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How Businesses Can Set, and Achieve, Meaningful Sustainability Goals

As sustainability becomes more important to consumers and necessary for the planet’s future, companies will increasingly be rewarded for going green. We asked industry experts about what their companies have done to set and hit high-quality green benchmarks.

Elisabeth Comere

Customer Sustainability Manager-Americas, Tetra Pak

Where do you see the future of sustainable business practices heading?

At Tetra Pak, we believe the economy of the future will be low-carbon and circular. This directly impacts how we do business and the sustainable practices we need to implement, including: 

  1. More circularity practices. First we need to be able to separate economic growth from consumption of finite resources. In our view, building a circular economy requires looking beyond waste/end-of-life use, littering, or the circularity of materials. We must also implement renewable energy and renewable resources that can re-grow over time, such as paper board or plant-based plastic from sustainable sources. In Tetra Pak’s case, we are committed to minimizing the environmental impact of our products and services across the entire value chain, from sourcing and production to the use and recycling of our products. 
  2. Increase focus on climate. We need to accelerate the collective effort of keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. For us, it is about delivering on our climate goal and reducing the carbon footprint of our products and operations, and helping our customers to reduce theirs.
  3. Since 2018, littering and the plastic “kickback”(anti-plastic sentiment) have been dominating the agenda, which is shaping a new era for the packaging industry. Offering sustainable packaging has now become a requirement for business growth for all players. It is now time to look beyond the product’s end of life stage, understanding and assessing other factors that impact the overall sustainability of packaging will be critical.  

What do you believe is the No. 1 challenge for companies trying to achieve sustainable goals? 

Collaboration will be the key enabler for change, especially for systemic challenges, such as packaging waste collection and recycling where all parties (i.e., consumers, industry, recycling value chain actors, and municipalities/governments) must play an active role for recycling to occur. For instance, Tetra Pak and other carton packaging manufacturers co-founded the Carton Council to increase carton recycling throughout the United States — the whole model of the Council is based on collaborating with all stakeholders across the recycling value chain.

The challenge is establishing those collaborative models through robust private and public-private partnerships, while also aligning on the goals of the changes we are trying to make. This requires a change of mindset to move beyond competition to experiment, learn, share, and be open.

Another challenge is developing knowledge and expertise in the specific areas of interest at a rapid pace. With recent shifts in sustainability demands, innovative packaging solutions are on the rise and companies are striving to deliver circular innovation. This requires full understanding of various scenarios and options, and anticipating unintended consequences of new innovative solutions. Entering into cross-sector partnerships to gain this expertise is the way to go. For example, Tetra Pak joined WWF’s ReSource Plastic initiative in May 2019 to address plastic pollution.

How can an organization continue to innovate and improve its sustainable goals?

Measurement is a key aspect in tracking and improving sustainability goals. Having a third-party methodology to develop and track goals is also critical for transparency, accuracy, and credibility. At Tetra Pak, we are part of the Science-Based Target Initiative. This is a third party that helps ensure we have set a meaningful and credible environmental goal. 

Setting a science-based target was the right thing to do for our company. It was also a way of checking whether the targets and activities we had in place were aligned with the latest science defined with the support/buy-in of external stakeholders, such as WRI, CDP, WWF, etc. 

Having a science-based target has actually driven innovation in our company, forcing us to raise internal knowledge on renewable energy investment. We are looking at how to make investments in solar panels part of bigger projects, to spread the cost over a longer period of time. So far our investments in generating our own renewable energy have been reasonably modest, but we are scoping possibilities, mapping scenarios, and planning for the future with the ambition to only rely on renewable electricity by 2030.

What do you find to be the most important facet of a company or organization’s sustainable goals?

I believe transparency and accuracy are critical. Organizations must be able to substantiate any environmental claims made and track progress against the goals established. Consumers and retailers expect to understand what companies are doing to help protect the environment. So having credible environmental goals and making them public are important aspects of building brand credibility. 

Diederik Scheepstra

Commercial Director USA, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

Where do you see the future of sustainable business practices heading? 

