Sustainable Goal Development: Tying It All Together

Many businesses don’t know where to start when it comes to setting sustainability goals. Utilize data to make informed, ambitious yet attainable goals.

Running a sub-four-minute mile. Memorizing Pi out to 100 digits. Daily meditation. Splitting an 8-pound pizza with your best friend in reward for your picture on the restaurant wall.

We all have goals. Corporate sustainability presents no exceptions.

Starting Point

Previous articles covered staff surveys, engaging with staff and customers, baselining, and benchmarking. If done correctly, these activities can reap a mountain of data points. Now, how to incorporate sustainability into the long-term goals of the organization?

Making commitments can be scary. Like that 15-mile hike coming up this weekend that you committed to 6 months ago. What if you don’t reach the intended goal? What hazards may lie along the way? Did I overcommit?

I can’t drag you up and down that mountain, but I can offer guiding principles to help create meaningful corporate sustainability goals.

First, commit to ongoing collaboration. Leadership should set sustainability goals based on input from the organization – not in a vacuum. Failing to interface with key stakeholder groups throughout the process (not just at the start) misses a huge opportunity. It also all but dooms successful implementation.

Consider the following. Staff, consumers, suppliers, and even the general public can hold powerful insights along the goal development journey. These stakeholders are the key to success. Continuing to understand the priorities of such groups is essential for buy-in. While cumbersome, making time for frequent check-ins during the goal development phase will pay dividends in the long run.

Failing to include stakeholder input reduces the future likelihood of widespread adoption and buy-in. It also misses a crucial opportunity for increased collaboration.

Charting the Course

After establishing priorities, you may be unsure of where to set the goalposts. Goals interpreted as too ambitious may risk overwhelming staff. Goals with too little ambition often fail to elicit motivation. Worse, they could invite dreaded greenwashing accusations.

The Goldilocks strategy of just right is difficult to strike but oh so crucial for long-term success.

Don’t know where to start? Could you use some inspiration for reasonable goalposts?

Good news! The United Nations (UN) crafted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) broken down into 17 major sustainability areas of focus. Although the SDGs focus on holistic societal goals, they provide a relevant framework for organizations – particularly for businesses operating multi-nationally.

Tying the UN goals into business operations makes sense for a few different reasons. 1) Companies that adopt SDGs orient themselves with international efforts. 2) Doing so legitimizes ambitions with a well-respected global body. 3) The UNSDG website includes useful resources and best practices to aid in the sustainability journey.

Compare to Competitors

Do your homework. Investigate sustainability commitments made by competitors. Can you do better?

Remember, business leaders can always increase goal ambition over time. Early goal attainment boosts morale and builds confidence. For example, meeting an energy reduction goal well ahead of the target date provides fantastic optics. It also builds internal momentum amongst stakeholders for future initiatives.

Frequently extending goal timelines may cause staff to lose interest. Missing goals by a longshot may result in lost motivation.

Before declaring commitments publicly, vet employee reactions in private focus groups. Learn if these goals resonate with your stakeholders before pushing them out. Ensure stakeholders understand the language. Do your goals define intended outcomes in clear terms?

Corporations only get one opportunity to set the initial goalposts. Make sure you’re committing the organization for the right hike. After selection, create a campaign to communicate goals throughout the organization.

Check out the next article in this series for tips for roadmapping and engaging stakeholders on ambitious new goals. 

You just read article number six in a ten-part series titled Nine Beacons to Chart Your Business Towards a Sustainable Future. To start from the beginning, check-out the first article in the series. For the entire picture, download the full publication (PDF).

Are you ready to chart your sustainability journey? Could you use help creating the right sustainability goals for your organization? Contact Solutions in Sustainability today to share your long-term sustainability goals. Let’s find the right Solutions in Sustainability for you.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at

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