Setting Sustainability Goals: 10 Golden Rules

by | Dec 9, 2010

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Sustainability reporting has mushroomed within the past several years, gaining acceptance throughout the world and serving as a means for companies to build public trust. While only issued just a few years ago, the publication of a regular account of a company’s sustainability performance has become common practice.

News from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) – architects of the world’s most widely used sustainability reporting framework – of plans to begin work on a new version of the guidelines for release by the end of 2010 will inevitably provoke further discussion about the direction of sustainability reporting.

Right now, I am finding that much of the debate centers around sustainability goals, with many reports reflecting increased ambition with the inclusion of robust objectives. There is no doubt that one of the most important advances in sustainability reporting has been the growing preparedness of corporations to publicly state what they aim to achieve.

I was recently impressed by hearing goals described by the phrase “dreams with a deadline.” Goals provide observable and measurable results that need to be achieved within a timeframe. There tends to be a relatively ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question, “has the goal been achieved?”

Given that this field is about continuous improvement, with companies striving to do better by deploying the right practices without any absolute end point, sustainability goals should arguably be seen more as intentions with targets, as opposed to boxes that need to be ticked.

The best sustainability reports deliver significant internal management benefits. They provide a valuable tool for corporate leadership to negotiate realistic ambitions with its managers to secure enhancements across all areas of the operation. Goals are a central part of business management. They provide a compass to managers who need clear, benchmarkable targets that can steer them in an agreed direction.

A corporate sustainability strategy without goals would be like a ship without a rudder. There clearly has to be a shared vision within any company as to where it intends to go. This increased focus on publishing specific objectives is surely good news for the credibility of sustainability reporting.

1. Reach for goals that will benefit the business and expand opportunities for the company. They should be motivating and aspirational, as opposed to just being perceived as just more issues that need to be managed. Each goal must make a meaningful impact on the company’s environmental footprint and make business sense.  From a business perspective, this is how a commitment to sustainability can be truly sustainable over the long term.

2. Senior management must be committed to the goals. This crucial element sets the tone for the entire organization and shows business partners, external stakeholders and employees that company leadership views sustainability as an important enabler of improving and growing the business. Ideally, it should be the CEO who is seen as the principle trailblazer of the company’s sustainability objectives.

3. Sustainability goals must be integral to the business, and should not require separate work, because the right sustainability strategy will enhance the efficiency of the company’s existing operation. A company’s sustainability targets should touch on everything in the company, including product distribution, packaging, supply chain, office efficiency, manufacturing plant operations, human resources and R&D. Good sustainability goals will help enhance the way the company operates across its entire business.

4. Always make sure the targets are credible, which means striking a balance between what can be practically achieved while setting the bar at a level where real improvements will accrue. If the targets cannot be achieved, the company’s sustainability track record will appear as weak. But targets that are too soft could be derided as meaningless, and could attract accusations of “greenwash” and the like.

5. Prioritize sustainability goals towards areas where you can make the most meaningful impact and generate the biggest results. Focus on parts of the business where improvements are needed, but can be achieved.

6. Publishing sustainability goals must be much more than an expression of hope and desire. No goals should be included without there being a clear roadmap as to how they can be achieved in reality.

7. Company employees can provide the richest source of ideas as to what sustainability goals should be set. The best opportunities for improving the environmental and social performance of an organization are most likely to come from the people who have to deliver. Often these employees are much closer to the day-to-day mechanics, and shortcomings, of existing procedures, and they are among the first to recognize opportunities.

8. Establish goals that have real traction with customers and consumers. A company’s drive for sustainability must neither be seen purely as an internal management tool or as an external public relations opportunity. The goals should be easily translatable into tangible benefits that meet stakeholder expectations. While it is important to include measurable targets, it is not necessary for all of them to be empirically framed.

9. Meaningful goals cannot be set in isolation from the world at large. Collaboration with external organizations, NGOs and partners is necessary to advance a sustainability agenda. The best sustainability strategies involve working with a number of external stakeholders to identify needs and to create new opportunities and solutions for some of the world’s toughest challenges. Companies need support from NGOs and other relevant third-party ‘watchdogs’ to advance sustainability causes and communicate with the public at large in a credible and authentic manner.

10. While sustainability goals must be designed to benefit the business, it is important that they include elements that position the company as a good corporate citizen. Innovation is key to driving new sustainable products which can also enable the solving of environmental or social sustainability issues. This should be factored into the thinking when developing the goals.

Six of the Best

Here are six interesting and varied ways of setting sustainability goals and reporting on results by organizations in a broad range of fields:

Forest products company, Weyerhaeuser, rates its achievements against a range of sustainability goals in an impressively transparent manner.

From sustainable agriculture and energy efficient manufacturing to eco-friendly packaging, Heinz presents a set of empirical benchmarks.

Perhaps a surprising supporter of sustainability is the U.S. Army which has established a set of goals to embrace its operations, installations, systems, and communities.

Consumer products manufacturer Procter and Gamble has been publishing sustainability reports for over a decade and has developed some highly ambitious goals.

President Obama signed an Executive order requesting all Federal agencies establish sustainability goals, as collectively being the largest consumers of energy in the U.S.

Pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb publishes a comprehensive table of its goals across it operations, set out clearly with many measurable targets.

Jonathan Wootliff is the former Communications Director for Greenpeace International and currently works with global corporations to build effective corporate accountability strategies, particularly on environmental issues. Since joining the commercial world as a consultant, he has worked with companies all over the  globe – British Petroleum, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Merrill Lynch, Owens Corning, Procter & Gamble, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the Whirlpool Corporation and others – to provide guidance on developing and sustaining relationships with a variety of key stakeholders. Jonathan now heads the Corporate Accountability practice at Reputation Partners, a communications firm based in Chicago. He can be contacted at [email protected]. More information can be found at

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