Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.
What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.
Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.
There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).
Strategy + culture = success.
Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.
So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.
An organisation I have dealings with (not a client), has recently announced an challenging sustainability target for 2050. "More ambitious than Paris" is the boast.
Which is great except for the fact that few people sitting around the table, patting themselves on the back, will still be there in 34 years time. It will be somebody else's problem – if anybody remembers to pass it forward, that is.
I have recommended they adopt at least one interim target to focus minds on a comprehensible goal to aim for now, but it remains to be seen whether they will take me up on it.
Setting a timescale for sustainability targets is as much an art as a science. It depends on the organisation – some of my clients are happy planning decades ahead as that's their natural business cycle, but most work to a much shorter timeframe. You need to find the zone where the target will affect important business decisions (particularly capital investment) but without being so far in the future that it gets shunted down the agenda.
My rule of thumb is 5-10 years as this allows for capital investment and innovation, but remains tangible to people working in the business now. Some leaders, notably Interface, have gone longer than this and stuck to it – 24 years in Interface's Mission Zero – but the commitment needs to be absolutely rock solid to deliver that far ahead.
What a smorgasbord of sport we're having at the minute - World Cup footie, Wimbledon and Le Tour De France en Yorkshire all on the same weekend. But the one profound moment came not from elite athletes easing their way up Côte de Blubberhouses on hi-tech carbon fibre two wheel wonders, but the rather more prosaic setting of the sack race at my eldest son's school sports day.
One young lady expertly bounded up the course until her toes were just short of the line. Oblivious of the serried ranks of parents urging her to take one more jump, she stood beaming proudly until the others passed her and took the top 3 places. It all ended in tears.
I find this with sustainability targets - far too many people seem to aim for just short (or even halfway) and then claim "we almost got there, didn't we do well?" But the best sustainability practitioners 'run through the tape' as athletes are encouraged to do - the race isn't over until you've cleared the line. That means planning to smash the target, not just meet it.
Last Thursday, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group celebrated its second birthday at the place of its birth - the iconic Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. With views of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges and the kittiwakes wheeling around outside, it was great to be back. And just like two years previously, I couldn't resist adding a little artwork of my own to the walls - one of the graphical templates I use to structure the discussion just enough.
The topic was 'Making Sustainability Sustainable' and our journey was to go from 'business as usual' to the ideal place where sustainability was 'the new normal' by driving our (low carbon) monster truck over the big pile of boulders in our way. If you want a copy of the template, click here.
By the time we finished, the template looked like this (plus a couple of dozen tangential points captured on the flip chart):
Here's a selection of the ideas the Group generated:
Need to clearly define and communicate the compelling reason to act
Give sustainability a strong corporate brand to lock it into the business (eg Mission Zero, Plan A)
Use storytelling, not ‘tractor production statistics’
Set clear, ambitious high level goals
Cascade goals down through the organisation, translating them as appropriate
Build these goals into job descriptions/personal objectives of key people
Play the system – identify the key driving processes (eg risk register) and get sustainability in there
Identify key individuals and engage them directly eg CEO, FD
Put leaders on the spot eg “Can you give a presentation on sustainability?”
Don’t be afraid to shake things up
Never give up!
But as always, there was as much value to be gained from the discussion and the debate than from these bullet points. As one delegate put it "that was the best one yet - the light, airy venue was really conducive to free thinking." Not to mention the fantastic lunch in the 6 restaurant on the top floor.
The next meeting in July will discuss a related topic "How to Make Sustainability Resilient" - ie to sudden upheavals such as changes in legislation, markets, business structure or key personnel.
The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is suitable for senior sustainability managers from large organisations - see our FAQs here.
There's an old time management trope where a professor stands in front of his class and fills a jar full of rocks and asks is it full. The class says yes, so the prof adds some pebbles which trickle into the gaps and asks the question again. Again the class say "it is full", so he adds sand which fills the remaining gaps. The prof empties out the jar, separates out the three elements and then puts the sand in first, followed by the pebbles but few of the rocks fit in the top. The moral of the story is that you have to tackle life's important things first and leave the trivialities to later.
This came to mind when I got into another "is a plastic bag ban a good idea?" debate on Twitter. Proponents say such a ban is highly symbolic and can help build momentum. I tend to believe that the benefits are rather small for such a big effort and that it may cause people to sit back and say "There! We've done it! We're green!" They've filled their jar with sand and there's not much space for any rocks.
That's not to say that getting some quick wins in the bag (or jar...) is a bad thing, but it can't be at the expense of big issues. Organisations that adopt incremental targets often find themselves in this position, expending all their energy hunting down increasingly rare small changes and running out of steam. Occasionally some of those changes will actually obstruct big changes by, say, investing too much in improving existing infrastructure when it should really be replaced with a greener alternative.
Organisations that set ambitious stretch targets, however, tend to start working out how they're going to address the big issues much earlier and avoid this trap. They can do this alongside the smaller improvements, but make sure they are all compatible - after all, by mixing up the addition of rocks, pebbles and sand, the jar will fill up nicely.
By the way, my favourite version of the story that after the professor puts the sand in around the pebbles, he then pours in two pints of beer. He turns to the class and says "And that goes to show that no matter how full your life is, there's always space for a couple of pints." A lesson for everyone!
"We haven't a hope in hell in meeting this target, but we're going to try anyway."
"The management redefined our target to one which we were going to meet anyway."
These are two real, if slightly paraphrased, quotes I have heard recently which show two polar opposite attitudes to sustainability targets in major corporations. Guess which one is doing better environmentally - and financially?
Odysseus famously lashed himself to the mast of his ship so he could hear the voices of the sirens whose song would seduce him onto the rocks, but wouldn't be able to give into them and change from his true course. Sustainability is difficult, I make no bones about it. But, as the Green Executive concluded, persistence is key. There is always the temptation to go easy on yourself and fall for the those siren voices and try and cheat the system - this usually fails as everyone can see such cheats a mile off.
Are you prepared to lash yourself to the mast and tough out the tough times? It's called leadership.
Something that really bothers me is how many organisations have bland, lookalike environmental policies. Take Boots' policy above (click to enlarge) - put your hand over the Boots logo and play "guess what business this belongs to" - you'd struggle to identify the company as a retailer never mind in the heathcare/beauty business or Boots itself.
The other game you can play is "nonsensical negatives" - if you invert each sentence, does it make any sense? If not then the original was simply stating the bleedin' obvious - and can hardly be described as a "policy". For example, inverting Boots' resources commitment gives you "we'll make worst use of resources", which simply shows how nondescript the original is.
I'm being a bit unfair singling out Boots - similar identikit policies of the <insert company name here> variety clutter the walls of businesses up and down the land. These are so bland as to be meaningless, so what's the point? What do you learn from reading them? Why not include some long term, concrete commitments from your strategy that your stakeholders can hold you to?