Post 2020 Commitments: Only the brave will prosper Post 2020 Commitments: Only the brave will prosper
From the latest IPCC report, to the youth movement on climate, and to the media, consumers, governments and stakeholders now applying concerted and sustained pressure around key sustainability issues such as plastic, climate and health – it is clear that we have reached a tipping point.
Incremental progress on these issues is no longer enough (no matter how hard that is to achieve) to ensure competitiveness. Promises without proof of accelerated action are no longer enough to secure credibility and reputation, and exceeding commitments ahead of time is met with the cynicism of a quick and easy win.
Business as usual just won’t cut it.
To thrive, business must find new ways to define commitments that will drive business transformation. We need a new generation of commitments that will deliver long term sustainability benefits alongside financial success, brand differentiation and direction for R&D, whilst also engaging employees and forming the basis of a great story.
These are exciting times when it comes to goals and commitments and we are seeing a host of new commitments that are bold, differentiating and putting firm stakes in the ground.
What are the defining traits of these new commitments?
1. They are future-fit
2. They are milestones to a vision
3. They are great stories in their own right
4. They bring everyone along
1. Future-fit commitments
The starting point is adopting a future-fit mindset and thinking about what will be needed for your business to succeed in the future such as access to resources, talent, and investment, ability to meet future legislation. This may feel like an obvious point to make but if you consider how targets are all too often defined, it becomes clear that this new mindset is much needed.
Typically targets are set by looking at past performance – that doesn’t tell us where we need to get to - what if our past performance was really poor? Similarly, a focus on benchmarking against others (peer best practice / looking at other sectors) only drives towards ‘being least bad’. All of this does nothing to guarantee success in the future beyond a symbolic reduction today and being seen to be taking action. For progress to be meaningful we must set goals that are based on meeting the conditions to succeed in the future.
Setting science-based targets (SBT) is one way to do this, and is especially relevant following the enforcement of global frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change
We are also seeing more industry diversity in SBT commitments, and more collaboration between companies to tailor and adapt methodologies or commitments to their specific industry, for example, the joint commitment of the recently formed Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and the Science-Based Targets Network, which will allow all the major NGO/ IGO players to measure their progress when they set targets for inter-related systems e.g. land, biodiversity, freshwater and oceans across their value chains.
Alpro and WWF: "Science based targets for nature"
Alpro and WWF are partnering to take science-based targets to the next level and "respect planetary boundaries". They are looking at how to reduce their environmental footprint based on the earth’s capacity - rather than “general sustainability principles”.
In practice, this means assessing the environmental impact of parts of Alpro’s almond and soya supply chain and setting targets within the safe environmental limits set by the Planetary Boundaries framework.
The sum total of this approach is to define goals and commitments that will ensure the conditions for success in the future – for people, planet and business.
2. Commitments as milestones to your business vision
In our latest ‘Active Strategies’ thought leadership, we describe a new emerging reality for sustainability, one in which success relies on moving away from the idea of a static, standalone ‘strategy on a page’ to a more flexible approach that gives greater emphasis to a company’s ability to predict, respond to and shape external events.
In this context, businesses need to set commitments against a backdrop of constant change. To navigate this effectively and with credibility, we need to rethink how we frame and perceive commitments; they needn’t just be an end goal but can and should be seen as key milestones to a greater destination. Setting out that destination and communicating why it matters as a driver for your business is more important than ever.
NIKE: "Environmental moonshot": Double our business with half the environmental impact
The company made the announcement, which it calls the "moonshot challenge”, to spur progressive thinking within the organization. Since then, this moonshot ambition has served as a North Star for their sustainability actions and focus, guiding efforts in the near-term and informing the development of their long-term commitments.
“Our current 2020 targets are milestones towards our moonshot”.
The ‘moonshot challenge’ isn't a goal, but it's the best illustration yet of how seriously Nike takes sustainability. It also means sustainability and innovation is part of everybody's job, versus being some small team's job to the side” Hannah Jones, Nike.
P&G: "Sustainability Ambitions"
When P&G set new, broad-reaching goals for 2030, they set measurable and ambitious goals to inspire positive impact on the environment and society while creating value for the Company and consumers. But there was more that could be done, not by P&G in isolation, but by striving for something seemingly impossible and encouraging others to join in. To achieve this P&G set out some additional ambitions, on top of the public goals.
“At P&G, we want to raise the bar to an even higher standard.
• We will invent the homes of the future and make responsible consumption irresistible;
• No P&G packaging will find its way into the oceans;
• Everywhere we operate, we will improve the lives and environment of the communities we serve;
These are our ambitions. Ambitions that will stretch our innovation and creativity.
Ambitions for which we do not have all the answers, but that start by focusing on
where we can have the biggest impact.
Ambitions that require strong partnerships with the people we serve, our suppliers, our
peers, and all stakeholders. Together we will create value by driving a new model of
It’s important to note that these ‘Ambitions’ are supported by P&G’s roadmap to change, of which the goals are the key milestones. They do not replace the need for public goals.
