Why sustainability aspiration leads to innovation

If your corporation has sustainability goals and linked targets for issues like carbon emissions and water use, you are in good company.
   
But what should those targets be?

For almost two decades companies have used stretch targets — or, in the words of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “big hairy audacious goals” — to improve performance. True “BHAGs” cannot be achieved within a decade, yet require daily focus given their seeming impossibility.

As corporate leaders face climate change, water shortages, deforestation and biodiversity loss, there is a real need to set aspirational corporate goals.

The opportunity is to embrace the challenge (and seeming impossibility) of the stretch goals of sustainable business, such as zero emissions, carbon neutrality, water neutrality and even no net impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services (or the even more bold “net positive impact”).

These goals are not as outlandish as they may seem. Very sober-minded companies such as Rio Tinto and The Walt Disney Co. have set goals to have a net positive impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. This approach represents a 180-degree shift in thinking and moving beyond what is not desirable to what is desired by all.

 To make stretch targets work, they must be linked to short-term objectives and detailed targets. Here’s what that can look like for goals related to ecosystem services:

  1. Develop metrics and select tools for measurement and analysis (resources available for this in BSR’s recent ecosystem services report).
  1. Test, verify and validate these metrics and tools in particular business contexts.
  1. Integrate new approaches within and across corporate environmental measurement and reporting, which will help your company look at the issues more holistically, in terms of trade-offs.
  1. Share and apply these insights to drive “leapfrog” innovations — within companies as well as within and across industries.

Aspiration goals are exactly what make for motivational, visionary leaders and great companies. They are exactly what we need today as we face climate change, water shortages and the most significant biodiversity loss, deforestation rates and ecosystem changes in recorded history.

The opportunity is to have corporate goals reflect what is desired and where innovation needs to occur. By definition, these goals should seem impossible today, and we shouldn’t see any practical examples of companies operating according to these goals.

The impossibility of a goal did not stop the mining and oil and gas industries from setting “no injury” goals, or the automotive industry from setting “no defect” goals, or even numerous companies from setting “zero waste” goals. It did not stop President John F. Kennedy from committing to put a man on the moon. Now the opportunity for companies working on sustainability issues is to be equally bold in framing goals and targets.

Water fills a crystal glass courtesy of BortN66 via Shutterstock