Making connections, missing connections

Coming back from a meeting in New Haven last weekend, I spent several fun-filled hours at O’Hare trying to make my connection. At different times, we had a plane. We had a gate. We had a crew. We had fuel. But it took two hours of delays (and multiple gate changes) to get them all together, along with the passengers, before we finally took off.

The airline hadn’t run out of planes. Or gates. Or fuel – they didn’t go drilling for oil and then refine it; they just finally got the right truck to the right plane at the right gate. The problem was connections: the airline (and airport) making their connections so we could make our connections.

That was the same message I took away from the New Haven meeting, a unique collaboration of the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY). The meeting was about “Collaborating to Achieve Scale” in business and sustainability. Over 100 leaders from business, NGOs, academia and government had intense discussions around substantive issues like water, coastal wetlands, materials and the circular economy, climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

In session after session, the theme of making and missing connections came through. We are not short of challenges, obviously, but we’re not short of technology, ideas, data, enthusiasm or even capital either. What we’re all still learning to do is to connect them up so that the solutions can really take off.

In some areas, there is real progress. The Materials Marketplace platform is designed specifically to make connections, in this case between businesses with waste streams and businesses who can use those wastes as feedstock. The Water Synergy Projects are designed to connect entities who use water, those who depend on it, those who regulate it, all within a cohesive geographic area. Sustainable Forestry is bringing together partners from up and down the value chain. Energy Efficiency in Buildings is moving into a second phase, focusing on more replicability to achieve scale. Emerging projects like Climate Smart Agriculture are all about making the right connections across multiple industry sectors as well as government and NGOs.

In those and other areas, there’s still a lot to do. Finance is a particular challenge. The people with capital to invest, the people with capital already at risk, and the people impacted by both problems and solutions are just beginning to find ways to connect. And we’re learning that in some cases, we may be chasing the wrong people, trying to connect with sectors that may not be ready to participate in solutions yet. So there are delays and missed connections and frustrations.

There’s a lot to harvest and share, both about content areas and around cross-cutting issues of finance, technology, communications and policy. But above all, great platforms like last week’s meeting provide real hope about making more of the right connections.

Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.

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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 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.]  

Scale up

That’s my New Year’s resolution: Scale up.

Huh? Aren’t New Year’s resolutions supposed to be about scaling down? Pledging to reduce your weight, consumption (or carbon footprint)?   Yes, those are the traditional resolutions. Personally I should probably consider all of them.

But my main focus this year is going to be on scaling up, not down: scaling up positive impact. My resolution is to help create a step change in real outcomes affecting sustainable social and economic development.

That may seem just a bit presumptuous.  However, I don’t think I have to do it alone; in fact, I know I can’t do it alone. That’s the whole point.

My reasoning is simple: The sum of all the great one-off projects in corporate sustainability reports and the green press isn’t enough to move the needle.  For every one success we talk, there are 99 other times it didn’t happen.  That ratio has to change.

The need to focus on “scaling up” clicked for me last summer, at a session led by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD). After the meeting I blogged about the challenge of scaling up, of –

…driving improvements of 10X instead of 10%. … How do you bring about that level of change? Partly through great projects, great examples; you have to start somewhere, you have to figure it out, prove it, show it, do it. Absolutely. But to get scale, you have to do more. You certainly have to do more than you can do yourself. Personally, I’m pretty sure I can do 10% more by working harder or smarter. I’m very sure I can’t work 10 times harder or smarter.

There is no shortage of great needs and great ideas.  The challenge is connecting them up, getting the great ideas off the ground and up to scale with the needs.

There’s lots of good work going on around scaling up, working from the top down (starting with policy).  For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has focused its Action 2020 agenda on broad efforts to achieve scale. Within many companies, the focus is shifting to functions like procurement, with greater leverage over multiple partners in the supply chain. The focus on supply chain in the Global Reporting Initiative’s recent G4 guidelines’ certainly helps that effort.

Another route for scaling up is to work from the bottom up (starting with projects) instead of the top down.  Many who’ve done successful projects got them done by ignoring organizational issues.  To scale up, they have to find ways to work with (or around) those same issues. To go from one great project to a great corporate-wide process takes different approaches. To go from one new “green” product to a whole portfolio of low impact, high value products takes different approaches.

Some companies and practitioners have found ways to do this.  For example, General Motors now points out that

  • “We have 105 landfill-free facilities – more than any other automaker
  • “We recycle or reuse nearly 90% of our worldwide manufacturing waste”

That didn’t happen by accident.  Great projects were scaled up.

If we can harvest and harness the lessons of those who’ve succeeded in scaling up sustainability work, we may be able to help make that step change in impact.

To help with that learning, the US BCSD is devoting a portion of its annual meeting in February to just that kind of scaling up: “from great projects to great impact.”  We’re going to devote a big chunk of the meeting to hands-on sharing and learning about scaling up across multiple companies and sectors.

Come join us. Bring your successes and your frustrations. Or if you can’t attend, share your thoughts, challenges and lessons about scaling up.  You can post comments here or email me directly.

And maybe having greater positive impact can be one of your resolutions, too.

Happy New Year!

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to 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.]