How can your organisation establish itself as a genuine sustainability leader by setting—and then achieving—ambitious sustainability goals in less than 10 years?
29 March 2021
Many organisations have set — or are in the process of setting — their sustainability ambitions for 2030.
This must be celebrated!
It is no mean feat, and provides us with the necessary focus and timeframe for some serious action on environmental and social issues at the corporate level.
But as a business steps up to play a more active role in meeting the demands of the climate crisis, we sense a quiet panic setting into boardrooms and team meetings.
Ok, what’s next? It looks great on paper, but how do we actually deliver on these ambitions? People are going to have to change. Systems are going to have to change. How on Earth do we make that happen?
Most of the corporate leaders we work with do not have a fear of failure at a business, or even personal, level. We all know this time its different. It’s not about targets and bonuses: it’s about the future of each enterprise and the future of humanity.
Put plain and simple, there are only 9 years to 2030, this means 9 years to ensure businesses play their role in keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees; to halt ecosystem collapse and rapid biodiversity loss; and to recalibrate society to reduce immense inequality (and the rest).
Very few now argue with why we need to change—data now shows that the economic benefits of protecting nature now outweigh those of exploiting it—especially when there is such an upside of getting this right. Regeneration of ecological and societal systems, equality, diversity, wellbeing, circularity, clean energy—it’s a future we all want. But the big question remains:
How do we make sure we do we what need to in the next 9 years— and that we don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
It should be no surprise when I say there is no ‘single’ or ‘correct’ way for a business to meet its sustainability goals and transform to become a regenerative enterprise. In fact, identifying and accelerating what a business can uniquely contribute to the world (its purpose), and delivering positive change in the areas that matter most to its customers and employees, is always going to be specific to context, culture, history, business model, assets, and more.
There is no silver bullet, much as we would all like one.
But from the experience we’ve gained from supporting scores of organisations to drive people-powered, creative, insightful, and ambitious sustainability outcomes across sectors and systems, we’ve seen common temptations, cognitive biases, old habits, out-dated approaches, and mismatched assumptions.
We have spotted a number of common pitfalls that are crucial for all businesses to avoid at all costs if bold sustainability ambitions are to be achieved.
Pitfall 1 — Sustainability is missing from the heart of business purpose
For any organisation wanting to transform, its purpose must become the driver of value-creation, galvanising people to come together to land positive impact.
One of the biggest pitfalls we see — that risks knocking all other sustainability efforts off course — is an organisational purpose which fails to go beyond delivering commercial value for its stakeholders.
One way of virtually guaranteeing that a business stumbles into this pit is if the few at the top spend a day or two concocting a purpose statement—or give it to marketing/ad agencies to develop—without leveraging purpose development as a way of engaging many, if not all, of the segments and stakeholders in the system to share authentically their hopes, dreams, fears, and commitments around the future.
If your business purpose does not signal a compelling and clear contribution to societal and ecological thriving, any sustainability commitments developed thereafter will not have the energy, power, and resilience needed to drive forward 2030 goals. The acid test for this is when customers / consumers / citizens hear the purpose, they feel inspired to buy more, work with more energy, and collaborate on making it real.
Without a connection between sustainability and business purpose, at worst you risk epic greenwashing; at best, it means sustainability is working in the sidelines to drive ad-hoc achievements rather than recalibrate the business to be zero-carbon and, ideally, net-positive. When this is not the case, employees, customers, and suppliers will not feel connected to the purpose or the sustainability efforts of the organisation; and so not put in the extra, discretionary, effort needed to step-change to the next level.
2 Practical Tips To Avoid This Pitfall
- Revisit and reignite the organisation’s purpose with appropriate challenge, science-driven data from social and climate crisis experts, and straight-talking input from ‘critical friends’ who understand where the future is heading.
- Harness employees’ passion, vision, and creativity by ensuring it helps shape the purpose through participatory multi-stakeholder processes that ensure co-creative outcomes in partnership with sustainability, internal comms, HR, marketing, supply chain etc. This will reveal and begin to integrate more future-fitting values, mindsets, priorities, and habits into the organisation—which will be essential in bringing the purpose to life in the organisation across products, processes, and people.
Pitfall 2 — Sustainability ambitions don’t go far enough
Let’s now address a pretty big elephant in the room. I’ve so far written from the point of view that your organisation has sustainability ambitions. But we know that may not yet be the case. Many businesses haven’t considered their sustainability commitments in the context of 2030; some haven’t yet finalised their goals; and some haven’t pitched them anywhere near ambitious enough, even though they still refer to themselves as a ‘sustainability leader’.
