The power of keeping sustainability simple

It’s easy to get distracted by the ever-changing morass of sustainable business jargon – not least around establishing science-based targets. Don’t lose sight of the importance for companies of focus on what’s material to their business, argues Mallen Baker. 

You want your company to be successful, but you know that to be successful long-term you also must be sustainable. Achieving this is the tricky part.

But what does it mean, to be a “sustainable business”? Some are saying you need to be net zero carbon. Others that you must be nature positive. With circular economy products, of course. You should replace single-use plastics. And minimise food waste. Go for clean growth. And look cradle-to-grave at your product line. Indeed, preferably cradle-to-cradle. Maybe you need natural capital accounting. And, rather than offsetting, maybe you should be ahead of the curve and thinking about insetting. And obviously, you’ll be wanting to aim for science-based targets.

Confused yet? You should be …

Some things are genuinely complex because they need to be. The language changes because our knowledge is improving.

But more often rapidly changing terminology is simply a sign of poor definitions, passing fashions, and attempts by specific actors to invent new terms for old concepts that become de facto marketing for their consultancies or products.

Appliance of science 

Let’s take one example – science-based targets. Who could argue with that? I mean, you won’t succeed by following “unscientific” targets, right? And the intentions of the science-based targets movement are the right ones: to give business and its value chains, and everyone else, tools to calculate what they need to do to hit the net zero targets that we’re all scrambling to achieve. They have helpfully upped the ambition level to one more in line with the scale of the challenge.

But here’s the thing. Science doesn’t itself set targets; rather, it answers questions. 

People use the shield of science to justify whatever it is they want already to promote, and more often that means they cherry-pick whatever they can find that supports them, whilst ignoring that which doesn’t. And then they tell you that’s what your business should be doing. 

When it comes to climate change specifically, all the phrase “science-based targets” has really done is to presume the question is one of greenhouse gas emissions. But no single variable is ever the whole story and, without downplaying the importance of early action, no single target is set in stone. 

Complexity conundrum 

Let’s not pretend the Paris Agreement 2C target, or latterly 1.5C target, is “science-based”. Science doesn’t tend to give us nice round numbers to aim for – that’s a human preference. Climate scientist Kate Marvel put it this way: “Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down. Every bit makes it worse. No matter how far down the slope we go, there’s never reason to give up fighting. We can always hope to arrest our slide.”

And fellow climate scientist Zeke Hausfather added this: “There is no magic line between 1.5C or 2C and beyond that marks the difference between manageable and catastrophic. Climate change is really a matter of degrees rather than thresholds.”

People don’t want to acknowledge these realities at times, because they fear that should it be anything but an article of absolute faith that the most stringent target must be met, then we will default back into thinking we can wait and it won’t be so bad. 

Little bit of politics? 

And that’s a reflection of the fact that the debates of recent years haven’t really been about the science, they’ve been about values. Which is one reason why positions on science often fall along party political lines. 

And discussions of policy take on the character of religious conviction. (What do you mean, people will want to eat meat in the future? You don’t accept the science?). 

It’s a trap for businesses. Can you tell the difference between the trendy buzzwords that will pass, barely remembered, into history, and those that will define your future? 

Put all the terminology to one side for the moment. The exam question really is the same as it’s always been: how do I run a successful business? The details have changed, but they haven’t changed that much. Your product or service meets current and future needs and your supply chains need to be resilient in a changing world. Where do you have impact? Where do you face enhanced risk? The core questions of materiality to the business should still be the most important ones, in the context of the wider societal goals. 

Too many hoops

The era is one where the business sustainability indices will rate companies on every measure that a committee came up with. That push for completeness is partly to blame. It rewards tick-box mediocrity. Every initiative is folded in, or at least there is a new index for every issue. The mistake is to believe that what is expected now is that you have to jump through all the hoops.

If Tesla manages to bring forward the age of renewable energy by a decade, say – would it matter if it hadn’t signed up to 20 other initiatives, worthy as they all might have been?

So, choose your thing – the problem your business is here to solve, and the justification for why you deserve to make that profit. Make it core to the business. And resist the siren calls to take up a new mission, a new worthy cause, every month. More than half of them are likely misconceived, and even some of the ones that aren’t will only distract you to little benefit. 

Your sustainable success journey will not be easy. Worthwhile achievements rarely are. But it might not be as complex as the ever-changing terminology would have you think. You just have to make sure you’re answering the right questions.

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