Put Into Practice

Sustainability Success Will Come From Means Not Measures

To achieve sustainability goals, organizations must focus on means, not measures – the how, not how much. With 80% of the top 100 companies in 52 countries reporting on sustainability, how is it that so few behave as truly sustainable businesses should behave? Companies with aggressive sustainability goals are caught lobbying for regulatory roll-back, or undermining the social compact with aggressive tax avoidance, or shifting environmental burdens to suppliers. This happens too often to be attributed to momentary lapses.

Overly triumphant ESG reports can signal that an organization’s reporting skills outweigh its capacity for executing. This is apparent when you look for evidence of sustainability knowledge or behaviour within the reporting organizations. From front-line workers to the executive suite, knowledge and competency gaps abound in all functions at all levels. Making matters worse, the focus on metrics and measuring often works cross-purpose to desired outcomes with creativity in reporting substituted for capability. 

Walk the Talk or Bait and Switch?
While corporate reporting’s shortcomings are well documented and unaddressed, companies continue to take excessive pride in reporting on progress. Success stories are profiled in sustainability reports and trumpeted as broad cultural outcomes when they are only isolated projects. Often these are not even well known, nor their significance understood, internally at the reporting company. 

Too much effort is spent showcasing, tracking, measuring, and reporting, and not enough on building the broad competencies needed to drive and sustain true progress. Even when sustainability targets are laudable and right-minded, we see companies creatively adjusting or quietly abandoning them altogether from year to year to obscure these capability gaps.

In 2012, IKEA committed to having 90% of home furnishing products meeting their sustainability product scorecard’s 11 criteria by FY2015. In FY2016, they reported achieving 55%, far short of their goal and reiterated a 90% target for FY2020. And yet by 2018 there were no further mentions of the goal, let alone progress, and the scorecard is now nowhere to be found. 
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The Means: Developing Competent People
The point here is not to call out IKEA for their shifting reporting landscape – they are far from alone in this – but to highlight that the focus for sustainability-committed companies must remain squarely on developing their people. This must be done in ways that ensure the company continues becoming more sustainable even as leadership changes its mood or its people. 

In IKEA’s case, if all contracted designers were competent in applying the criteria, then goal attainment would be an outflow of capabilities. While targets can drive behaviour, there must be particular emphasis on how a company will get there – and more importantly, stay there.

Current evidence suggests that every company will be taking a sustainability journey – some as winners, but most as losers. Companies that are not investing effort to broaden sustainability as a competency in their people are risking a lot – stumbling blindly into avoidable risks while failing to find new value opportunities for customers. 



Jim Banks

Jim is a Sustainability Advisor based in Montreal.