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The evolution of corporate sustainability goals

09 January 2019

Anthesis Director Zeke Hart explains how corporate sustainability goals have evolved over the years, as companies have expanded the scope and ambition of their commitments. Whether your company is on the vanguard of corporate sustainability or is just getting started, it’s worth understanding how leading practices have changed. 

How goals have evolved over time

Through our extensive work in sustainability goal-setting for more than a decade, we’ve observed three distinct “generations” of goals. From an initial focus on managing in-house environmental impacts, companies expanded first beyond their four walls to value-chain impacts and to social topics. Today, we see a broad move to “3rd generation” goals that are characterized by increased ambition, rigor, and a focus on outcomes.


3 generations of sustainability goals

  • 1st Generation (’90s to ’00s): A move beyond EHS compliance to voluntary environmental impact goals

    Starting in the late 1980s into the ‘90s, companies with significant environmental impacts such as Baxter, DuPont, IBM, and Shell began to take proactive approaches, committing to voluntary goals in areas such as hazardous waste, energy efficiency, air emissions, and wastewater. These goals represented a natural extension of mandatory regulatory targets.
  • 2nd Generation (’00s to ’10s): Supplier, product, and social goals become common

    In a 2011 analysis of data for 31 sustainability leaders with current and past “rounds” of goals, we found that they were increasingly setting supplier/sourcing, product, and social goals. Compared to their previous goals, they were now twice as likely to have product and supply chain goals (to 70% and 52%, respectively). And while social goals were still uncommon, there was a clear uptick in their frequency too. Today, product and supply chain goals are the norm, and social goals have become common as well. For example, the sustainability thought leader Andrew Winston found that from 2012 to 2017, the percentage of Fortune Global 200 companies with employee goals rose from 12 to 49, and with community goals increased from 16 to 47.
  • 3rd Generation (today): Increasingly ambitious, expansive, and innovative goals

    Over the past decade, as sustainability leaders have sought to extend the impact of their efforts, they have expanded the scope and ambition of their goals in various ways, making commitments that show a higher level of accountability for societal impacts and outcomes, and a stronger integration into the business strategy.

    • Science-based goals

      Perhaps the most prominent type of 3rd-generation goal is the science-based target for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, which aligns corporate goals to the global GHG reductions that science shows are needed. Some companies are also using science or the external “context” to set water and circular economy targets, or simply promising to go all the way to 100% renewable energy or “zero” waste.
    • Expanded scope & sophistication of social & value chain goals

      2nd-generation social and value chain goals were often process-oriented and limited in scope. A typical example: “Suppliers representing 75% of our sales will disclose their environmental impacts.” Today, we are seeing companies set ambitious quantitative value chain and social goals, such as Unilever’s objective to “link more than 500,000 smallholder farmers… into our supply chain,” Apple’s goal of a “closed-loop supply chain,” and Walmart’s commitment to “Reduce GHG emissions in our supply chain by 1 gigaton (1 billion metric tons).”
    • Focus on the societal and business outcomes

      Instead of emphasizing how much they will spend, or what process they will follow, companies are increasingly setting targets related to the outcome they want to achieve. For example, Vodafone has a goal to “use mobile technology to bring education to a potential 3 million young people in refugee camps,” while Dow is aiming to generate both a “$1B NPV of nature-enhancing projects (value of natural capital)” and “new business opportunities with potential for $75M NPV.”

What are the implications for your company?

For many companies, the prospect of setting ambitious 3rd-generation goals will appear daunting. For others, who want to achieve (or maintain) a position of sustainability leadership, the bar has been raised. As you think about your next set of goals, keep the following in mind:

  • Look to set a combination of 1st, 2nd, and/or 3rd generation goals

    Even the most advanced sustainability leaders still will have some basic operational impact goals and relatively low-ambition targets. Think through what combination of goals will allow you to address your key issues and achieve the right balance of incremental and transformational change.
  • Align your goals to your sustainability strategy and ambition level

    If you’re setting public goals for just the first or second time, keep in mind that many of the companies with leadership goals have been at it much longer. If you’re ready for 3rd-generation goals, focus on your most material sustainability issues, where the most business value is at stake.
  • Be creative, engage your organization, and think (relatively) long-term

    The most effective 3rd-generation goals should be unique to your company and require ample time (think five to 10+ years) to achieve. Engage a wide swath of internal experts and stakeholders to generate as many ideas as possible, with a focus on the ways your company wants (and needs) to transform for the future.
  • Benchmark the 3rd-generation goals of your competitors and peers to build internal support

    It’s likely that many of your key internal stakeholders have no idea how ambitious and innovative corporate sustainability goals have become. By sharing these goals and explaining why companies believe it’s in their interest to set them, you can start a valuable internal dialogue on what the right analogous goals could be for your company.



About the Author

Zeke Hart Ezequiel (Zeke) Hart is a Director at Anthesis Group in the North America division. To discuss this topic further, reach out to Zeke here, or use the form below.




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