Setting your sustainability strategy

Picture of Amber Harrison

Amber Harrison

Creating your sustainability strategy doesn’t need to be a complicated process. You can break it down into four simple steps:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get there?
  4. How do we ensure success?

In our first two posts, we explained how to understand where you’re starting from and where you’d like to end up. Now it’s a case of building a strategy around that ambition.

Your high-level aspiration

Your sustainability ambition must align with your overall corporate strategy. A good example is National Grid. This organisation has aligned its sustainability strategy accurately with its business aims, with the vision to be ‘at the heart of a clean, fair and affordable energy future.’ It’s easy to understand and communicate and gives flexibility in how to achieve the vision.

Many long-term business plans have a sustainability element. It’s not surprising, as sustainability contributes to reducing risk and costs, increasing innovation, happier workforces, and improved brand and shareholder value. However, be warned that thinking sustainability is important and doing something about it are not the same thing.

Although 90% of executives think sustainability is important, only 60% of companies have a sustainability strategy.


Keep in mind the importance of CEO commitment and executive sponsorship to make the sustainability strategy a reality and part of the business planning process. It shouldn’t be a hard sell — companies that do good do well.

Setting good goals

Your goals are the operational objectives you set for your business. We recommend defining between four and eight, under which sit a series of targets. Sustainability goals should bring together different departments and teams toward a common aim. However, bear in mind pragmatism and reality when thinking about what you want to achieve.

Keeping people engaged and focused is imperative. Change requires investment, process updates, or additional resources. Many of these elements require board or executive approval, or structural change. That can take time, so it’s important to balance near-, medium-, and long-term goals. A good strategy will look at what can be achieved in the next 12-24 months, and then interim goals over the following five to 10 years. An example might be renewable energy in 80% of offices within two years or introducing new recyclable product packaging by 2025.

We recommend having a good sustainability framework as the backbone of your strategy. A framework gives a good structure to follow that’s immediately recognisable, and you can benchmark your progress over time. It could be a simple ESG approach — environment, social, and governance — or more formal, such as:

Reporting frameworks can also provide structure, such as:

Whichever approach you opt for, ensure you have senior leadership’s buy-in at each stage. Allow time for questions, insights or challenges. Making it a business issue rather than a sustainability one can heighten engagement.

To net zero or not?

More than 4,000 businesses globally are working with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Of those, 2,080 have set science-based targets, and another 1,562 have set net zero commitments. It’s undoubtedly impressive, and in a perfect world, all companies would follow the SBTi Corporate Net-Zero Standard. Be realistic about whether your business is ready and able to commit. For example, setting a net zero 2030 target only for scopes 1 and 2 is still a positive goal. The sector, size, and structure of your business will influence how long this takes to achieve. If you have a complex supply chain, you might want to target net zero scope 3 emissions further out — say 2045 — and revisit as your strategy progresses. Equally, if you are setting out on your journey, you may just have a goal to set a net zero target within 24 months.

Creating meaningful targets

Your targets are the steps you take to reach your goals and should be shorter-term. Taking the renewable energy example, you could set a target to evaluate your current energy estate within six months and another to renegotiate your energy agreements within 12 months. A third target might be to define new corporate standards when taking on premises that require renewable energy from the outset. There’s no hard and fast rule about the number of targets to set, but they should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART).

Ways of working

Often, targets will need engagement with other departments, for example purchasing or facilities. Their involvement shouldn’t be a surprise — creating a cross-business working group can help develop and implement the strategy effectively. It also allows different viewpoints and ideas from other areas. In addition, the people involved can talk about the strategy, furthering the communications reach and championing sustainability.

Our next post will discuss how to ensure your strategy’s success.

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