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Context matters: Reporting against planetary boundaries and social thresholds

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

· planetary boundaries,social thresholds,Research

Imagine different organisations climbing a mountain on a cloudy day. Some are further ahead, some are further behind, but most are making progress.

Once the cloud clears, however, the organisations realise how high the mountain really is, how steep the climb ahead, and how far the summit.

Context matters.

A core reason for developing our latest practitioner research was the importance of context. We spoke to 38 global in-house company experts and reviewed publicly available sustainability targets for 211 of the world’s largest companies. We did this to understand how companies are down-scaling planetary boundaries to their organisation, and to understand the context they operate in. [Click here to download the report]

While we found many companies making progress and setting bold commitments for the future, there is generally a stark lack of context to their sustainability reporting and target setting. Why does this matter? We know companies are scaling the proverbial mountain, but we have little idea how far each company has to go, nor whether they are doing enough to scale it.

To break down this metaphor, is the company able to continue to operate a successful commercial business within their 'fair-share' of the planetary limits, while supporting their 'fair-share' for social thresholds. In general, it is difficult to determine. This is important if we expect companies to contribute successfully, for example, to the 2 degree limit for climate change.

It is not, however, all doom and gloom. Through adopting a practitioner perspective, we were able to identify the good practice, the barriers and the emerging methodologies for sustainability context setting. We identified three ways in which companies can measure, report and communicate their performance:

  1. Start local – How are you addressing local priorities, e.g. water use?
  2. By market – How are you delivering towards national targets, e.g. youth employment?
  3. Go global – How are you contributing to planetary challenges, e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

In short, context matters. It matters for corporate reporting, and for your commercial strategy. We can see with planetary boundaries, such as phosphorus use, that the world has finite resources. How can a company account for future input costs and for sustainable resource use, if they do not know how much there is left? In addition, as we witnessed with the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN SDGs, public stakeholders expect companies to play their role in addressing these challenges. Many are making progress, yet, owing to the lack of context in reporting, many companies suffer from a deficit of trust.

Thus, context matters. Only by considering planetary boundaries and social thresholds can we see the peak of the mountain. If you would like to know how Article 13 can support you ‘scale the mountain’ by 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

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