Index;

Environmental Sustainability Index;

FEEM Sustainability Index;

Genuine Progress Indicator;

Genuine Savings;



Panta Rhei;

Sensitivity Model Tools;

Sustainability Assessment by Fuzzy Evaluation.

Ethos Indicators [1,2];

Global Reporting Initiative [3,4]; Green Management Assessment Tool [5,6];

IchemE [7,8];

Sustainability Assessment Model [9,10];

Sustainability Cost Accounting [11,12];

Sustainable Value Added [13,14];

Manufacturing Ecosystems Model [15];

Sustainability performances of industries [16];

Framework - indicators of sustainable development for industry [17]

[1] Ethos (2011); [2] Delai, Takahashi (2011); [3] Perez, Sanchez (2009); [4] GRI (2011);  [5] Woolman, Veshagh (2007); [6] Eagan, Joeres (1997); [7] Icheme (2005); [8] OECD (1997); [9] Bebbington, Frame (2003); [10] Cavanagh, Frame, Lennox (2006);  [11] Brent, Van Erck, Labuschagne (2006); [12] Nyoka, Brent (2007); [13] Figge, Hahn (2004); [14] Hahn et al. (2013); [15] Despeisse et al. (2012); [16] Labuschagne et al. (2005); [17] Azapagic, Perdan (2000).


Due to the main intention of this study, for the third stage, only the corporate sustainability evaluation tools were described regarding the sustainability purpose and dimension (environmental/economic/social). At the last stage, the execution support techniques and gaps of the sustainability evaluation tools were identified.

4. Results - Identification of tools for corporate sustainability evaluation

There is a well-known need for researchers, organizations and the society to find standards, measurements and tools as to define to what extension and which methods make the current activities unsustainable (Bebbington et al. 2007). On the other hand, several approaches have been used with the intention of measuring the companies' contribution with sustainable development, that is, the corporate sustainability (Schneider, Meins, 2012).

The basic criteria for choosing tools are the purpose of use, the required data and the execution support techniques. In this section, ten tools that were identified in the literature review are presented.

a) Ethos Indicators

Created in 1998, the Ethos Institute of Business and Social Responsibility is an example of the Brazilian mobilization towards a Sustainable Development (Curi, 2011). As a non-governmental organization, it aims at aiding the companies to increase their compromise with social responsibility and the sustainable development by preserving natural and cultural resources for future generations, respecting the diversity and promoting the reduction of social inequalities (Ethos 2011).

b) Global Reporting Initiative

CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies) and Pnuma (United Nations Environment Programme) created in 1997 the "Global Reporting Initiative" (GRI), a nonprofit international institution, composed by a stakeholder network. GRI's mission is to make sustainability reports as routine as financial reports and safeguard the Guidelines and its production process, as well as, to increase the reports' quality at a comparison, consistency and availability level (GRI, 2011). GRI provides guidance for elaboration of sustainability reports aiming at describing the economic, environmental and social impacts of an organization (GRI, 2011).

c) Green Management Assessment Tool

GMAT is an environmental management measurement tool that evaluates the industrial performance, enabling the creation of a graphic profile of the environment, which, according to Eagan and Joeres (1997) can be very useful for comparative analysis among the different organizations or departments

It is a qualitative method, with questionnaire-based evaluation. A total of 61 questions represent 16 elements of the International Chamber of Commerce's principles, divided into four levels: i) conformity (health, safety and environmental requirements); ii) Development and Implantation of Environmental Management Systems; iii) Integration of the business' general functions with environmental concerns; iv) Total Quality Approach – the environmental management integrated systems are globally applied in operations and are constantly evaluated for improvement.

d) IchemE

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IchemE) developed a group of indicators to measure the industrial processes' sustainable performance. According to this initiative, sustainability may be summarized in the Triple Bottom Line covering the three components: environmental responsibility, economic return (wealth creation) and social development (IchemE, 2005). The tool has an internal focus, providing standardized forms and conversion tables, and enables progress monitoring year-on-year (Labuschagne et al. 2005).

There is not a general agreement about environmental issues that must be measured, yet there is some agreement about the main aspects presented in the literature – air, water, land, energy and materials (OECD 1997). Some important matters as biodiversity, hazardous material and generation of hazardous waste, risks to human health, to air and water quality are addressed by IchemE (Delai, Takahashi, 2011).

e) Sustainability Assessment Model

The tool "Sustainability Assessment Model" (SAM) was created in 1999 by the oil company BP with Aberdeen University and Gas and Oil Consultants. The purpose was helping organizations to develop sustainable forms of operation (Bebbington, Frame, 2003), to standardize and evaluate the projects development (Hasna, 2008).

