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Speaking Sustainably

It's time to rethink sustainability goals and targets

Your work is not an add-on to the rest of the company, so stop treating it that way.

This is the first installment of Shelton Group's two-part series about rethinking sustainability goals and targets. Find part two here.

I’m sure my headline might ruffle some feathers. After all, getting companies to publish clear, science-based goals and targets for their environmental performance has been a huge push in the sustainability community for years.

But have you perused the sustainability sections of your favorite companies’ websites lately and checked out their goals and targets? They all sound the same. By way of example, here’s the wording from the environmental targets of three companies in the building products space:

Company 1: By 2030, improve water intensity by 50 percent, energy intensity by 40 percent, emissions intensity by 40 percent, waste intensity by 100 percent; 100 percent of products Cradle to Cradle Certified; OSHA incident rate improved by 40 percent.

Company 2: By 2020, reduce primary energy intensity by 20 percent, greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 50 percent, PM2.5 emissions intensity by 15 percent, TAE intensity by 75 percent, waste to landfill intensity by 70 percent, and water intensity by 35 percent — all from the 2010 baseline.

Company 3: By 2020, reduce solid waste, energy and water use by 20 percent per unit of product, using 2013 as a baseline.

At Shelton Group, we help companies realize a market advantage as a result of their commitments and actions on sustainability. A big piece of that is storytelling — and great brand stories are differentiated, compelling and emotional.

To be clear: I’m not saying don’t set goals and targets. Absolutely do that. What gets measured gets managed. And what gets committed to publicly has a way better chance of getting accomplished.

What I am saying is that you need to have one goal in that mix that’s big, hairy and audacious. A commitment to solve a problem — a problem people care about, a problem that’s related to your category and brand and, ideally, a problem that you can create a new business model around, so when you solve it, your brand creates new revenue streams.

When you do that, sustainability becomes embedded into your business strategy. Now your sustainability approach is mitigating corporate risks, generating new product ideas, producing revenue and adding value to your brand. It’s giving your customers or consumers a key reason to prefer your brand over another and buy your products. And that’s what sustainability should do for your company.

As long as we keep relegating sustainability to a separate department with separate goals, it will continue to be a bolt-on that will fall short of transformative change. 

And as BSR so eloquently put it in this wonderful thought piece (PDF): "The era of stand-alone sustainability strategies, with subsequent integration of sustainability into company strategy, needs to end; the creation of resilient business strategies that take sustainability as their foundation needs to begin."

When business begins to do that, we’ll really solve problems. And each brand will have compelling stories to tell — stories that build loyalty and sell products.

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