Setting Sustainability Goals

You’ve just started becoming comfortable in your new position as the sustainability person when your boss asks you to come up with sustainability goals for the company.  You’re a bit taken aback, since you were hoping to get a few projects done that would be “easy” wins and have some time to think about goals based on what you think is possible. But now, you’re wondering if you’re being asked to come up with an organization-defining BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal a la Collins and Porras’ Built to Last) or incremental goals that move the company down the path. And you’re starting to worry if whatever you come up with will be in sync with business goals.

Where to start?

Sustainability goals are useful when they are relevant to the organization’s overarching purpose, specific to the sought after accomplishments, and capable of measuring progress. Goals should be meaningful to the organization and its stakeholders and be structured so that given appropriate action and information, all stakeholders would recognize that the organization has met them.

It’s useful to distinguish goals that are annual (often coinciding with a budget cycle) and those that are 3 to 5 years out. These time frames generally coincide with forecasts and expectations about changes in the business landscape surrounding the organization.  In some cases, longer term goals can be important when an organization is seeking fundamental changes in how it will do business and expects to be in a leadership role for its industry.

Setting appropriate goals requires an understanding of where the organization is currently on the issues that matter. If a company hasn’t already produced some type of corporate social responsibility report, we often suggest undertaking an internal version of a report, going through a process of identifying issues that matter (e.g., a materiality scan), collecting relevant data for the identified issues, assessing what relevant “peer” companies are doing on the issues, identifying stakeholder expectations for performance on the issues, and determining where the organization wants to be—maintaining a minimal level of performance, being a solid performer, or moving into a leadership position. Not a small task, but virtually a requirement for creating goals that help transform the organization. Setting goals then becomes a task for you and the appropriate stakeholders that will be relatively easy.

Work on the 3 to 5 year goals first, then set annual goals that help meet the longer term goals.

So, if your boss asks you to come up with sustainability goals, you may have to say that you’ve got some homework to do first.