“Goal! Goal!! Goal!!!” – or: What to cheer for in sustainability

In my last post, I defeated the view that there could be any truth(s) about sustainability. In closing, I also conceded that it would be disheartening to conclude from this that nothing can be done. Indeed: Practically everyone who’s ever felt a whiff of the magic of sustainability also intuitively feels that something needs to be done, urgently and with vigour. If we accept that people (and by consequence, organisations) do feel this urge[1], it is also acceptable to look for answers to how people (and organisations) can best achieve what they want with regard to sustainability – just like we might help a friend who tells us they want to go to Paris with information about logistics, sights, and petites trouvailles without ever questioning where their desire comes from[2].

When trying to help someone, it is generally advisable to first understand what they want as precisely as possible – in our Paris example, we better ask our friend whether they’re talking Paris (France) or Paris (Texas)[3]. This requirement also holds true for the case at hand: In order to move towards action with regard to sustainability, it is indispensable to talk about goals as precisely as possible.

So today’s question is: What makes a precise sustainability goal for a (for profit) organisation[4]? In a nutshell, my answer is: A precise sustainability goal fuses the (vast) aspiration(s) inherent in sustainability’s transcendent nature with an anchor for (institutional) discipline. Practically, this can be achieved by fulfilling (at least one of) three criteria with regard to measurement, scope, and justification.

Let’s take both points in turn – starting with the need to fuse aspiration and discipline:

Nowadays, in order to define sustainability goals, most organisations follow a process where they look at their value chain, identify the areas with the biggest impact in relation to some (pre-defined) sustainability issues (e.g., carbon emissions), assess those areas along the dimensions of their perceived relevance for the company and for (external) stakeholders (often in some version of a “materiality matrix”[5]), and then derive a – more or less – elaborate program for sustainability that usually includes a set of sustainability goals. In addition, it goes without saying that practically all organisations ensure that these goals comply with the SMART requirements for “good” goals, i.e. are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound; also, more and more, companies anchor their sustainability goals in their governance, e.g. by reflecting them in executive compensation[6].

There is nothing wrong with all this. It is a solid process to set achievable goals in a business environment. Diligently following such a process can also earn you good ratings on official rosters like the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices[7]. There might even be significant merit in the sheer fact that sustainability has earned its right to being subject to such a process[8]. At the same time, the very nature of sustainability (as lined out in the previous post) transcends such a process. Thus, a precise goal for sustainability has to create a link between the transcendental nature of what is to be achieved and the boundary conditions for its practical implementation. If it doesn’t, it runs the risk of killing the magic of inspiration by reducing (at least potentially) vast aspirations to the mechanics of process discipline[9].

How, then, can we assess whether certain sustainability goals fulfil this requirement?

I want to suggest three criteria that can be used to test sustainability goals for their ability to fuse aspiration and discipline. Admittedly, these criteria make goals that might, at first, appear awkward in a business context, because they contain an element of incomprehensibility – the very opposite of what business schools and consultants like to teach us about “good” goal setting[10]. However, their very power lies in keeping the spirit of sustainability alive while also providing an entry point into business structures and processes[11].

Firstly, with regard to measurement, sustainability goals have to be concrete beyond reason. One good example for this can be found in Kingfisher’s “Net Positive” approach to sustainability which, among others, contains the goal to “create more forest than we use”[12]. This is very concrete – the amount of forest used by the company as well as the amount created can be measured – and it is (at least from today’s point of view) quite beyond reason. By contrast, a goal like: “…reduce our carbon footprint by 20 percent…” is concrete, but not beyond reason[13]; and a goal like: “…leave the world better than we found it…” is beyond reason – but not concrete at all.

Secondly, with regard to scope, sustainability goals have to be useful while pointless. Danone’s claim to make its product range “100% health-driven” is an example for what this can look like – it is utterly pointless in that the definition of health is very much open to interpretation, and it is – as the examples on the corresponding website nicely illustrate – immensely useful because it drives daily business decisions and actions within the company[14]. The general secret behind this criterion is, of course, to anchor the sustainability goal in a concept that has a very practical day-to-day applicability – as in: people just “know” what is healthy and what is not (even if they don’t always behave accordingly) – while also pointing to some version of perfection that is, by definition, unattainable[15].

Thirdly and finally, with regard to justification, sustainability goals have to be well-grounded and impartial. What this means is: While openly acknowledging the philosophical, scientific, historical, emotional, and practical assumptions under which a given organisation operates with regard to sustainability, it should also acknowledge the limits of these very assumptions – and thereby pay respect to the possibility that things might actually turn out in completely different ways. In my experience, this is a discourse that is rarely made explicit inside companies – let alone publicised. At the same time, it is the most important insurance for sustainability efforts against being (or becoming) either crusades or nitpicking (or both). In my search for an example, I found PG&E’s “Message from the Chairman and CEO” on sustainability where it says: “Californians look to us to enable an ever-improving quality of life and a better future through everything we do […]”[16]. Here, at least, the reference point for PG&E’s assumptions around sustainability – namely: Californians and their expectations – is made explicit while (or so I assume) not positing any superiority of Californians and their expectations over any other set of possible boundary conditions for sustainability.

Given the difficulty to meet even one of these criteria, I do not suggest that all three need to be fulfilled for a sustainability goal to pass the test. Just like in an exciting soccer game we’d cheer for a sensational goal regardless of whether it resulted from a penalty, a header, a goal keeper’s distraction – or all three of these at the same time[17].

