The Art of Sustainability Goal Setting

When discussing setting sustainability goals among our team, many clients simply want “the answer.” There are tools that allow you to provide key information and produce a numerical target. You could take that number and run with it… but you shouldn’t.

Understand your motivation
Setting sustainability goals can and should more nuanced than that. Start by considering why your organization is setting a goal in the first place. There are many reasons to set sustainability goals and your primary objectives will dictate what type of goal you set and how you go about setting it. Think about what is motivating the goal. It could be improving the reputation of your product or brand, pressure from customers, investors or other external stakeholders, a need to gain or maintain competitive advantage, a desire to reap the monetary savings that can accompany achieving sustainability goals, or a desire to “do the right thing.” Ask yourself and others within your organization why you are setting the goal before you start and you’ll be better equipped to set a meaningful goal.

Consider your audience
The audience for your goals could include customers, investors, employees, suppliers or even competitors. Consider which stakeholders are your primary audience and what their perspective on sustainability might be. Perhaps your primary stakeholders aren’t focused on sustainability. In that case, look for ways to tie their main interests to the goals you’re considering. For example, investors might care about reduced operating costs or risk mitigation, both of which can be co-benefits of setting and achieving sustainability goals. Consider all your stakeholders, determine what they care about and tie that back to the goal setting process. This can help you decide what type of goals to set, as well as how to communicate your goals once they’re set.

Do your research
Your sustainability goals will be most impactful if built on the foundation of the mission and vision of your organization. Think about how the goals are going to help your organization succeed in the short- and long-term. Most importantly, talk to others within your organization about sustainability. Provide opportunities for employees at all levels to offer feedback about existing programs and possible future goals. Gather as much information as you can and synthesize key themes. Ensuring that your sustainability goals align with the mission and vision of your organization will pave the way to achieving your goals.

Weigh your options
With the above considerations in mind, you can then begin to identify goal options. We often see two approaches – going on faith or starting with a plan. Going on faith involves choosing a numerical target that sounds good (e.g., 20% by 2020) and developing an achievement plan only after you’ve begun. Starting with a plan involves calculating the impact of future projects such as lighting or HVAC upgrades, on your environmental metrics and using the resulting reduction as your goal. You then have a clear path to achievement and some assurance that you have set a reasonable goal. We suggest a combination of the two – a little bit of planning and a little bit of faith. Knowing both are important aspects of sustainability goal setting and can help you achieve your goals and stretch to maximize your impact.

Once you have established why you’re setting a goal, who your key audience is, how to align your goal with your organization’s mission and what approach you want to take, you are much better prepared to define your goals. Let this preparation be your guide as you weigh the benefits and considerations of various goal options and set meaningful goals for your organization.

For more detail on sustainability goal setting, check out our science based targets white paper.

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