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Are we setting the right targets?

Setting targets against planetary boundaries and social thresholds

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

The big sustainability challenges for the planet typically adopt a 15 to 20 year timeframe. The UN's Sustainable Development Goals, the WHO's ambition for the eradication of TB, the European Commission's Renewable Energy Strategy… all have their targets set for 2030.

Yet, corporate sustainability targets are overwhelmingly based on a 5 year timeframe. Indeed, our latest research found a staggering 83% of sustainability targets set by the world’s largest companies are set for, or before, 2020.

On the one hand, this is not necessarily bad news. Short and ambitious targets can provide leadership and deliver sizeable benefits. For example, a commitment to 100% renewable energy is better to be achieved by 2018 than 2028. However, short timeframes also pose a number of challenges and questions...

  1. How to demonstrate to your stakeholders the pathway you will be following to make longer-term and more significant reductions (how much and by when)? 
  2. How to stimulate long-term investment (beyond short-term ‘quick wins’)?
  3. How to ensure your business recognises the commercial risk of resource decline toward 2030 and beyond?

As part of our latest research we spoke to 38 global sustainability in-house experts, who shared their insights on why many companies typically set short-term sustainability targets, and as these extracts demonstrate - this is a challenge many companies are facing...

Business cycles are typically 5 years, so sustainability targets need to fit these​

Businesses are typically not comfortable with longer term stretch targets, particularly those which are not fully worked through or understood how they can be achieved

Looking ahead more than 5 years is outside most managerial timeframes. They do not know what the business will look like, who will be in their team, indeed if they will still be at the business

So what can we do?

Our seven step model to embed planetary boundaries and social thresholds identified a number of emerging methodologies for organisations to adopt longer term targets, without terrifying their business

  1. Align your targets with global reduction pathways 
  2. Map out your pathway to 2030, in terms of how much and by when
  3. Set budgets for resource use or social goal for a series of 5 year periods - much like the UK’s carbon budgets 

What is important, is that these pathways do not need to be fully scoped down to the latest £ of investment or drop of water - all the way to 2030 or even 2050. But what is critical, is that they show the leadership and direction of travel.

To quip Henry Miller...

"Ones destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things"

If you would like to know how Article 13 can support you integrating people and planet into your business strategy, get in touch.


Our research explored how an array of global companies approach the concept of planetary boundaries and social thresholds. For more information, and to download -click here

If you would like to know how Article 13 can support you integrating people and planet into your business strategy, get in touch.

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