February 18, 2022
The dramatic increase in focus on all things Sustainability – from environmental impact to social justice and corporate governance – has led to a quandary for many organizations that are establishing sustainability targets. Questions arise in that process, including:
- How do we set goals that are aspirational yet realistic?
- How do our goals stand up against the “sniff test” from potential critics?
- What happens if we set goals that we don’t meet in the promised timeframe?
This is a looming crisis communications issue in sustainability as companies grapple with the very real challenge of tangibly demonstrating their commitment to sustainability while walking the tightrope presented by the above questions. It’s certainly an unintended consequence of an aggressive sustainability commitment founded in well-intentioned behavior, which as a crisis expert I see in many situations where a crisis happens due to lack of thorough planning.
This is why it’s so important to thoroughly think through all aspects – good and bad – of how your organization is approaching setting goals and reporting in ESG or CSR reports. Some organizations simply don’t see potential reputational risk that missing targets or even setting too weak targets can bring. And in working with a sustainability consultant, it’s important to ask them what happens if we don’t achieve our goals, and what will we do then? It’s actually crisis communications applied to sustainability, and there aren’t many sustainability consulting firms that have much expertise in the risk side of communications.
To gain some insight into what companies are experiencing in this regard, I asked my colleague Greg Hoener, a vice president in Dix & Eaton’s sustainability practice, how organizations are handling it. He had this to say:
“There is a huge drive for companies to be responsive to investors, customers, and their own employees, by setting bold, forward-looking goals, especially as it relates to climate action and decarbonization. No company wants to feel like they aren’t keeping pace in today’s incredibly competitive landscape. And while we applaud these efforts, and often support our clients in these processes, there are risks that all companies should consider. Announcing a public-facing goal without a detailed plan to achieve it can bring questions a company isn’t adequately prepared to address. Lack of accountability, progress or alignment with proven frameworks can drive further scrutiny.”
Greg went on to say that our recommended approach is to go through a strategic process that involves both leadership and subject matter experts, taking time to prove out the full pathway to achieving the goal. Companies can also start by focusing on smaller goals over shorter timelines, which can be more manageable for any type of organizations as they consider their approach.