A Guide to Setting Your Sustainability Goals

A Guide to Setting Your Sustainability Goals

Dec 3rd 2019

A lot of big companies set ambitious, inspiring sustainability goals for 2020 (or 2015, 2025 and 2030!). 

But a study by Bain & Company demonstrates that just 2% of companies achieved or exceeded the expectations set in their sustainability programs.

It is so disheartening to see these numbers.

With a new decade ahead of us, we at EcoEnclose are knee deep in the work of determining our own sustainability goals - related to our products, our operations, our “upstream” manufacturing partners, our freight and shipping, and the businesses and consumers “downstream” from us who use (and ultimately discard) our products. 

As I reflect on the above trends, it becomes clear that how businesses tackled sustainability issues last decade is not enough. It is so important that we set the right goals for our organization, and that these goals actually improve how EcoEnclose does business day-to-day (even when we’re dealing with decisions and priorities that may, on the surface, have nothing to do with sustainability).

Since we are in this process, we thought you might be as well! 

Here, we share some of what we’ve learned in our own research and goals development, along with some examples of sustainability goals that can help elevate how a company does business. Our target is to establish our major sustainability goals before the end of 2019, so we can kick off 2020 with a laser focus on what matters most to our business and to the environment.

We are at an incredible turning point in our culture. Consumers are more conscious and knowledgeable of their environmental impact than ever. More and more companies are being launched that are genuinely, deeply grounded in eco-friendly principles, and are led by entrepreneurs who see sustainability as a more important end goal than profitability. While there is a sense of despair about the current state of our planet, there is also optimism about the fact that we can change the paradigm.

We hope this article helps you start the new year, and decade, right.

SEVEN TIPS ON SETTING GAME CHANGING SUSTAINABILITY GOALS

1. Set BIG goals that are truly revolutionary for your business, not just incremental

Historically, large companies have set goals like “Reduce carbon emissions by 30%.”

These are obviously good goals that have benefits for our planet. They tend to encourage businesses to do things like go solar and install energy efficient temperature control and lighting. These actions are essential, but they are ultimately pretty easy, so they don’t encourage a business to think about fundamental, innovative improvements they can make to their business model.

If you think big and audacious, you might set a goal that your operation will be carbon negative in 15 years. Or that you will be utilizing only recycled (with post-consumer waste!), used or upcycled inputs and supplies in 10 years.

These are the types of broad sweeping goals that make you question and rethink so many aspects of your business. Don’t ignore the responsible more incremental improvements, but elevate a few truly groundbreaking ones as well!

2. Back up your big goals with incremental quarterly milestones

A big reason that only 2% of companies exceeded or achieved their sustainability goals is that they set great, inspiring goals...and then sort of forgot about them for a little while (or left them up to a select group of people in the company to achieve rather than making them a company mandate).

To achieve sustainability goals, the entire company has to be on board and excited, and you need to know what you’re working on each quarter.

What does this mean in reality?

Let’s say you set a goal of using only recycled, post-consumer waste in all your supplies and inputs in ten years. Your first step might be to catalog all of the inputs and supplies you buy. Group them into categories (i.e. packaging, fabrics, warehouse supplies, etc). Then set quarterly goals of making measurable progress on a specific category each quarter.

3. Consider the nine planetary boundaries, not just hot button, front of mind topics

Sustainability goals often center on carbon emissions. Other common goals we see tend to be around plastic reduction or elimination, or becoming zero waste.

These are all awesome areas to set goals in!

But we’d encourage you to step back when setting goals and developing an execution plan against those goals. Take the time to consider the varied environmental issues we are facing today and identify those your business is most likely contributing to.

One really helpful model is the “nine planetary boundaries” proposed by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Consider your business model and which of the planetary boundaries your operation is most likely to stress.

For example, if you sell apparel made with cotton and Tencel, you may decide you are most negatively impacting boundary #3 - the addition of phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements into our ecosystem as well as boundary #8 - freshwater use (because your crops require fertilizer and water).

If you are in agriculture or food production, boundary #2, #3, and #8 may seem most pressing.

If global shipping, freight and logistics are a key component of your operations, you will likely find that boundary #1 (climate change) and #7 (ocean acidification) may be most relevant.

If you run a fast casual restaurant with a lot of disposable and takeout containers, then #9 may be most front of mind.

We love the Nine Planetary Boundaries framework, but there are others. For example, the UN released their seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that represent their shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world's leaders, its people and the planet. This type of framework makes humanity (and issues of equality, poverty, disease and more) central to the goals.

4. Identify your company’s most meaningful impact, using a full lifecycle approach

It is so easy to get lost in the weeds and complexity of sustainability. Once you start analyzing each detail of your business, it can quickly lead to decision paralysis. The other day I was stocking up on coffee for our team and I found myself unable to decide between a huge bulk purchase of more generic coffee (which was in bulk, reusable, and then recyclable packaging) or a high quality, ethically sourced coffee made by an independent roaster (but comes in non-recyclable, non-bulk packaging). While that decision is an important one and I need a better framework to make those tradeoffs more quickly and thoughtfully, I also know that the impact of how I buy our coffee pales in comparison to the impact of what materials we source and how we manage freight of our products.