Temptations to delay and desist are huge. Many organisations want to kick the can down the road by framing commitments towards 2050 rather than 2030; or watering down the ambitions to a mere improvement on today’s efforts. But neither of these delay tactics will work in a world where the climate crisis is now considered a full-scale emergencyby 65% of Gen Z & Millennials (soon the largest segment of your customers and employees); and by 58% of Boomers.
A science-based target (SBT) is critical and this needs to be based on keeping warming to 1.5°C not 2°C. In a recent report, only 1/3 of organisations have ambitions that fit a 1.5 degree world, which, to be clear, is #OurOnlyFuture.
If your corporate commitments to “build back better/bolder/greener” are not fit for purpose, you are signing your own death warrant as an attractive place to invest in, work for, and buy from. Your sustainability goals should reflect what matters most to your employees, your customers, and the communities you serve. Therefore to achieve that insight, you have to engage with your stakeholders in a wider and deeper way than ever before.
This means going far deeper than the traditional materiality exercise, and asking people on a very human level — What matters to you around community, society, and the planet? What do you care about most? Without this connection point you risk ignoring the issues that are most important to your customers and wider society— the very people who will be the ones who grant you with a license to operate into the future.
Another way of thinking about this is where your boundaries of responsibility lie. Organisations have often consciously veered away from taking ownership of important issues that they indirectly influence. We still see today—even as environmental management, CSR and now ESG have morphed into sustainability—consideration of social and environmental issues are still fragmented within and in relationship to the whole of the organization. By breaking sustainability into distinct chunks we make it more ‘manageable’, but in doing so, we block the holistic and systems thinking needed to transform into a truly regenerative business.
2 Practical Tips To Avoid This Pitfall
- Ensure the sustainability ambitions you’ve set are bold and science-backed. Look outside your organisation and sector for inspiration of what could be achieved and engage with expert partners to challenge, dial up and benchmark your ambitions.
- Actively involve your customers AND employees in the development of your sustainability ambitions by getting clear on what matters most to them. Then use this insight and data to expand the remit of your sustainability committees/teams, ensuring that everyone understands that this time it’s different — this isn’t a paperwork exercise with a glossy report as the outcome: it’s a future-proofing business transformation programme that needs to impact every aspect of the organisation
Pitfall 3 — Sustainability is stuck in spreadsheets and reports
Assuming bold sustainability ambitions have been set in collaboration with those that your serve, what comes next? Why are the ambitions in and of themselves not enough? After years working in sustainability, I can tell you that there is a deeply-conditioned habit in sustainability teams to focus on the technical aspects (the spreadsheets) and to miss out the people-change needed (empowerment, innovation and action) that will make ambitious goals a reality.
This is understandable as most sustainability folk are hired exactly because they are technical experts.
But the problem is the business transformation needed to deliver on such goals will simply not occur as a result of spreadsheets, roadmaps, and reports, no matter how rigorous, brilliant, or well-presented. This tendency to focus on achieving continuous improvement on sustainability issues; and developing detailed business cases for efficiencies comes from the environmental management/CSR legacy from where sustainability has developed from. But if we are to reach 2030 without major disruption to ecological and social systems, we cannot be satisfied with incremental improvements. By distilling down complex, interrelated issues, and tirelessly ‘managing them’ into spreadsheets, we risk losing sight of the big breakthroughs that we must make as business to unlock zero-carbon, net biodiversity gains, and circular solutions.
Sustainability isn’t for the chosen few: everyone needs to play a role, and casting responsibility off to a sustainability committee, the CEO, or into an annual report risks a total fail. Even delegating sustainability to a small group of ‘sustainability champions’ will mean we won’t have enough momentum to make it. To achieve our 2030 ambitions, every single person must play a role. We will need most of, if not all, our fellow employees, suppliers, and customers to support the achievement of the goals. These people are unlikely to know what Scope 3 emissions, SBTs, TCFD, BCorp, SDGs, all mean, so how can we activate them on sustainability that goes above and beyond the rhetoric and the overload of initiatives? What the everyday employee, customer, and supplier wants to understand is: What can I do differently? How can I best contribute? Where can I focus my energies most effectively given I am busy and overwhelmed?