This tool is based on the costs accountability technique and takes into consideration the economic impacts (dividends, taxes, investments etc), environmental impacts (atmosphere emissions, waste etc), social impacts (labor, health and safety, social impact of products) and resources impacts (gas and oil, energy, water etc) (Bebbington et al. 2007) in monetary terms.

f) Sustainability Cost Accounting

The tool "Sustainability Cost Accounting" (SCA), developed by Brent, Van Erck and Labuschagne (2005) evaluates, in monetary terms, the environmental and social costs (external costs or society and environment deterioration) and benefits (internal and external contributions) of a new industrial technology (Brent et al. 2006).

The procedure is based on Full Cost Accounting (FCA) and Total Cost Assessment (TCA) methods; however, the approach is different for considering social and environmental impacts. By means of a common denominator, the external effects can be incorporated into an internal evaluation (financial) of a new technology performance. SCA has several sustainability criteria that may be used to evaluate production systems or the company as a whole.

g) Sustainable Value Added

The tool "Sustainable Value Added" (SVA) developed by Figge and Hahn (2004) aims at measuring corporate sustainability performance, increasing the use of resources based on opportunity costs, which shall be measured.

SVA defines the corporate sustainability performance in monetary terms for a group of different economic, environmental and social resources. In this sense, the approach is based on financial economic principles: the company generates value whenever it makes a more efficient use of resources when compared with another company (Hahn et al. 2013).

The tool is based on a strong sustainability theory and confers a price to externalities caused by a specific activity by means of the value paid by the problem causer to the victims, so that they accept the externality. Therefore, the tool does not reflect a capital substitution but a compensation (transaction that rewards a certain class in exchange for the resources consumption).

h) Manufacturing Ecosystems Model

There is a relevant potential to improve effectiveness of resources by considering the factory as an ecosystem. Thus, Despeisse et al. (2012) presented the "Manufacturing Ecosystems Model" (MEM) based on industrial ecology. MEM is based on environmental principles and industrial practices, and provides bases for identification of environmental performance and opportunities to improve all areas of the factory.

The model focuses on the global behavior of the system and approaches the following principles for a sustainable production: (i) avoid usage at the source and improve conversion efficiency – using and wasting less, deeply increasing natural resources' productivity (materials and energy); (ii) close the resources life cycle, with reduction of undesired outputs and conversion of outputs into inputs (including energy from waste); (iii) change or substitute the technology – reinvest in natural capital by substituting inputs – toxic for non-toxic, non-renewable for renewable; (iv) change ideals by using solution-based business models.

i) Framework to assess the sustainability of operational initiatives

The indicators available to measure the corporate sustainability do not approach all aspects of sustainability at an operational level, especially in developing countries (Labuschagne et al. 2005). Thus, Labuschagne et al. (2005) propose a corporate sustainability and operational activities evaluation system with four dimensions: environmental, economic, social and institutional. The manifestation of institutional sustainability on a strategic level within a business (or industry) can therefore be seen as a prerequisite for sustainable operations, projects or even corporate sustainability.

The first level of the proposed sustainability assessment framework is thus referred to as the corporate responsibility strategy. The level 2 of the framework defines the corporate strategy into two distinct parts: operational initiatives, which include core business activities, projects, etc., and societal initiatives, which refer to corporate social investment (CSI) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Operational initiatives should be evaluated in terms of the three dimensions of sustainability (environmental, economic and social) at level 3 of the proposed framework. Level 4 contains the main criteria, which should be considered within each dimension. 

j) Indicators of sustainable development for industry

Nowadays, many companies recognize and monitor these three parallel aspects using sustainability indicators, which provide information on how the company contributes to sustainable development. In this sense, Azapagic and Perdan (2000) presented a model of environmental, economic and social sustainability indicators applied to industry.

The framework proposed attempt to contribute towards standardization of the indicators of sustainable development for industry. The standardized indicators would enable identification of more sustainable options through: (i) comparison of similar products made by different companies; (ii) comparison of different processes producing the same product; (iii) benchmarking of units within corporations; (iv) rating of a company against other companies in the (sub-)sector; and (v) assessing progress towards sustainable development of a (sub-) sector.

5. Discussion

This study presents a review of the corporate sustainability evaluation tools for environmental, economic and social matters. Under the scientific approach, the sustainability evaluation tools themselves are considered object of study. Thus, the selection of tools must be in accordance with the context and characteristics that the stakeholders wish to evaluate (Gasparatos et al. 2008). Table 2 summarizes the sustainability evaluation tools that are identified in the literature.

Table 2 – Summary of the sustainability evaluation tools.



Execution support techniques


Framework to assess the sustainability

of operational initiatives




Criteria that work as starting point for creation of the performance indicators.

The operational and social initiatives are considered separately (Labuscchagne et al 2005).

Ethos Indicators


System description; Reports.

Focuses on presenting guidelines for preparation of the sustainability report (Singh et al. 2009); presents over than 100 indicators, not all of them are easy to evaluate (Labuscchagne et al 2005).

Indicators of sustainable development for industry


Informative framework;

Normalization; establishes a number of indicators.

Does not allow substitution of the indicators that were previously defined by the tool.





Principles and indicators to measure performance; standardized report.