We are at an exciting time for sustainability because companies have learned that they need to make sustainability an integral part of the business, and be actively involved in finding solutions to address real issues throughout the supply chain. We have consumers to thank for that. 

The way a company operates and the impact it has on the world is now vitally important to people. One-off programs are not enough. I am convinced that genuine efforts to make a difference will be recognized and will lead industries in the right direction — and vice versa.

What do you believe is the No. 1 challenge for companies trying to achieve sustainable goals? 

The ability to operate on a level playing field. This is a major challenge for a global industry like aviation. It is challenging to create a fair business landscape across international borders. Creating a sustainable aviation industry is all about working together with all stakeholders: governments, passengers, suppliers, corporations and competitors. This is a matter that goes beyond competition.

How can an organization continue to innovate and improve its sustainable goals?

A mindset within the organization that allows for innovation and new ways of thinking — fueled by a clear commitment from the top. And actively bringing in external views to challenge and inspire.

What do you find to be the most important facet of a company or organization’s sustainable goals? 

Addressing the real problem — a company’s sustainable goals should be focused on where it has the most impact. As an airline, we should spend the majority of our efforts on climate change, because that is where we have the biggest footprint. That is where we have the most work to do as an industry and that is where we are the experts. By focusing on the true problem, you create true value — for the company AND the world around us.

Tim Greiner 

Co-Founder and Managing Director, Pure Strategies

Where do you see the future of sustainable business practices heading? 

Consumers increasingly expect the companies they buy from to have a sustainability program in place. And while the consumer will not necessarily reward companies for their sustainability practices, they will punish them if they find out they are green-washing or simply taking no action at all. 

For a business to make a credible effort in this area, it must go beyond some more sustainable packaging or buying renewable energy credits. An authentic program includes incorporating sustainability in product and service design. It includes mapping out where materials come from and figuring out how to make quantitative improvements. Leading companies will also transparently communicate these improvements to their consumers. 

Everlane and Patagonia are two leading companies that are making their supply chains transparent to consumers. Everlane is ensuring ethical working conditions throughout its supply chain. Patagonia switched to using organically grown cotton for its entire product line. 

What do you believe is the number one challenge for companies trying to achieve sustainable goals?

There are a number of leading companies that are trying to do this on their own. While admirable, we need to make system-level change if we are going to achieve the radical improvements needed to sustain our planet. Working as a consortium is an effective way to do this. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an example in the apparel industry of such an effort. 

Walmart is an excellent example of a company that is working collaboratively across the industry through consortium and varied commodity groups – from textile standards, to beef and packaging – getting supply chains and industries to work together toward common sustainability goals. 

How can an organization continue to innovate and improve their sustainable goals?

In the past, we saw companies setting goals based on what they thought they could do. Today, goals are based on what the science says is required to do – such as science-based targets for greenhouse gas emissions which build off of the latest climate science from the United Nations. 

This framework has businesses looking at the big picture to understand: “What is my share of the global target?” Setting targets this way is moving into other areas as well, including water and in the future biodiversity. Seventh Generation has developed a set of ambitious science-based climate targets, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout their supply chain. 

Beyond science-based targets, another useful resource is the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provides a solid framework for understanding global priorities for human development and for framing what companies can do to contribute towards meeting these goals. 

What do you find to be the most important facet of a company or organization’s sustainable goals?

Sustainability goals need to be owned by those who are actually doing them. If goals are product-focused, then product development teams need to be actively engaged and own the goal. Similarly for sourcing goals or packaging goals – ensuring accountability to those making the decisions in the business is critical to success. It’s obvious, but you would be surprised how often goals are owned by those who have limited influence on key decisions that impact them. 

One constraint we face in all of this – we are not ambitious enough with our goals. Climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity loss are real existential threats. We need leaders willing to make bold commitments and stand behind them with needed resources. 

There are some exceptions – firms like Ben & Jerry’s and Cargill have set ambitious greenhouse gas targets. Start-ups like Impossible Foods is another example, having set their target at a society level and aiming to transform human food from one based on animals to one based on plants. Big transformative business models and companies stepping up are what we are going to need a lot more of over the next decade. As an optimist, I believe we are up to the challenge. 

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