Of course, it’s important to report progress, but we need to remember to be led by the vision and ambitions, not the targets themselves. If we’ve set the sustainability ambitions correctly — bold, science-backed, and on the issues that matter—then we’re unlikely to know exactly how to achieve them anyway: for they will be achieved by anything but business-as-usual. Given the rapid- and ruthlessy-changing world, we’re unlikely to know exactly where we’ll be 2 years in, let alone in 5. Which means many adaptive responses and innovations, large and small, will be needed to delivered by 2030. These cannot be roadmapped, by nature, as they have yet to be created!
And the temptation of many sustainability leaders is to wait, and keep waiting, until the ambitions, roadmaps and reports are so ‘polished’. But this is a dangerous game. The plan of action for sustainability can never be finished. It can never be perfect. And by keeping people at arms length until you feel like it’s all sorted is risky for 2 reasons. 1) If you don’t take people along with you from the earliest opportunity, they don’t feel engaged, like they are part of it (in fact they might feel frustrated they’re having something forced into their lap), and 2) There isn’t time to wait. Perfecting, fine-tuning, polishing a plan takes time, and realistically the nature of sustainability means it will always continue to evolve — the world is changing quickly, new solutions are scaling and emerging every day, and there will be constant adaptation. And more agile approach takes courage, being honest with ourselves, our colleagues that this is a journey, without all the answers upfront. So as you’re developing your ambitions, your sustainability narrative, don’t agonise over that last 10% of the detail, remember the urgency for action, and — Get it done. Get it out there. Keep it moving!
2 Practical Tips To Avoid This Pitfall
- Craft compelling sustainability narratives, brought to life in various media for different audiences, that explore the context to the business purpose and ambitions. Bring people in from the earliest opportunity—remembering it doesn’t all have to be perfect before you start talking about your ambitions. The narratives will be authentic, blending data and emotional power, ensuring each person connects with the ambitions, thus driving individual and collective action. These concrete calls to action can be leveraged through large-scale activation events right through to micro-engagements using digital technologies for on-the-job inspiration.
- The ambition narrative can then by transformed into product / service / function / role specific supporting materials that ‘chunk down’ the ambitions into tools that each person in the organisation and supply chain can use to creatively solve problems as they emerge, on the job, which contribute in some way to the 2030 ambitions. Such creative problem-solving tools (reframes, breakthrough questions, coaching interventions, design lenses etc) avoid telling people exactly how to change—which even a sustainability expert is unlikely to be able to design or predict—but instead empowers each individuals to contribute to the big ambition.
Pitfall 4 —A hope that technical training and incentives will deliver sustainability targets
Many of the organisations we work with have tens of thousands of employees, and we often get asked: how can we convert them ALL into sustainability experts? We would say, politely of course, that’s the wrong question to be asking. It assumes we need thousands of experts. It assumes that training people on climate change science, sustainability frameworks, reporting tools will be enough. It assumes that technical know-how alone will deliver.
Having designed and delivered many sustainability training sessions over the years, we know that they can make a huge difference; especially in raising awareness and upskilling on the basics. But I also know it does not turn everyday employees and suppliers into creative problem-solvers who have the mindsets, toolsets, and skillsets needed to deliver bold ambitions by 2030.
In addition, there is a common temptation to think that by adding a target to everyone objectives ‘to be more sustainable’ or ‘contribute to our sustainability ambitions’, we’re going to drive the behaviours or the outcomes we need to meet our 2030 goals. In fact, it can have the opposite impact — creating feelings of overwhelm, confusion, and negativity towards the sustainability efforts. And the reason for this? The behaviourist theories that have made incentivisation so popular in the corporate world don’t ring as true when it comes to people taking ownership of, and inspiring passion for, environmental and social responsibilities.
We like to learn, we care, we want to reach our potential, and we want to be purposeful in our work—particularly true with the younger generations. The outdated model of incentives and bonuses assumes we need to be rewarded financially for doing the right thing. Studies have shown that commercialising action of the common good often reduces desired behaviours, rather than increasing them.
We believe that a developmental approach should be taken, ensuring that there are opportunities for all employees to develop sustainability awareness, mindsets, tools, and behaviours, on the job through their role. We must ensure that individuals are fully empowered and equipped to drive sustainability in everything they do. This requires working with HR/L&D to encourage employees to be curious, to be creative, to be courageous, and to ask the right questions (rather than give the right answers).
For this shift to happen, it requires us sustainability professionals to give something up — that we have all the answers. Instead, we must realize that sustainability must spread to all, and for genuine culture change to occur that lives the organisational purpose, we must take on more of a coaching, mentoring, innovating, transformational role: helping others fulfil their potential, and pursuing their interests and their strengths when it comes to sustainability.
