Setting Strong Sustainability Goals Can Feel Hard. It Doesn’t Have To.

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Global biodiversity is plummeting, inequality is on the rise, waste is piling up, and in the past several years we have experienced catastrophic fires in multiple global locales, historic protests over racial inequality, and a doubling of acute food insecurity worldwide. It should come as no surprise that customers, employees, communities, and even shareholders are demanding meaningful corporate action. They want companies to set strong sustainability goals and they want to see a plan to achieve them.

Some companies are beginning to realise the interconnected and systemic nature of these challenges. They are starting to take a more systems-based view of the environment, communities, and the economy. As a result, they are realising they need to set credible sustainability goals to do their part to address these challenges.

To be credible, companies need to set goals that align with doing their part to maintain the resilience of the environment and communities where they operate. But this is easier said than done.

If you are struggling with how to set credible sustainability goals, I assure you, you’re not alone. I’m here to help.

I spend a good part of my week trying to find and assess sustainability goals. In the last year or so, I have reviewed well over 10,000 corporate goals. Some of these goals are quite good. Many more are not. All of them, however, have contributed to our understanding of leading practices.

Below I’ve created a list of seven straight-forward questions to help you take a look at your company’s existing goals, or to consider as you develop your next round of sustainability goals. 

1) Is your goal timebound and is it possible to assess whether you have met it?

One of the most common (and most frustrating) trends in corporate goal-setting is the creation of bold and well-meaning goals without a straightforward deliverable or timeframe. In other words, the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ are vague and therefore suspect.

A credible goal is one that enables others to assess your progress. A credible goal also includes a clear timeframe.

This doesn’t mean that every goal needs to involve numerics. Many social goals will not be quantitative, but can still be assessed. You just need to be clear on how you will assess it.

For instance, many companies have found it helpful to set short-term goals that involve gathering the data that will help them better understand their impacts. This goal isn’t quantitative, but it can be assessed – either “yes, we did it” or “no, we didn’t.”

As for the timeframe, your targets need to match the pace of change that is required. Some issues require meaningful action right now.

2) Does your goal support the resilience of social and/or environmental systems through alignment with a relevant threshold or limit?

Your goal should align with the work that needs to be done to ensure the resilience of the social and environmental systems on which you depend.

For example, the best available science suggests that we need to limit planetary warming by the year 2100 to 1.5 ºC to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and that this requires aggressive goals being reached by 2040. And so, a strong and credible goal will explain the work required (such as specific reductions in GHG emissions) for your organisation to align with the 1.5ºC target and adhere to systems thresholds.

Real talk: it’s normal and okay to read this and say “Systems resilience? Thresholds? Regenerative? What in the world does that mean?” Frankly, I wish more people would ask.

Resilience, system thresholds, and regenerative strategies are quickly becoming common reference points, and while we’ve unpacked these terms elsewhere, a quick reminder doesn’t hurt:

Resilience is a system’s ability to withstand and/or recover from enduring stress or disruption.

A system threshold is the point at which the resilience of an environmental, social, or economic system becomes compromised. Take climate change as an example: as global average temperatures rise, a “tipping point” is reached where the Earth’s climate system is no longer able to adapt, resulting in sudden, adverse, unpredictable, and possibly irreversible changes in the stability of the global climate. If/when the threshold of a system is compromised, everyone has a really bad time, starting with those most disadvantaged and thus most vulnerable.

Regenerative strategies align with ensuring the resilience of the environmental, social, and economic context in which your company operates, taking into account longer timeframes and a broader understanding of value creation that includes systems value.

Embedded Strategies

If it’s still not crystal-clear, or if you’re simply keen on a more thorough explanation, check out our guide on Embedded Strategies to learn more about systems thresholds or read more about the origins of thresholds and allocations. And for the full scoop on the resilience of communities, check out our guide on Understanding Community Resilience.

3) Do you explain how your goal influences your business strategy by discussing emerging expectations, relevant risks or opportunities, and importantly, any constraints it places on future decision-making?

The next step is to clarify explicitly why resilient ecosystems and resilient communities are important to YOUR business. This means identifying a business driver and linking your strategy to key issues and trends.

