Friday, 1 November 2013

Sustainability reporting part 2: It's an ongoing process not a goal

(This article originally appeared on the 2DegreesNetwork website.)

If you're a committed environmentalist, it’s likely that the push for continuing improvement in sustainability is welcome. But it's also potentially nerve-wracking. It means that, as a sustainability professional, you can never rest on your laurels, and you may have to go back to your board to reset your targets - perhaps more than once, as definitions of "good enough" evolve.

All this becomes easier once you realize that sustainability isn't an end-goal. In an earlier post we discussed the evolutionary nature of carbon emissions and sustainability reporting and concluded that sustainability is a process and a way of working.

Most companies are not in business to consume resources, generate rubbish or emit pollution. They are in business to deliver a product or service to their customers. Resource consumption, waste generation and pollution result from the way they choose to deliver those products and services. Airlines emit carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere not because they are in the CO2 production business, but because liquid fossil fuels are affordable and have a very high energy density. Commercial farms release vast quantities of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas, not because they are in the N2O production business, but because farmers must fertilise and plough their fields.

So what's the best way to set your targets to reduce waste, resource consumption, and pollution?

Airlines could establish a realistic emission reduction target, set it in stone, and make a series of engineering and operational tweaks to achieve that target. However, they will likely not escape continuing criticism from environmental campaigners, passengers and other stakeholders whose concerns about climate change will only grow as they learn more about this threat. Airlines (and their internal sustainability champions) who view sustainability as a way of working instead of a fixed target may take a different view.

Yes, interim targets are a useful way to achieve quick wins and get buy-in across the company. But a company that is fixated on making their environmental performance 10% better will be blindsided by a competitor that innovates to make their performance 10 times better. For an airline 10X better might mean innovating to create a zero-carbon fuel or a designing a completely different type of aircraft.

Whether literal or metaphorical, 10X better means there is no end in sight: you don't know yet how the company is going to achieve its sustainability goal, or the goal so big and long term that you won't be around anymore when it finally gets there. Either way, it means changing the way you think about sustainability. In fact, it may mean rethinking how your company works, as GE did with its Ecomagination initiative.

Each of your company's sustainability achievements is a vital stepping stone rather than an end-point. That doesn't mean it's easy. Acknowledge the hard work required to attain that goal, and celebrate when you've reached it.

Then use that energy to set off towards the next goal. And enjoy the continuing journey.