How high do you set the bar?
Sustainability is by definition the biggest challenge facing mankind and, by extension, business. In trying to meet that challenge, one of the greatest dilemmas is how high to set the bar – what targets should you set for yourself? I spend a lot of time with businesses working on targets and the inclination is either to set very vanilla targets in the near future or extremely ambitious targets so far ahead that they can be abandoned to the next generation of employees. The key of course is to find the right trade off between ambition and timeframe to push the organisation to meaningful step changes in real time.
Another strategy is to let someone else to set the targets by using external standards, whether environmental management standards like ISO14001, product standards like the EU eco-label or reporting standards. While these have many advantages – they are set by third parties, they strive to include all material issues, and they are a useful badge – they do tend to be lowest common denominator as they have to be universal. More worryingly, sometimes organisations hide behind such standards – mining company Glencore once refused to release figures on a certain type of injury because “it wasn’t required by the Global Reporting Initiative” – hardly the kind of transparency that the GRI was set up to promote.
There is no easy answer to the target setting challenge and experience is the only effective guide. For large, capital intensive businesses, I prefer to see stretch targets which challenge the status quo set in the 10 year timeframe. But that is simply a matter of judgement – you’ll have to rely on your own!