What are the current and looming risks? And what opportunities could be created by setting meaningful goals that tackle these issues directly?

For example, a company that produces beverages will want to explain their understanding of their reliance on access to clean water, particularly if they operate in regions with seasonal water scarcity. They will also want to establish water goals that help them to do their part in ensuring that the watershed is protected and maintains a sustainable and reliable replenishment rate.

Your audience will want to know how your goal supports your organisation’s long-term strategy and success. Why should your reader (including me, by the way) believe you’ll stick with it otherwise?

Your audience will also want to see that you know that adhering to systems thresholds will create constraints on your strategy.

Consider the following:

What changes do you need to make in how you operate?

What changes will need to be made to the goods and services you produce?

Can you realistically continue to be the same business as before or will you need to pivot?

What investments will need to be made?

4) Do you explain how you set this goal, such as by including the assumptions, frameworks, and learning that informed it?

Let’s face it, people are skeptical when it comes to sustainability. They are also becoming very wary (and weary) of greenwashing.

So, let me be very clear: people want to know how you developed your goal.

Regardless of whether you want to help achieve carbon neutrality or gender equality, you need to be transparent about your rationale and your process, as well as the assumptions and knowledge that informed this goal.

How did you determine what effort was needed?

How did you determine what it looks like to do your part? 

5) Do you explain your plan to achieve your goal, including realistic interim targets and the actions and investments required to meet it?

The next step is to show how your company will get from Point A to Point B. I come across a lot of flashy goals that seem too good to be true, and provide next to no (or literally no) clarity on the path the organisation plans to take.

Begin by breaking down your goal into a realistic set of short- and mid-term interim targets. These targets should reflect the timing and magnitude of the resource investments that will be required to ensure that you’re able to meet your goal.

Then spell out the realistic actions required to meet your goal. These interim goals will make it much easier for you to monitor and manage your progress and to convey your expectations around the pace and resources required to deliver on your goal.

And be sure to identify the decisions, initiatives, and projects (among other elements) that will allow you to reach these targets.

6) Do you provide regular, transparent, accessible updates on progress against your goal and interim targets?

If you transparently report against trajectory targets, including when you meet them and/or make the necessary adjustments when you do not meet them, great - keep up the good work. If not, never fear: there’s no better time than the present to start.

Reporting on your progress is crucial to building and maintaining credibility. Use your annual reports, your newsletters, social media, and/or other regular reporting to share details on your achievements, on your challenges, and especially on your setbacks.

“But what if we don’t meet our interim goals?”

Good question. Put simply: transparently adjust them and recalibrate. Build up a strong track-record for setting and reporting against targets, as well as for openly and proactively correcting course.

7) Do you explain how you will contribute to broader, positive systems change, such as through data and knowledge-sharing, collaboration, advocacy, and/or through supporting standard-setting?

There is a sentence that has crept into more and more corporate goals and positions: “We know we can’t solve this problem on our own, but […] “we’ll help make a difference,” or ”we’ll play a vital role,” or “we’ll contribute to a solution.”

You get the picture.

Acknowledging that you cannot solve a serious systemic issue on your own is good. Acknowledging and explaining the intersectional effort necessary for solving it is better. Committing to do your part to influence and empower others to be a part of this collective action is best.

Think of all the actors around you that you could be encouraging and helping to contribute to systems resilience.

The communities in which you operate. The members in your value chain. Industry partners, peers, and competitors. Those you finance and invest in. Policy makers, policy influencers.

It’s a long list.

Think about what actions your organisation can commit to take.

Maybe it’s supporting other actors in your value chain, or doing the work to help convene a broader coalition of like-minded participants, or sharing your data or your experiences with others to help them leap forward on their own journey.

Do you have unique resources you can leverage or insights you can share? Do you have the credibility and influence to convene other actors? Do you have knowledge you can share? Consider setting an influence goal where you outline how you will enable resilience elsewhere.

That’s it. You did it. You’re done.

It’s time to get to work. Get out there, draw up some great goals, and share your thinking and your progress with the world.

To see examples of how companies are starting to articulate more credible commitments, you can search our free goals database.

Image by Jos van Ouwerkerk on Pexels