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A quick guide to setting sustainability targets

When setting sustainability targets, they should make a difference - more at www.remsol.co.uk

When it comes to setting sustainability targets, they should make a difference as well as being SMART.

No management course on setting objectives and targets would be complete if it didn’t tell you that targets need to be SMART:


When it comes to setting sustainability targets, they should also make a difference – they need to actually result in a positive change, otherwise, what’s the point?

Worse still, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to end up with a bunch of unintended consequences.

Here’s an example of what we mean.

“We will eliminate or otherwise reduce the quantity of hazardous waste we produce to 15% of 2007 levels by 2017.”

It’s certainly SMART. But is there a point to it? What does such a target actually achieve from a sustainability perspective, when you consider that, in many ways, it’s just a description? Whether your waste is hazardous or non-hazardous, it will be subjected to the same sorts of waste management processes in many cases, so there’s not an awful lot to be gained.

There are, however, lots of potential unintended consequences:

For instance, it could encourage people to deliberately mis-classify wastes as non-hazardous in order to hit their targets – especially if there’s no easy way of actually eliminating or reducing them. This Harvard Business School paper discusses the evidence for a rise in unethical behavior and distorted risk preferences linked to goals and targets.

Then there’s the risk that you end up creating wastes that are more expensive to deal with – we once worked with a company that switched from solvent-based coatings to aqueous-based coatings in its manufacturing process but that, in doing so, ended up with a wastestream that no longer had any intrinsic residual value (it was previously sent off site to be blended into secondary liquid fuel as a partial replacement for coal in cement kilns, and so was collected free of charge) but now it’s just another worthless dirty water waste that costs a small fortune to dispose of. If anything, the environmental impacts of the site have worsened.

We’ve touched on some of this before in this blog about the danger of thinking in silos written by Lee Petts.

A better and more meaningful hazardous waste target would be to think more about positive outcomes, like eliminating or reducing the presence of Persistent Organic Pollutants in order to reduce the likely severity of harm in a spillage incident, or to make it safer for the people handling it, or on maximising recovery and recycling options versus disposal. These are the sorts of targets that actually end up making a difference.

So how can businesses better go about setting sustainability targets?

There are lots of things businesses can and should consider when setting sustainability targets, and a lot will depend on the size, nature and complexity of the organisation, but here are four things to keep in mind:

#1 Take a look at relevant government targets, and align yours with these

The government, on its own and/or driven by the European Union, sets out targets for things like carbon dioxide emissions reductions, the quantity of energy obtained from renewable and other low-carbon sources, reductions in biodegradable waste sent to landfill and others besides. These are targets that have been carefully considered by some of the brightest minds we have and arrived at because achieving them will make a difference. So, why bother setting sustainability targets of your own devising when you could simply align your efforts around those already established for the nation?

#2 Involve a broad range of stakeholders

So as to avoid the risks of making what appear to be beneficial changes in one part of your business only for them to result in unforeseen negative consequences elsewhere, involve a broad group of stakeholders when setting sustainability targets – you’ll find that you identify more of the pitfalls before implementation, rather than simply falling into them along the way later.

#3 Be flexible

We all know that it’s very difficult, once you’ve set out your ambition and got everyone motivated to help achieve it, to say “actually, it looks like we’ve got this one wrong, and so we’re going to change direction” but sometimes that’s just what you have to do. There’s no point being stubborn and sticking rigidly to sustainability targets that aren’t making a difference when you could make a change that results in better outcomes (although, that’s not to say you should give-up too easily either!)

#4 Focus on outcomes, not outputs

We can’t emphasise this enough: when setting sustainability targets, frame them around outcomes (positive actions resulting in change for the better) rather than outputs (a number in an annual report that looks smaller than it did last year). Going back to our hazardous waste example, it’s better to be able to show that, regardless of the amounts involved, you’ve taken steps to make your waste less hazardous and therefore reduce risks to people and the environment.

Was this article useful? Then why not share it with colleagues and your broader networks so more people can benefit, and share your thoughts in the comments below. And, if you want 1-2-1 advice on setting sustainability targets, [email protected]

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