NEWS7 December 2023

‘Don't let perfect get in the way of good': Research sector urged to set emissions baseline

News Sustainability Trends UK

UK – Knowledge sharing, establishing a carbon emissions baseline and accepting imperfect data are key for research businesses looking to reach net zero, according to a panel discussion at yesterday’s Sustainability Summit, held virtually by the Market Research Society.

green arrow pointing to 0% CO2 on a circular gauge

Two years on from the launch of the MRS net zero pledge, which calls on research organisations and teams to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2026, research from MRS has found that the majority are not regularly reporting their CO2e emissions.

In July 2023, the organisation surveyed the 90+ companies to have signed the pledge to find out what progress they were making on their emissions reduction, and 27 companies responded to the survey. Of those who responded, 42% are not currently regularly reporting total CO2e figure.

Discussing the findings of the survey during the session at the Sustainability Summit yesterday ( 6th December), Jack Young, senior consultant and global ESG lead in the sustainable transformation practice at Kantar, and a member of the MRS Sustainability Council, said: “There is a significant amount of work to be done on the reporting side of things. The vast majority of pledgees did not submit evidence of their progress to net zero to MRS this year, so a focus for us is how we get them to begin that journey.”

Discussing scope 3 emissions, the emissions from an organisation’s value chain, Young said: “Reduction of scope 3 is a key unlock in a research company’s journey to net zero. Agencies have a relatively low scope 1 and 2 impact on the environment compared with our physical product-producing clients. However, scope 3 emissions from our value chain may be significant: we conduct surveys, interviews, focus groups and other research activities that require travel, communication, data collection, and analysis – all of which have a significant impact on the environment.”

Business travel is one of the bigger parts of a typical agency’s footprint, and is simpler to track due to travel companies’ availability of primary CO2e data. Of the agencies who reported their scope 3 emissions to MRS, 92% reported on their business travel footprint.

For those who shared their 2022 data with MRS, the majority ( 54%) did not have the mechanisms and reporting infrastructure in place to regularly report their CO2 emissions, Young said. He added: “This ability to regularly report on carbon footprint is really going to help companies in the future to set science-based targets and then to start tracking their eventual progress towards net zero. By measuring these emissions regularly, pledgees can not only comply with the increasing regulatory and stakeholder expectations on CO2 reduction, but also they can create competitive advantage and value for themselves and also their clients.”

Estimating a carbon emissions baseline is a key first step for agencies, said Young, which involves setting “realistic and achievable targets needed for reduction”. Other steps are understanding where to reduce scope 3 emissions, finding the best way to track carbon footprint and getting a trusted external accreditation.

Discussing how Differentology has approached emissions measurement, chief executive and founder Mark James said: “We’re 12 months in to the measurement journey and 12 months ago we didn’t know what we were doing. It can be intimidating to understand where to begin. You’ve just got to start. For once, as researchers, we are measuring ourselves rather than measuring others. Once you do get into it, you get small wins along the way. One of the things we are incredibly proud of is that we’ve got a green roof on our office building. We’ve got a biomass boiler that helps to heat the building.”

He continued: “There is a knowledge gap. For us, it was a learning curve and quite time-consuming to get up to speed with all the acronyms.”

Young agreed, saying: “It is quite daunting. You’re going through a huge amount of data and you’re talking in a language that isn’t necessarily that obvious for people who are not sustainability experts. One of the things we did was put things in a language which is really familiar to those in the organisation.” This includes looking at whether the language used is familiar to someone working in procurement, for example. Young continued: “How can we fold the language and the need for reporting into those workstreams, to make it much more business as usual?”

Responding to a question about what needs to be done to encourage more pledge signees to report their emissions, Caroline Wren, chief executive at MTM, who hosted the panel, said: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress when it comes to taking the first step. As researchers, we all have the tendency to be very conscientious and we deliver rigour all the time. Accepting that data we’re pulling together is imperfect can be a little bit difficult for us sometimes, but this is one of the situations where even really basic level estimations are better than nothing and it’s all a starting point. It’s key to pull together some level of baseline even if you know that some of the data in there is a bit flawed.”

Young said: “It’s not going to be perfect data, but taking a step to understand and beginning to baseline is the most important thing to do. It helps you understand where you can improve the data quality. People are open to sharing knowledge and talking about what they have done, so speak to people across the industry, leverage the net zero pledgee network. It feels daunting but it’s about not letting ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good'.”

Walter Tucker, customer relationship manager at Compare Your Footprint, an online platform that works with organisations to manage their carbon footprint, added: “For probably 100% of the companies we work with, it is a learning process, both for kind of the type of data you’ll be collecting, what that process looks like, but also just from a data quality standpoint. There will likely be pieces of data you’re going to collect that you haven’t ever recorded previously or haven’t requested from your landlord. It’s really starting those conversations. It is a learning process, and you don’t have to get it right the first year.”