Presents over than 100 indicators, not all of them are easy to evaluate (Labuscchagne et al 2005); extensive questionnaire.



Questionnaire, ICC's Principles.

Pure qualitative evaluation (Eagan, Joeres, 1997).



Key-indicators; standardized report; conversion factors.

Focuses on environmental aspects; indicators are not applicable in practice; impact guided framework (Delai, Takahashi, 2011).



Conceptual model; Industrial Ecology.

Conceptual model; approaches only material, energy and waste (Despeisse et al. 2012)





 Cost Accounting.

Do not define the group of indicators to be used; lack of a defined method to monetize the costs; guided for project evaluation not considering the company as a whole.





Monetization; based on Full Cost Accounting

Does not indicate when a company is sustainable; not all relevant criteria are measured.





Monetization; based on opportunity cost.

The estimated opportunity cost is not based on real conditions.


The matters regarding the sustainability evaluation tools' scope have been little represented in the literature. The tools presented focus on specific or prioritized areas. There is not a comprehensive structure to evaluate the total performance (Singh et al. 2009). Also in this context, there is no explanation as to how the tools approach the different dimensions (economic, environmental and social) that are related with different elements of the company (operations and processes, management and strategy, organizational systems, purchase and market and communication) or how each element contributes to sustainability (Lozano, 2012).

Great part of the corporate sustainability research is focused on management of the stakeholders and debates on the impact of sustainable practices in the company's financial performance. It is noted, also, that the corporate sustainability is not included in debates on climate changes and resources exhaustion (Linnenluecke, Griffiths, 2013). Lee and Saen (2012) report the lack of available tools to monitor and evaluate the corporate activities' impacts on the environment and society. Likewise, it is not clear how these tools can help evaluate the different activities of the company in a concrete and operational way (Briassoulis, 2001; Lozano, 2012).

Currently, there is no clear description of how to implement the tools in a certain organization (Estampe et al. 2013) vindicating the tool scope analysis and support when deciding which tool to use. Therefore, besides the lack of strategies or tools, the main barrier is not knowing how to meet the sustainability purposes and, more important, how to insert them in ordinary activities (Parisi, 2013).

Indicators are largely used to evaluate sustainability. However, they can be very subjective. Therefore, progress has been made in developing evaluation instruments, some of then in a quantitative perspective. The sustainability qualitative formulation takes into consideration the present generation and emphasizes concerns about the future, but with not specific timeliness (Moldan et al. 2012). The new scientific approaches for quantitative sustainability evaluation are only beginning to arise (Todorova, Marinova, 2009).

The sustainability performance measurement is immature when compared with the environmental impact evaluation tools (Ramos, Caeiro, 2010), which makes it difficult to operate the sustainability concept (Labuschagne et al. 2005). According to Delai and Takahashi (2011), the way several initiatives evaluate sustainability is not the most appropriate to incorporate a performance measurement system, and the existence of management practices and absolute indicators hinder result guided measurements.

The operations sector is an unexplored field. The literature is vague as to what exactly is encompassed within environmental and social systems (Pagell, Gobeli, 2009). Goyal and Gupta (2012) reinforce the sustainability evaluation need by comparing studies on different sectors (manufacture and services) and their relation with the company's performance. According to Tang and Zhou (2012) there are few quantitative models treating social and environmental responsibility matters. In practice, the companies have implemented purchase policies to assure that suppliers meet certain environmental and social standards.

Regarding researches on operations management, it is uppermost the planet measurement (emissions, waste), as shown in Table 1, while the standards analyze and model developing sustainable operations.

6. Conclusions

With the outcome of the bibliographic analysis, it is possible to note that sustainability and its respective tools are emerging issues that must be more thoroughly studied to increase the scientific knowledge become and make it less subjective. Evaluating the sustainability performance is an important action of the society's transition towards the sustainable development principles. In this context, this study identified the sustainability evaluation tools. The target was not defining the most adequate tool, but identifying the main characteristics and current support techniques, with the purpose of defining the most relevant tool for a specific goal.

All tools presented are viable in term of evaluating and contributing with a corporate, regional or national context. As the tools are recognized, tested and accepted, they may become important elements of public and corporate agendas. Finally, a tool selection must be based on the evaluation purpose.

For future studies, it is possible to suggest: i) studies on the evolution of disclosed indicators; ii) studies on the tools' advantages and disadvantages; studies comparing the use of tools in the public and private sectors; studies evaluating the services' sustainability. 

In this study, boundaries defined by the researchers influenced the results somehow, such as: a) the data sources were restricted to Portal Capes database; and, b) the articles considered are theoretical-empirical studies.


The authors would like to thank the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPQ) for the financial support.


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1 ( Doctoral student in Production Engineering, Department of Production Engineering, Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianopolis, SC, Brazil.
2 ( Associate Professor at Department of Production Engineering at Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianopolis, SC, Brazil.

Vol. 35 (Nº 11) Año 2014
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