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NIST prototypes framework for evaluating sustainability standards

As manufacturers and other businesses step up efforts to cut waste, reduce energy use and improve the overall sustainability of their products and processes, the number of standards and regulations also is increasing at a rapid clip, creating a sometimes-confusing array of options for “going green.” National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have prototyped a framework to help organizations of all types sort through the welter of choices and evaluate and implement sustainability standards most appropriate for their operations and interests.

The NIST team will unveil their framework for analyzing sustainability standards on 4 May at the 18th CIRP International Conference on Life Cycle Engineering in Braunschweig, Germany.

Despite their noble intentions, the ever-growing number of voluntary and regulatory standards related to sustainability makes it difficult to select standards well suited for a particular product line. Small and medium-size enterprises, in particular, face challenges in identifying the standards that warrant their time and resources.

—Rachuri Sudarsan, lead author

Enterprises need to understand and determine what to measure, how to measure, how to report the results, and how to verify and validate the reported data, Sudarsan explains.

To help answer these questions, the NIST team adapted the so-called Zachman framework, a formal approach developed in the 1980s to define organizational structures and to classify and organize specifications and data accordingly. More recently, the Zachman framework has been used to describe and categorize complex health-care and cyber security standards.

Zachman framework. Click to enlarge.

With the NIST-customized framework, stakeholders can view individual sustainability standards from their particular perspective, such as that of a manufacturer, software supplier, regulator or consumer. Complex standards are broken down into six different levels of detail—from the contextual view of a planner down to the actual data to collect and use—and distilled into categories to answer six questions: what, how, when, who, where and why. Results are arrayed in an easy-to-scan, 36-cell matrix.

The NIST team identified a list of stakeholder groups based on the nature of information and support they require in dealing with sustainability standards. They call these “perspectives”, as the same individual may have different views of the same standard. Identified stakeholder perspectives include:

  1. Generic user
  2. Consumer or buyer
  3. Manufacturer or producer
  4. Government or regulatory agency
  5. Software solution provider
  6. Researcher
  7. Standard developer

After considering a given standard from the perspectives of different stakeholders, the NIST approach then performs a detailed analysis of the standard using the Zachman framework. It then integrates the information to describe specific scenarios of interest to specific stakeholders.

We believe that this organized and detailed approach is essential for sustainable practices in today’s world, which brings together disparate parties with widely different concerns to the same table. Based on this study, we have also created thematic structures for promoting the fast understanding of standards, captured the essence of the performance issues related to sustainability, and created a primitive framework for querying a database of standards information, all of which are available publicly in the Sustainability Standards Landscape web portal. Our next step is to compare these standards to find gaps and overlaps in their domains of discourse.

—Rachuri et al.

NIST is piloting testing the framework on its new Sustainability Standards Portal (SSP). Also a work in progress, the SSP presents and distills information on a wide range of voluntary and regulatory sustainability standards. For many of these standards, stakeholder requirements have been identified and described.

The portal contains an example of the results of an analysis of a regulatory standard (the European Union’s Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances Directive) using the NIST-customized version of the Zachman framework.




Sustainable is one of those vague but interesting words. I have had people tell me that they will not be around, so who cares? I have asked them about future generations and they say that is their problem. These are people with children and grand children of their own.

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