In the same vein, aspiring to have a sustainability goal that complies with these criteria is just one (tiny) part of what needs to be done. Others are: Deciding in which areas to aspire for sustainability[18], creating the organisational conditions for such aspirations to flourish, and working with people to support them well. I’ll come back to these questions in future posts.

[1] For now, I’m consciously skipping the very big (and very metaphysical) question how something which cannot claim any truth(s) can produce a desire to act. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Surreal reflections on possible motives, for those who are interested, can be found in Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris” (2011), or, of course, in Duke Ellington’s homonymous album (1962). BACK TO TEXT

[3] Or Paris (Prince of Troy), or Paris (Hilton), or PARIS as in Paper Aircraft Released into Space – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_(disambiguation) for (further) inspiration. If we are serious about wanting to help, we should also consider asking questions like: When and for how long they intend to travel, how much money they might want to spend, and whether they have specific preferences with regard to the arts, different ways of preparing foie gras, romantic involvements, luxury handbags, or freedom of speech. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Of course, nonprofit organisations can also set themselves sustainability goals (and many of them actually are in the “business” of explicitly pursuing such goals); however, my focus here is on the specific challenges that organisations with a (primary) profit orientation face when integrating sustainability thinking into their structures and processes. BACK TO TEXT

[5] So far, I’ve not been able to blow the cover of the first inventor of the materiality analysis – my sincere apologies to the anonymous hero. For anyone interested in an up-to-date overview of the tool and a critical analysis of what it can (and cannot) do, see the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBSCD) Report, Journey to Materiality – a guide to achieve corporate goals by applying materiality to environmental, social and governance issues, 2014, downloadable on http://www.wbcsd.org/Pages/EDocument/EDocumentDetails.aspx?ID=16345&NoSearchContextKey=true [retrieved Jan 27, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] For more details on these (and other) mechanisms to intertwine sustainability with business structure and processes, see the Ceres/Sustainalytics Report, Gaining Ground: Corporate Progress on the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability, 2014, downloadable on www.ceres.org/gainingground [retrieved Jan 27, 2015]. The report has a US focus, so the examples are limited to companies based in the US; however, many of its findings are applicable well beyond. BACK TO TEXT

[7] See http://www.djindexes.com/sustainability/ and http://www.sustainability-indices.com for details on scope and methodology of the DJSI. Again, there’s nothing wrong with measuring the extent to which companies put emphasis and rigour into defining and managing their sustainability strategies and management approaches. What gets measured usually also gets some attention, and what gets attention often produces impact. At the same time, by definition, this kind of measurement falls short of judgment on the content of a company’s sustainability-related work. For example, a question like: “Is your company publically reporting on the processes and tools used to identify and prioritize critical environmental issues within the sustainability strategy, including a consideration of impact on the company’s business performance (i.e. materiality analysis/matrix, portfolio matrix/analysis, company’s definition of “materiality”, description of the analytical framework)?” (taken from the sample questionnaire on http://www.robecosam.com/images/sample-questionnaire.pdf) can be scored high without getting any insight into whether what is prioritised really has any relevance for the company or for sustainability [all websites retrieved on Jan 28, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] It would be an interesting meta-study to research when, why, and how which fields and topics have crossed the threshold beyond which they are being moulded into such processes. And to think about whether this is actually an accolade to aspire to or rather a domestication to shy away from.  BACK TO TEXT

[9] This does not imply that following a process like the one described by default cannot create such goals; however, rather than betting on this happening by coincidence, I would advocate deliberately defining criteria to increase the odds.  BACK TO TEXT

[10] You’re not really looking for a reference for this statement, or are you?! BACK TO TEXT

[11] I cannot underline the second part of the sentence enough: The aspect of precise sustainability goals that does provide a connection to the “ordinary” ways of working within organisations is as indispensable as the aspect that connects it with sustainability’s nature of being “beyond truth”.  BACK TO TEXT

[12] The quoted goal is one of Kingfisher’s aspirations for 2050. The general explanation behind their approach is: “For each pillar we have articulated a vision for the world, an aspiration for Kingfisher’s positive impact by 2050 and targets up to 2020 against which we will measure and report progress” – the explicit combination of aspiration and process! For more details, see http://www.kingfisher.com/netpositive/index.asp?pageid=1 [retrieved Jan 28, 2015].  BACK TO TEXT

[13] Note: There is a difference between a “stretch” goal and a goal that contains an aspiration – the former is, in simple words, “(a lot) more of the same”, the latter introduces a different dimension to the goal.  BACK TO TEXT

[14] See http://www.danone.com/en/for-all/mission-strategy/our-strategy/our-product-range-100-health-driven/ for details [retrieved Jan 28, 2015]. Note that with regard to the first criterion, this goal seems to miss out on the “concrete” aspect – while, at first glance, 100% seems to be a concrete number, it’s obviously not easily measurable without further qualifications.  BACK TO TEXT

[15] Just in case you’re wondering: Kingfisher’s sustainability goal cited above falls short on both dimensions: “Forest” (at least for most of us) is neither a practical day-to-day concept nor an abstract claim to perfection.  BACK TO TEXT

[16] Quoted from http://www.pgecorp.com/corp_responsibility/reports/2014/su01_ceo.jsp [retrieved Jan 28, 2015].  BACK TO TEXT

[17] For random examples and possible inspiration see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj4wq6IQIeI [retrieved Jan 28, 2015].  BACK TO TEXT

[18] Those who are impatient can try the approach described above; it might well work for you. Those who believe they can wait, might stand by for another blog post on this topic.  BACK TO TEXT

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