Sustainability goals that matter

Goals can be strange things.

For an athlete, shaving a few hundredths of a second can make all the difference.  A runner can work for years toward a goal like that.  In the real world, that can seem strange.  You run from one completely arbitrary line across another completely arbitrary line (with no feared animal or other imminent danger chasing you), and do it faster by a margin utterly undetectable by the human eye. As a wise woman once said mocking my love of sports: “This is about being the best in the world at something that wasn’t worth doing to begin with.”

IMGP0081For an individual runner, though, a goal can be incredibly motivating.  It can drive astonishing levels of dedication and discipline. Just striving for those goals can be life changing. Sticking to your goals and sharing them with others can have extraordinary results, doing things that absolutely are worth doing. Some dedicated runners (sometimes viewed as a self-focused population) use this focus on goals to do amazing things to help others, not just themselves (see Back on My Feet).

So what does this suggest about the sustainability goals companies set and the records they strive for?  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), reducing water usage, increasing purchasing in local economies, increasing opportunities for women and minorities to get jobs and promotions, improving transparency and governance and receiving recognition all seem like good things. Digging into the details raises some questions, though.  Does reducing water usage mean focusing on water stressed areas, or just reducing water use where it’s convenient? At the current rate of GHG reduction, how many years will it be before a company is truly carbon neutral (especially without potentially-questionable offsets)? Are all the groups joined and awards won meaningful goals that drive real progress, or more like the Olympic records of countries with leading medal counts but lagging life expectancies?

A number of companies are now kicking off annual or multi-year sustainability goal-setting efforts.  Will this launch a new round of pointless record-chasing and medal counts, or powerful motivators of dedicated behavior that can drive real change?

Some companies already use goal-setting to raise the bar and focus energy.  For example, back in 2006 Dow shared new goals including: “We are actively working toward, and committed to achieving, at least three breakthroughs by 2015 that will significantly help solve world challenges.”

Others, though, have taken safer routes.  Some companies aim for timid reductions in broad indicators, shaving the equivalent of hundredths of a second off their GHG emissions or water use. Others aggregate individual achievements into counts of dubious value: if one plant-level green team did good work, let’s set a goal of five teams next year! As the VP of one well-respected global company contemplated a new round of goal-setting earlier this summer, he sighed: “These things are getting old. It feels like the same-old, same-old.”

There may be good reasons for this caution.  One corporate sustainability manager admitted: “We already picked the low-hanging fruit.  It gets harder from here.” Another noted that senior management may be on board directionally with sustainability, but setting goals requires “testing the tolerance for commitment.”

There is new thinking emerging that can be used to push the boundaries of sustainability goals, metrics and reporting, getting away from the “same ol’ same ol’.”  For example, David Lubin and Daniel Esty call for  “a ‘back to basics’ approach and argue for measuring sustainability strategies’ direct impact on revenue growth, productivity and risk.” What different kinds of goals might a company set if those three factors drove sustainability strategy?

If your company is starting a new round of goal setting, and if you want to make that effort meaningful, you might consider a few questions:

  • What is your sustainability ambition? If you put sustainability in business terms, are you just trying to be protective and defensively keep up with the competition, or are you trying to go on offense – or even transform your company?
  • Why are you setting goals? Are you trying to achieve your ambition, drive a particular impact or just tick the box?
  • Who is the audience for your goals? Are you trying to satisfy (or impress or respond to) your Board of Directors, customers, NGOs, regulators, investors, others?
  • What are you trying to increase? Do you want your company to increase the span of action (the range of different projects or programs underway), the scope of action (the level of effort on those projects or programs) or the scale of impact – how much really changes as a result?
  • What would success look like? What would be different in real world terms if you achieve your goals?

Who knows?  Maybe your company can be the best in the world at something that really is worth doing.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or to subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]