3. Commitments as the new corporate stories
With the rise of Corporate Purpose has come the rise of Purpose-washing and the need to cater to new audience expectations for proof over promise, for action over words and for progress over perfection. This has given rise to a new generation of sustainability commitments that tell a story of where the business is going, why they are doing so and how they are actioning this in practice. One could argue that in this context commitments will become the new corporate narrative, as is the case for Dow Chemicals.
Dow Chemicals: "Societal Blueprints"
Dow have stated: "We will lead in developing societal blueprints that integrate public policy solutions, science and technology, and value chain innovation to facilitate the transition to a sustainable planet and society."
From Footprint to Handprint to Blueprint
Dow’s sustainability journey has evolved from focusing on operational efficiency (Footprint), to product solutions to world challenges (Handprint), to recognizing that only through collaboration can we join others to accelerate the progress toward a sustainable planet (Blueprint).
Blueprints for a Sustainable Planet
Dow’s blueprints for a sustainable planet are aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and are a collection of best practices and effective collaborations addressing the most pressing global challenges today. Currently, they are working on blueprints in water, low carbon economy, workforce development and plastic packaging that reflect their experiences and collaborations to address these challenges. They acknowledge there is much to learn and much to share.
With firms like Bain & Company reporting that only 2% of companies achieve or exceed their sustainability targets, it’s important for business to acknowledge the potential for failure when developing their next generation of goals. This doesn’t mean they should be less ambitious or abandon the process all together. Even if a goal isn’t met, the process of sustainability goal-setting helps to set a company’s ambition around key focus areas and hopefully drives transformational change within the business, and positive impression and connection with stakeholders - among other benefits.
This goes hand in hand with a shift from KPIs to KRs “Key Results”. It also underlines the importance, as stated above, of considering your commitments as key steps in a journey, rather than the end destination.
Unilever: "Regular progress reports"
“It is with transparency in mind that we share how we are progressing with our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), the foundation on which we create trust across every aspect of our value chain. The latest report shows we are on track to achieve around 80% of our targets and is more transparent than ever on where the main challenges lie. It also outlines where we can share our experiences to support and improve the sustainable business journeys of others.”
The Unilever approach demonstrates two key leadership traits:
- Transparency on where commitments haven’t been met and acknowledgement of where there are challenges;
- Openness to share learnings and failures, and not just the shiny success stories. This approach to ‘failing forward’ is what will drive industry transformation and progress for all.
4. Use your goals to bring people along
Last but certainly not least, we need businesses to be setting commitments that bring people along. Meeting the next generation of ambitious commitments will require all employees, stakeholders and customers to get behind them. If your commitments can be delivered by the few rather than by the many, then they become little more than business as usual.
For that to happen, they need to be simply worded and exciting.
Interface's commitments are incredibly impactful and ambitious, and yet they are written in a way that any layperson could understand and get behind.
Interface's: "Take back carbon"
The four ways we can take back our climate
Live Zero: It's the very definition of sustainability: doing business in ways that give back whatever they take from the earth
Love Carbon: It’s time to stop seeing carbon as the enemy and start seeing it as a resource. We must help this building block of life do the job nature intended
Let Nature Cool: Nature has the power to regulate the climate… but only if humanity doesn’t get in the way. Right now we're interfering with the Earth's regulation systems by polluting our air with excess carbon and undermining life’s ability to regulate the climate. We need to change our business practices and allow nature to do its job: cool.
Lead Industrial Re-revolution: There’s no doubt industry has been a force for human progress. But the unintended environmental consequences of industrialisation have been severe. What’s needed now is for industry to work with nature, not against it – and industry which creates new business models to drive positive change.
Now that many companies are developing their 2nd or 3rd generation of sustainability goals, it’s time to think beyond the impact they can have on their own and broaden their scope of responsibility. Initiatives like Walmart’s Project Gigaton are making much bigger impacts on entire value chains than any one company could have on its own. And beyond the commitments themselves, the narrative that accompanies them is equally important in framing how a business sees these commitments – are they a milestone or an end goal? Does the business think they are sufficiently ambitious or simply a good start?
Nestlé: "Plastics and packaging communications"
Since the launch of their plastics and packaging commitments in April 2017, Nestle remained mostly silent in the face of calls from Greenpeace to do more. In January 2019, Nestlé announced a series of global actions for meeting its commitment to make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 – with the very important narrative from the CEO that “100% recyclability is not enough to successfully tackle the plastics waste crisis. We need to push the boundaries and do more.”
In conclusion, if a commitment doesn't challenge you, then it won't change you – and that leaves you right back where you started. As many businesses approach their 2020 commitments, this is an exciting opportunity to think differently about the commitments you set, how they are framed within the context of your business vision, and how they are worded and communicated.
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