I'll Be the Judge of That

Two different news items recently led me into the same train of thought: we are all increasingly in the business of judging Goodness, and of being so judged. I purposefully capitalized Goodness here, because I mean it in the highest sense of the word. This probably sounds vague, so let me use the examples to explain.

The first item is from the NYTimes, and discusses the conundrum caused by a proposed solar plant in Nevada. While the plant will produce copious free energy, it will also require over a billion gallons of fresh water a year, or over 20% of the water supply for the valley in which it is to be cited.

This is a classic tradeoff that we're going to hear more and more about. What are we willing to give up in exchange for cleaner energy? Many types of solar power need water, as shown above. But how much water is too much? How many dead migratory birds are too many at a potential wind farm location? How much car safety should we sacrifice for better mileage? How much can the view from the shoreline be impacted by offshore wind farms before it crosses the line? There are tons of these questions, there are going to be more, and they are going to get more and more complex.

Presumably you can see why I described this as judging Goodness. We might try to reduce decisions such as these to financial terms, but its hard to put a price on scenic beauty or a single bird. And your answer may not be the same as someone else's. I'll react differently to a wind farm I can see from my deck than one that's a thousand miles away in a place I'll likely never visit. How we approach these decisions reflect our personal or group morals.

The second example isn't about tradeoffs, but about people trying to quantify the Goodness of others. You see this all of the time: green rankings of companies, ethical lists of schools, etc. For example, Sun was recently included in the Newsweek green ranking, coming in 14th out of 500. (Note: I'm not singling out the Newsweek ranking - there are dozens of examples I could have used and this just happened to be a recent, well publicized one.)

This, however, is even trickier than the task above. We're not talking about an either/or situation, we're talking about trying to capture all of the factors that make up the green-ness or ethical-ness of an organization in a single number. And to make matters worse, these the organizations being compared usually don't even do the same thing. How do you compare an airline to a consulting company? A manufacturer to a non-manufacturer? A small school in the north woods to big one in Manhattan?

But as we've seen, there's no shortage of people who feel they are up to the task. They're willing to put relative weights and scores on various sources of quantitative and qualitative data, deciding what the underlying components of "good", "green" or "ethical" should be. Sometimes we get to understand these weights and data sources, but usually we don't.

In the Newsweek case, one of the three major factors in the ranking was a "reputation survey" audit they did using unnamed CEOs and other "experts". Since Sun Microsystems is not a consumer brand and we don't advertise much, its not hard to predict that we may not score as high in that as organizations that are household names, or are use big ad budgets to tout their sustainability. Sure enough, Wal-Mart tops the list in that category followed by GE, Coke and Nike. (BTW, Wal-Mart is doing some outstanding sustainability work, but that doesn't validate the scoring methodology.)

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that Sun deserves to be scored or ranked higher. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that I have no moral grounds on which to judge the ethics or greenness of any organization, Sun included. I'm confident in telling you that we're using less fresh water and emitting less GHG than we were a year ago, but that's as far as I'm comfortable going. In short, who am I to judge?

So what's the alternative to rankings? I'm a huge proponent of measuring things and making the data public - that's what we've been trying to do at Sun through our CSR report, annual CDP response, OpenEco.org data and other avenues. I hope that companies, investors, and consumers are using that data to understand what we're up to, and are making better informed decisions.

As organizations are trying to exhibit more social responsibility, there is a necessary increase in moral judgement in business decisions. In light of this, my advice is simple. First, recognize that you're using moral in your decisions. Second, figure out what's important to you (not Newsweek or anyone else) for the specific decisions you have to make. Finally, gather your own data.

There are lots of things that are OK to outsource - your moral standards aren't one of them.


I like you the questions that you raise and I wish that the ranking methodologies was simple and straight forward. There is enough science involved here that we can make it straight forward. But people like to make Sustainability more of Art than Science. Hence we are left with a mix of different metrics, some qualitative and some quantitative.

This all demands a standard framework that we all can use for different aspects of the problem.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by Jagan Nemani on October 21, 2009 at 03:25 PM EDT #

While I agree that its good to standardize methodologies, you missed the point of the post, which is that these surveys inherently embody value decisions about what is important for the planet and society. The question about who's value system is correct is not a scientific one and never will be.

Simple example: do you give a company the same amount of credit for lowering their water usage as their CO2? I argue that this is not a science question.

Posted by David Douglas on October 22, 2009 at 12:03 AM EDT #

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