Big ambitions – with a side of science – are raising the bar on goal setting

I’m often asked, “How good do we really need to be?” — meaning how much improvement is actually needed to address pressing sustainability challenges. These questions come from leaders wanting to drive real change and from companies that understand that most sustainability goals lack long-term vision. This marks an important shift in the sustainability conversation, with greater emphasis being given to the “how” rather than the “why,” and underscores a profound need to change the way sustainability goals are set by integrating scientific input into the process.

Leaders get bold

Meeting goals is meaningless if the targets aren’t set in the right place. Many companies miss the mark on their sustainability goals by setting objectives that are achievable and realistic without questioning whether they go far enough or fast enough. Increasingly, leaders are switching from setting sustainability goals to setting goals to be sustainable. This shift in thinking sends a clear and bold message that the business stakes are too high to follow a slow or uncertain path to address key sustainability challenges. Simply making progress is not enough.

Jon Dettling

Jon Dettling
Quantis Global Director, Services + Innovation

Bold leadership and sound science are
driving these four actions into 2018.

Over the last year, we’ve witnessed a sharp transition away from commitments focused on what we think we can do and towards those centered on doing what needs to be done. Hundreds of companies are suddenly taking a business-un-usual approach of committing to more visionary and purpose-filled sustainability targets. This change can be attributed to leaders who are thinking more long-term and are infusing strategies with bold ambition. The shift has unleashed a new energy that is helping push companies further as they become aware of the communicability of these new goals and the need to find new solutions.

Science finally gets sexy

Science is finally making headlines. Though the science itself hasn’t changed, businesses are suddenly paying attention and acting. Science has long been telling anyone willing to listen that our current progress trajectory is not enough. The fact that more than 10,000 scientists recently declared that we’re either treading water or nose-diving on the most critical global environmental indicators should surprise no one.1 What has changed is that a large number of leading companies are committing to taking a serious lead on pulling out of this nose dive. This is a much-needed revolution.

The shake-up is most evident in relation to carbon, for which more than 320 companies and counting have now committed to set targets through the Science Based Targets initiative.2 These goals are a radical departure from typical corporate sustainability goals in that they take a long-term (up to several decades) view, often involve committing to changes that companies don’t yet know how to achieve and incorporate commitments that span a company’s full value chain.

Some corporates scoff when asked to commit to a target with a due date beyond even their successor’s tenure and requires significant changes to how both they and their value chain partners do business. That hundreds of leaders are not laughing, but rather signing on, is evidence that they understand the seriousness of the issue, as well as the critical role that the private sector must play in driving transformation.

4 actions to get on the radar

1+ Ambitious goals going far beyond carbon

Those that have made the leap to set ambitious long-term targets on carbon are quickly seeing the benefit of having broader, more diversified goals. Expect to see issues such as water, land use and more follow a similar trajectory, with new frameworks emerging that incorporate healthy doses of both science and blind ambition. We’re already seeing this acceleration through strong interest in our work on linking deforestation goals to carbon accounting3 and framing goals on achieving water balance.4

 2+ Supply chain collaborations go big

For most companies, the carbon footprint of their value chain outweighs that of their own operations. A growing focus on tackling major value chain challenges will increasingly lead companies to seek out collaborative solutions that offer shared accountability. Scope 3 carbon accounting offers such an approach, in which several companies recognize their influence over the same emissions. One prominent example is Walmart’s promise to work with its suppliers to deliver a gigaton in total carbon reductions.5 Expect to see even more collaborative goal setting and, as a result, the clarification of rules that make it difficult to account for improvements up and down the value chain. We’re currently working with WRI, The Gold Standard and others to clarify accounting principles for value-chain interventions.

Expect to see even more collaborative goal setting. Walmart’s Project Gigaton, for example, promises to work with suppliers to deliver a gigaton in total carbon reductions. We’re working with WRI, The Gold Standard and others to clarify accounting principles for value-chain interventions to identify or create public references.

Quantis goal setting

3+ Leaders go for the relay

Success on issues such as carbon won’t be determined by when the first runner gets across the finish line, but rather by how far back the rest of the pack is. Several hundred engaged companies is a good start, but these leaders, unfortunately, can’t solve the problem on their own. The changes to which these companies are committing need to become an imperative for all companies. Expect to see leaders aligning their own business goals with science-based sustainability and encouraging others to do the same by working together in relay fashion.

4+ Goals go for purpose

Purpose has been a buzzword for corporate and brand identity topics due to increasing questions about how the companies we invest in, work for and buy from align with our own values. Setting goals and backing them up with actions are among the clearest ways to demonstrate serious commitment to a topic. The new generation of sustainability goals aims to show that sustainability is not just a box to be ticked off, but rather an integral part of a company’s reason for being. These are goals that focus less on becoming a smaller part of the problem and more on demonstrating an active commitment to finding solutions.

Expect to start seeing all this and more in 2018

It is time for something as mundane as goal setting to become the new racetrack for those companies pushing the furthest and the fastest on sustainability. And I would place a bet that there will be a much larger pack bringing up the rear.

This article was originally published in the State of Green Business Report 2018. Download the full report here.