2 Practical Tips To Avoid This Pitfall
- Work with HR/L&D to design and deploy genuinely empowering and engaging development programmes focused on fostering individual mindsets, creative problem-solving, ownership mentalities, emotional courage, smart experimentation etc. Provide employees with the inspiration, the tools, the guidance, and resources that will help them drive sustainability, but make sure they are self-led, and on-the-job as possible. That doesn’t mean leave it up to them, in fact, it means a lot of upfront work.
- Discover and design culture-change interventions premised on nurturing, enhancing and maximising existing motivations, passions, and commitments for a ecological and socially just world. Develop interventions that speak to behaviours, mindsets, and emotions to support innate desires to be part of the solution—affording an uprush of grassroots energy and creativity to become a flood of momentum at the edges, where customers are served and products are produced.
Pitfall 5 — Failure to realise that sustainability needs to drive innovation of products, services and entire business models
To reach ambitious 2030 goals whilst also delivering necessary business growth— decoupled from carbon/pollution/waste—new value must be created. We cannot trim costs forever and build a thriving enterprise. Which means that unless sustainability is baked into innovation strategies, it will be fighting the drivers of value creation, not enabling them.
Yet most see sustainability as a source of compliance and minimisation rather than as a driver of creativity and innovation. Unless we radically adapt our products, services, processes, and ultimately business model, we will neither achieve our sustainability OR business growth ambitions.
Sustainability needs to be at the heart of business strategy. Not separate.
The best way of ensuring that sustainability and strategy become one is to build in sustainability ambitions at the very start of an innovation process. In this way they become constraints around which the greatest creativity will arise.
There is also a constant temptation to assume that the ideas we need are somehow outside the organisation, within the minds of industry experts, rather than within our team members, who live and breathe the business each day. It is also common to outsource innovation to a powerless consultancy — and then fail to implement the ideas because the organisation has not gone on the journey themselves.
At the other extreme, it is also a major error to just tell everyone in the business to ‘be innovative’ or ‘come up with ideas’— the ‘let 1000 flowers grow’ strategy — which usually then creates endless confusion, overlap, and wasted efforts; and sets up a negative feedback loop as employees don’t see “my idea” become a reality in the time they expected.
Future-ready organisations will listen to, and engage with the system in which they operate. They will employ regenerative innovation processes and tools and engage in creativity capacity building to activate ‘intrapreneurs’ who can crack transformational problems and unlock a new operating model.
It’s also so easy to pretend that continuous improvements are actually value-creating innovations; and to lie to ourselves that digital transformation, and other tech-driven innovation programmes, are going to help us deliver lasting environmental and social impacts. Most innovation efforts, even those led by a conventional innovation agency that has low sustainability insight, will focus on solving the wrong problems—and so end up with either incremental solutions; or unsustainable disruptive innovations.
Many organisations half-heartedly commit to sustainable innovation, but give up when the going gets hard (and it always does if its genuinely innovative stuff). Many also think innovation is mere creative thinking and brainstorming—doable in a workshop or two—rather than a profound program of rigorous interrogation of the future tasked with delivering continuous breakthroughs in the present that will constantly adapt the business to changes in the market (and planet). Which means when the one-off, ad-hoc, poorly-funded innovation project fails to deliver—which when done like this it almost always will—innovation is shunted back to the sidelines.
2 Practical Tips To Avoid This Pitfall
- Move towards an ‘intrapeneur’ model where those that can, and want to, can develop sustainable innovation know-how and creative leadership skills. Empower all your employees to experiment and create solutions in safe, insightful, and structured ways—designing for minimising overlap, repetition, and wasted effort. Equip people with the mindsets and tools needed to identify and define innovation challenges rather than technical problems—so they are solving the right problems creatively. Help them with smart experimentation and human-centered design tools and techniques to de-risk innovative solutions.
- Adopt a systematic and rigorous process to develop ‘regenerative’ product, service, process, and business model innovations. This must become a continuous and consistent process that engages customers and wider stakeholders to the centre of business led innovation activities. It can ensure emerging insights, unmet customers needs, cultural and social shifts, and exponential technologies are brought together in innovations that balance profit and purpose.
I hope by being aware of these key pitfalls, your organisation can move forward with even more conviction to achieve it’s ambitious sustainability goals by 2030—and that the practical tips help you be bold and creative in driving regenerative business practice through your organisation.
Because the world cannot wait.