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Sustainability measurement system: a reference model proposal

Ivete Delai (School of Economics, Business and Accounting of Ribeirão Preto, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil)
Sérgio Takahashi (School of Economics, Business and Accounting of Ribeirão Preto, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil)

Social Responsibility Journal

ISSN: 1747-1117

Article publication date: 2 August 2011




The primary aim of this paper is to develop a reference model for measuring corporate sustainability that can be used by organizations to integrate sustainability measures into their current performance measurement system, helping them to embed sustainability into daily activities and to forge a sustainability culture. A secondary intent is to present a critical analysis of some well‐known sustainability measurement initiatives, showing their strengths and shortcomings.


The approach employed to develop the reference model described in this paper is a qualitative analysis of the complementarity, shortcomings and strengths of eight well‐known sustainability measurement initiatives alongside an extant corporate sustainability literature review.


The research carried out has found that there is not a single initiative analyzed that tackles all sustainability issues and in fact there is no consensus around what should be measured and how. The main divergences are related to the following aspects: different criteria are applied by the initiatives to classify issues between dimensions; same impacts are evaluated at different levels of a cause‐effect relationship continuum by the same initiative; disagreement about the groups of stakeholders a company should engage and assessing the company impacts that should be taken into account (direct only or those of its whole value chain). Moreover, the way in which most initiatives measure sustainability performance is not the most adequate to embed it into the performance measurement systems, since they evaluate sustainability via presence of management practice and employ absolute values indicators rather than result‐oriented measures and ratio indicators that are more adequate for internal decision making. In this context, a sustainability measurement model was developed that is more comprehensive, objective and value‐oriented, constituting an attempt to shed light on these problems.

Research limitations/implications

The major limitation is the fact that the proposed model does not provide any guidance to select the sustainability key issues for an organization to be integrated into its current performance measurement system. It mainly provides a very comprehensive set of sustainability issues and measures that could be used.


This paper sheds light on some sustainability measurement current challenges – lack of consensus of what should be measured and how – and sustainability embedment into daily activities. Academics will find it useful in their research efforts since it presents a broad review of sustainability concepts as well as an analysis of strengths and shortcomings of all and each sustainability initiative focused. Practitioners will also find it useful as a tool to better understand the sustainability concept, to start measuring sustainability performance, to integrate it in, as well as to evaluate, their current performance measurement systems.



Delai, I. and Takahashi, S. (2011), "Sustainability measurement system: a reference model proposal", Social Responsibility Journal, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 438-471.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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