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Author's profile photo Tina ROSARIO

Sustainability Programs Need Data Leadership and Expertise


While chief data officers rarely lead their organizations’ sustainability goals, they can have a major impact in creating meaningful solutions to the complex global problems we face today.

Tina Rosario, Head of Data Innovation and Chief Data Officer, SAP Europe

Leading companies are making sustainability a business priority and setting aggressive goals for delivering carbon neutrality, equality, zero hunger, and more. These leaders want to solve incredibly complex problems, and they have embedded relevant sustainability KPIs and objectives into their strategy for long-term value creation. Many have in-progress sustainability programs, and others are just getting started. (Watch this video to see Anglian Water’s approach to sustainability.)

Typically, chief data officers (CDOs) don’t lead sustainability programs. While I understand that data leaders and CDOs have a full plate, I want to encourage data teams to step in to support these potentially world-changing efforts. Your expertise is critical to reaching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensuring overall compliance with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other data regulations. Sustainability is a data-driven initiative that requires data leadership, data strategy, and a roadmap for delivery.

The big question is “How can CDOs help?”

While the journey to sustainability varies for each industry, each leader, and each organization, a consistent set of factors contribute to the program’s success. With that in mind, let’s explore the various data capabilities and requirements to get a sense of what is needed and the opportunities for data leaders to have an impact.

Managing Data for Sustainability Reporting

Getting the right data for sustainability goals can be tricky. Within a typical organization, data resides in a variety of sources, has different levels of availability, and is in all types of formats. Ultimately, for sustainability reporting and management you’ll need both internal and third-party data.

Some UN sustainable goals data is available for use (directly from the UN through APIs) but several goals cannot comprehensively be assessed because data is missing. For example, travel and weather data, image recognition to track waste, mobility data, and transportation data are typically not within an organization’s current data asset base.

With these challenges in mind, here are five steps for a data leader to support sustainability goals:

Identify missing data. Think about the data you have internally and the data you lack to support both short- and long-term planning cycles. It’s likely that you won’t have all the data needed and will need to consider alternative sources.  When sourcing data externally, CDOs and data scientists should consider all types of data that may pertain to solving the data gap, and remember that there are often multiple sources, such as official statistics, UN data, or private sector data, and multiple types, including crowdsourced data, open data, and big data.

You will want to consider sourcing sustainability data through innovative approaches such as open data platforms, data aggregators, marketplaces, partnerships, data sharing forums, and applications. Once the data is collected, it will need to be adapted into machine-readable formats and mapped to your existing data sets and ecosystem so it can be easily understood and enable the ability to easily track progress against the set goals.

Integrate third-party data. Integrating new data with existing data should produce high-quality information that is more detailed, timely, and relevant. However, it will take work. Data leaders must ensure that the new data adheres to existing standards. It should have the same consistency of metrics, common definitions, quality levels, fit for purposes, and so on.  It’s likely to be high volumes of data, from suppliers and suppliers of those suppliers, which will require careful management to extract the value needed to enable the requirements for sustainability management.

In designing the integration processes, CDOs and IT should consider the best ways to automate data collection through the integration of internal and external data sets. Solutions are available to both ease the integration process and deliver built-in security.

Stay in compliance. When CDOs and their teams manage qualitative data through surveys, customer comments, and employee feedback, they must consider GDPR and other regulatory requirements. Is this data being used as it was intended and agreed to? The sustainability team may not be as aware of the privacy requirements in detail so, keep them and your company protected by reviewing the data and making sure how you use it meets compliance requirements. If there’s a data protection and privacy officer in your organization, bring them in to provide additional expertise.

Ensure security and privacy. The same is true for security and privacy. The data team must review the data ingestion processes and ensure they are well managed and safe. Again, CDOs are more aware of privacy laws than other teams so take the lead in protecting customers, partners, and company by remaining within privacy laws and regulations.

Overall, data teams need to have a comprehensive data protection plan that includes guidance or policy on data handling, risk assessment, and risk management. Data leaders can help by engaging with legal and privacy experts in the planning process.

Improving Sustainability within the Data Management Organization

Creating a data strategy that supports sustainability goals is another vital responsibility for CDOs. You will need to define objectives that align with corporate priorities and build a plan with a cross-functional team (IT, sustainability, and business operational teams) to define a joint strategy for data sustainability. Here are a few good places to get started:

  • Data archiving: Reduce your overall data footprint by decreasing legacy IT demand and data volume and data storage requirements.
  • Clean, green data centers: Realize zero waste and greater efficiencies by transitioning to cloud storage and management in greener, cleaner data centers that have a lower power consumption and do not rely on non-renewable energy. A forecast from International Data Corporation (IDC) shows that the continued adoption of cloud computing could prevent the emission of more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from 2021 through 2024.
  • Improved data processes: AI and ML simplify operations and are much greener options for creating and updating data. Consider improving data processes through technical innovations that reduce or eliminate the environmental impact.
  • Diverse, inclusive teams with equitable pay: Hire and support a team with diverse talent and deliver equitable pay to all members. Build a culture of inclusion and belonging in order to attract and retain diversity.

Defining Standards for Sustainability Reporting

Finally, I want to encourage CDOs to actively engage in defining sustainability frameworks and standards. There are more than 600 environmental, social, and corporate governance regulatory reporting provisions globally, with many having differing interpretations of sustainability.

With the lack of a global governing body and a set of common standards, there is an urgent need to establish a global sustainability reporting framework. CDOs should have a voice in defining what those standards can and should be. We have an incredible opportunity to be part of the process, share our experiences, and help lead these efforts rather than waiting for regulators to mandate disclosures.

The issues we need to solve are so big that no one can do it alone. We need to move past individual ownership of very big problems and turn them into collective-ownership issues. There are fewer problems specific to any one company, industry, or even country in our modern world. As a result, global initiatives—preventing climate change, deforestation, or declining biodiversity—demand that we take a collective approach toward ownership. There is an immediacy to these challenges that make cooperation imperative.

I hope this is a starting point for more discussion and suggestions on how CDOs can take on a leadership role in sustainability. If you want to continue the discussion, visit You can also ask questions about the topic in SAP Community with using this Q&A tag link for Sustainability:

Being a D&A leader is about much more than knowing technology. Read my other blogs by following the tag and my profile. You’ll find additional insight and tips to help you meet and exceed your D&A goals and objectives. 


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