Over the past three decades, SustainAbility has observed and taken an active part in the evolution of private sector sustainability goal setting. Many goals have been developed in response to heightened external expectations regarding corporate sustainability performance and transparency on progress.
While we recognize there has been substantial improvement in high-impact goal-setting (goals that drive positive environmental, social or economic impact and business value, and where the ambition is high enough to meet the sustainability challenge), this activity has been limited to a relatively small block of leadership companies, and even those leaders have a great more to learn and apply in this realm.
For that reason, we continue to challenge the status quo regarding the nature and role of sustainability goals, asking:
- Are goals an efficient and effective means of driving change and having an impact?
- What can we learn – and what might need to change – about variation in approaches?
- To what degree are existing sustainability goals integrated into the core business?
- Is current best practice producing ambitious enough goals to meet current and future sustainability challenges?
Our research identifies several key barriers to setting high-impact goals, as well as potential ways to overcome these challenges. We also identify lessons to apply and pitfalls to avoid when designing high-impact goals.
Businesses must continue to evolve their approaches to goal-setting. Companies have a responsibility to ensure they are operating in a sustainable manner; setting goals to outline what that responsibility means to them is an important part of that journey. They would be wise to deepen their understanding of impact as well; this is not just about having enough impact but also the right impact.
We hope that decision-makers inside companies challenge themselves to set sustainability goals in line with context, which will be ambitious given how far off macro environmental and social data suggest we are from where we need to be. Though we are confident that developing such goals will position companies for success in the future, we know that making such commitments requires bravery – a leap of faith that the company will be able to figure out how to achieve its sustainability aspirations.