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16 April 2018

Long term vs short term in Sustainability

In Sustainability, we talk a lot about lengthening our mental timescales – 'building cathedrals', making products longer lasting etc. And while this is great, we also have to be cognisant of the fast-moving world around us. Two of my clients have recently been blindsided by the sudden upsurge in public interest in plastic waste when they were focussed on building a low carbon/low waste legacy for future generations. Overnight, coffee cups have become THE measure of Sustainability performance in the public mind.

I'm a great fan of 'and' thinking rather than 'or' thinking. We need those long term strategies, planning and capital investment, but we also have to bear in mind that the perception of others can and does change rapidly and we need to keep abreast of that.

So what are our already overloaded Sustainability Managers to do? Well, if you have a champions' network – and most of them are under-utilised – challenge them to solve the short term stuff. They'll appreciate something positive to do!

If you don't have a network, you can spontaneously invent one by running a competition between sites/divisions/teams to tackle a short term problem – 'The Coffee Cup Challenge'?

The benefits of these approaches is that you can respond very quickly when the latest green thing comes flying over the horizon.



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15 February 2017

Is long term thinking always a good thing?

Planet of the Apes Liberty

A couple of times in recent weeks and months I have heard/read calls for 'long term thinking' for Sustainability - 2050 seems to have a particular allure due to UN climate targets. As is all too common in our field, there is no challenge to the assumption that this is a good thing. But in my experience, setting organisational targets too far in the future, is counter-productive. Here's why:

1. People, particularly key decision makers, assume they will be on the golf course or pushing up the daisies by then and don't see the targets as their problem, so you create drift;

2. For everyone, 2050 seems a long time away, so there will be plenty of time to do something about those targets when all this short term stuff gets sorted;

3. The assumption that technology will come to our rescue, also negating the need to act now – solar powered hover cars and all that.

In other words, we need timeframes which create a sense of urgency while giving time to make substantial change. I find 7-10 years is optimum for most organisations with significant assets; you can go a bit shorter in, say, the service sector. If you are wedded to 2050, make sure you set some interim targets (2025?) to create that urgency.

I suppose a bit like 'Think Global, Act Local', we need to 'Think Long Term, Act Now.'


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27 April 2016

Sustainability Timescales – not too near or too far

harry binocsAn 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.


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