Warning Signs Your Organisation Is Falling Short on Sustainability Goals


Nobody wants to set goals only to see them fail. Sustainability goals, especially, have become pivotal in organisational efforts to develop, grow, and maintain competitiveness in an increasingly difficult and complex business environment. But setting goals is one thing; achieving them is another. In the midst of running operations and maintaining the business as a going concern, how do companies ensure that they are doing the right thing, or if the measures that have been put in place are not doing what they are supposed to do? How do companies recognise the warning signs that they are falling short of attaining their sustainability goals, and how should they arrest this decline?

Not achieving goals is a risk that challenges all organisations, regardless of whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit entities. The threat becomes dire if shareholders expect returns on their investment, and stakeholders want assurance that environmental, social and governance factors are being adhered to in the process of doing business and that transparency of operations is the order of the day. In the course of establishing strategy, policy, processes and procedures, many businesses put in place frameworks that help them achieve their goals; these may also be helpful in red-flagging possible shortfalls, and act as warning signs that certain procedures, perhaps, may need correction.

Organisations which are using enterprise risk management (ERM) frameworks, especially, will be able to rely on many ERM mechanisms for support when setting sustainability goals. Sustainability goals express specific and actionable commitment whereas sustainability targets are measurable, time-bound, science-based objectives. It is important to distinguish sustainability goals from targets because achieving sustainability targets will contribute in major ways to achieving sustainability goals. Sustainability targets direct the organisation’s efforts towards achieving larger goals and must be relevant and adaptable.

Not hitting sustainability targets, then, is one of the first warning signs that the organisation is falling short of its sustainability goals. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as the lack of an appropriate sustainability strategy. A sustainability strategy is essentially a roadmap that directs the organisation’s sustainability objectives, goals, targets and actions. Without it, the business may not be able to prioritise appropriately and fail to allocate or deploy resources – including human resources – where they may function best. Besides providing the right direction, a sustainability strategy also helps the company align its business and sustainability goals.

Without proper strategy, businesses may not be able to measure their sustainability performance adequately, and may not be able to manage attaining their sustainability targets. For instance, the business may want to decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions to meet stated targets, but not deploying the appropriate measurement methods due to a lack of resources may produce unreliable or unusable data. Information of questionable integrity is another warning sign that the organisation is lagging. It could also lead to situations where public perception of the company becomes less than positive, and stakeholder confidence may start to decline.

The lack of employee engagement with the company’s sustainable goals is not just a warning sign, it is a red flag that screams for attention. Employee disengagement from the sustainability goals of the business dooms all efforts to failure. Disengaged employees are unlikely to be supportive of, and much less committed to, the idea of sustainable goals. The company may remedy this by improving communication, intensifying training on the subject, and ensuring that employees have the tools necessary to achieve what is required of them. Additionally, if employees – a major stakeholder group – are disengaged, other stakeholder groups may not be engaging with the firm either.

This is a warning sign of another kind; it indicates that communication needs to be better managed. Stakeholder engagement is imperative to building trust, not just with employees but with customers, suppliers, investors, regulators and the communities where the business operates. Besides, not engaging with stakeholders means the business is depriving itself of the feedback, insights and support of a much larger network that could also provide valuable opportunities for improvement. Ideally, businesses should, as far as possible, involve their stakeholders – not just their employees – in the development of sustainable strategies and goals.

The lack of such engagement could result in stakeholders feeling ‘left out’ of issues that they feel concern them, and lead to the development of adverse sentiments that, if left unaddressed, could cause a backlash that ultimately affects the firm’s reputation. Adverse sentiments could develop about the levels of transparency and governance of the organisation. Stakeholders today are becoming increasingly sophisticated; the issue of transparency is gaining traction, and they are now demanding higher levels of accountability, trustworthiness and ethics from boards and management. Today, companies are being held to account by more vocal, strident stakeholder calls to action.

Stakeholders are increasingly demanding to know what problems companies are facing, how these are interconnected with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, and how the firms involved intend to resolve their share of the problem. Companies which fail to recognise this as a warning sign or cannot offer workable solutions may face long-term reputational damage. While they may not receive bad press outright, they need to be vigilant nevertheless, as the lack of information flowing out of the company may give the perception that they are not putting in as much effort as they should to address problems like climate change, gender diversity, ethnic inclusion, and fair labour practices.

The business environment is a virtual minefield; firms spend almost as much time, energy and resources on keeping their stakeholders apprised of their developments, as on the developments themselves. How then can organisations maintain the business as a going concern while navigating dangerous waters and avoiding whirlpools and other pitfalls, and still maintain competitiveness, nurture growth and ensure their sustainability goals are being met? Industry experts advocate measures like ensuring targets are guided by sound scientific principles and can be benchmarked and monitored. They also suggest that organisations have ‘ambitious’ targets.

Although this exhortation may sound alarming and unattainable, setting ambitious targets has been known to spur organisational creativity and innovation, and can also encourage a culture of openness to change. This is likely to make the company more flexible and agile and enable quicker pivoting when necessary. The inability to make changes quickly and identify and leverage opportunities that present themselves in the process is yet another warning sign that the company is not sufficiently agile, and thus may not be able to attain its sustainability goals.

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