When setting sustainability goals, take the time to think through your main activities.

Then map out the main activities that happen to your products and raw materials “upstream” and “downstream” from you. When they first considered sustainability goals, General Mills found that 60% of the impact of what they sell is actually upstream (taking place when their raw materials are produced and manufactured). Other companies find that their biggest negative impact is actually downstream. For example, fast food restaurants may find that their consumers are tossing food and packaging away as litter at an alarmingly high rate.

The objective of this exercise is to get clearer on the main activities that drive the bulk of your company’s environmental impact. For most businesses, this is likely to be their raw materials, their manufacturing processes, their freight and logistics, their packaging, and/or the end of life of their product. Again, this exercise isn’t meant to diminish the importance of making thoughtful decisions across your business, but is a helpful reminder to set goals where they will have the widest sweeping impact. Once great goals are set, you’ll often find that they trickle down and positively inform all of those small decisions.

5. Figure out how you will measure what matters and find resources to help

Its a cliche because it is true: You can’t change what you can’t measure.

Measurement is one of the most difficult aspects of sustainability and achieving ambitious goals. In fact, it may be the number one reason that so many companies had to dilute their goals in order to make progress.

For certain metrics, such as landfill diversion, recycled content or plastic reduction, you’ll likely find measuring and tracking to be fairly straightforward. That is not to say it is easy, but the path toward tracking is not a mystery. If you’ve set a goal of 100% landfill diversion by 2025, you can either work with your waste management company to have them provide a monthly report on your recycling, composting and landfilling measures. Or you can take these measurements yourself, literally weighing your compost, recycling and landfill waste each week.

Other measurements can seem more elusive, especially measuring greenhouse carbon emissions. Don’t fret! There are tools and guidance that can help you, and, depending on your budget, consulting companies that can get uber detailed and granular for you.

To start, carbon offset organizations often have great tools to help companies get a broad estimate of their emissions. One of our favorites is https://www.terrapass.com/carbon-footprint-calculator.

There are also university and other nonprofit tools such as https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/ that can help you get a quick, at a glance estimate of your footprint.

If you determine that carbon emissions reduction will be central to your sustainability goals, then more detailed and customized measurement tools are critical. http://www.openlca.org/form/ is a great place to start. Contact your local universities to find students studying sustainability and measurement to see if they can support you (affordably!).

Often, tools and guidance are most critical early on, when you are trying to get a baseline of your emissions and the drivers of those emissions. Once you have this, you’ll know which levers to pull that will have the most impact.

6. Be aware of and aligned with local, national and global priorities

There are a number of existing pacts that are already made related to greenhouse gas reductions, elimination of plastic, water use reduction, pollution reduction, etc.

Sustainability goals should meet, and ideally exceed any relevant industry goals. If your business is located in a city whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 75%, it wouldn’t be inspiring to set your own goal of a 30% emissions reduction!

7. What would it be like to be a POSITIVE force?

The conversation around sustainability today tends to be “how can I reduce my negative impact.”

Take a few moments to think about a new twist, “is there a way that my business can be a positive force for the environment? That each time I sold an item, it could have a net positive environmental impact on the planet?”

This may not become your sustainability goal, but asking this question may help uncover some exciting areas of growth and innovation you hadn’t yet considered.

Examples of Sustainability Goals

It is hard and nuanced work to come up with the right ambitious goals around sustainability for a business! You can’t really “pick” from a list of examples. But hopefully these help get your juices flowing.

  • Carbon intensity: Achieve X carbon emissions per product sold (or 90% reduction in carbon emissions per product sold). A twist on this could be achieving carbon neutrality or being carbon negative (i.e. with every product sold, carbon is actually absorbed, making it a carbon negative purchase.)
  • Chemicals use: Eliminate all chemicals of concern to health and environment across all products
  • Pollutants and discharge: Eliminate all pollutants and discharge upstream from the production and manufacturing of products
  • 100% certified organic: Source only 100% organic and sustainably grown inputs and eliminate all nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that is typically associated with inputs.
  • 100% recycled: 100% of non-food utilized by company / building (including products, warehouse supplies, office supplies, packaging, etc) is recycled with 50% post-consumer waste
  • Green commute: 100% of employees are carpooling, using public transportation, telecommuting, or biking / walking to work.
  • Green freight / shipping: Emissions associated with freight and shipping products are cut by 90%.
  • Fresh water use reduction: Fresh water needed to produce products and run operation is cut by 90%.
  • Zero Waste: Waste generated across supply chain (upstream and downstream) per product sold is cut by 90% and company is at 99% landfill diversion
  • Eliminate plastic and other pollutants: Eliminate the use of all materials and substances that have a chance of becoming litter or being dumped into the environment. This includes any traditional or bioplastics that aren’t capable of biodegradation in the open environment as well as materials such as silicone and heavy metals. Donate to causes that actively remove these particles and pollutants from the environment.

An Example Template

If you share my need to see things visually, this summary table may be helpful! For big companies, setting sustainability goals might be a long, multi-layered process that involves dozens of stakeholders. For smaller, more nimble companies, filling out a simple table like this may take you really far. You'll still need to more comprehensively assess and measure across your business's most meaningful activities, but filling out this template will help keep things more organized and more manageable.