Are Your Sustainability Goals SMART? Part 4

Trees and shrubs in a greenery area outside of a building structure

August 9, 2021

Attainable sustainability goals include actions that you have sufficient control, resources & technology to perform

SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) goals can help companies focus their sustainability targets and take action towards meeting them. This is the fourth in a series of six short discourses on selecting scientifically defensible and technologically feasible sustainability goals (see the introductory piece, as well as our pieces on Specific and Measurable). Using each letter of the SMART acronym, we show how science and engineering expertise can help focus and implement sustainability actions that create corporate capital value and reduce physical risk to facilities and infrastructure, transitional risks related to changes in processes and formulations, and legal liability risks.

Attainable sustainability goals include actions that you have sufficient control, resources, and technology to perform. Developing attainable sustainability goals starts with understanding the scientific and engineering foundations of the methods and technologies available to achieve those goals and determining who has control of the processes targeted for change. For example, reducing emissions from suppliers may not be an attainable sustainability goal unless you have sufficient leverage to influence your current suppliers or are willing to switch suppliers. Similarly, a goal related to the end-of-life of a product may assume consumers or waste management companies perform certain actions the manufacturer may not be able to control. Regulatory approvals required to change emissions or treat a waste stream onsite can also constrain a company's ability to attain a goal. Resources may also be needed to purchase additional equipment or absorb increased costs from suppliers with more sustainable business practices.

Developing attainable sustainability goals can often be an inherently interdisciplinary process that can benefit from an interdisciplinary team that, together, can address the following questions:

  • What actions are needed? (Available Technologies and Methods)
  • Who will undertake these actions? (Control and Scope)
  • Which regulations could constrain these actions? (Regulatory Considerations)
  • What resources do we need to allocate to these actions? (Cost)

To explore how these questions can be incorporated into setting attainable sustainability goals, consider the broad hypothetical sustainability goal posed below.

Hypothetical sustainability goal: reduce water consumption & wastewater discharges

One increasingly difficult sustainability challenge facing the private and public sectors is the efficient use, conservation, and protection of the water supply. Environmental and social factors such as extended droughts, climate change, and population growth drive the need to treat and reduce existing wastewater streams and develop new non-conventional water sources. At the same time, some emerging "clean-energy" technologies, such as green hydrogen, require ultra-pure water, which creates demand for high-quality water sources and produces new waste streams containing concentrated minerals and other contaminants from the processed raw water — an unintended consequence of transitioning to a more sustainable energy source that will likely involve wastewater treatment and water protection considerations.

Such "new" waste streams will not be unique to clean-energy transitions. Thoughtful scientific and engineering designs can support business transitions by identifying opportunities to recycle products from new waste streams and incorporate appropriate technologies to minimize or eliminate impacts, moving towards a circular economy.

Water consumption and waste discharge can be reduced using creative solutions, such as those employed at Intel Corporation's Ocotillo Campus in Chandler, Arizona. Chandler is located in the arid southwestern United States, where water resources are scarce, and semiconductor production requires a substantial amount of high-quality water. On April 22, 2020, Intel announced that through conservation efforts, along with efforts at other facilities and support from conservation groups, the company had "restored approximately 1 billion gallons of water to our local watersheds in the U.S. over the past two years."

What actions? Available Technologies and Methods:

Reduce facility water usage by recycling wastewater streams and reduce supplier consumption by 25%.

The first step to defining an attainable goal is to identify the concrete actions that will be taken to achieve the goal. For example, Intel developed a water efficiency strategy that included a reverse osmosis recharge facility, a publicly owned treatment works (POTW) effluent reuse program, and internal water reuse projects.

While there are many possible methods for water conservation, protection, and reuse, their practicality and cost will vary substantially based on the availability of technologies, the regulatory space, and the willingness of other parties (suppliers, consumers, etc.) who are not under the company's control to participate. The Intel example demonstrates how such conservation efforts can increase both resource and business sustainability.

Who? Control and Scope:

Identification of recycling technologies by in-house engineering team. Reduction of supplier consumption by procurement team.

Companies frequently develop sustainability goals and reporting based on direct facility emissions (Scope 1) and emissions from their utility providers (Scope 2). Depending on the industry, however, the majority of emissions may be upstream of the company in their supply chain or downstream in product recycling and disposal (Scope 3). Water usage can be evaluated using these same Scope 1, 2, and 3 concepts. Water consumption and wastewater generation can be associated with a facility (Scope 1), with electric and heat utilities (Scope 2), or with suppliers, such as farmers supporting a food and beverage company, and downstream users (Scope 3). A comprehensive water protection goal will consider each of these components.

A specific, measurable, relevant, and time-based goal can fail to be SMART if it is not attainable. For some companies, in-house engineering solutions can significantly reduce water consumption and wastewater generation. For companies that rely on agricultural feedstocks, however, water usage will be predominantly associated with their suppliers, and companies may have to rely on sourcing and supplier collaborations to reduce water consumption.

Which regulations may constrain these actions? Regulatory Considerations:

Determine whether additional EPA or state permits are required for onsite treatment of wastewater streams.

One of the most attractive ways to reduce water consumption and waste generation is to reuse and recycle waste streams. Depending on the classification of these streams and applicable regulations, additional treatment systems could require applying for additional environmental discharge permits or modifying a process safety management system, among other potential changes. Similarly, changing feedstocks or processes may trigger regulatory considerations.

In Intel's case, their water efficiency strategy involved reverse osmosis, which produces high-quality water from processed wastewater but also generates a high-salinity brine waste. To help manage regulatory concerns from the brine waste, Intel's Ocotillo Brine Reduction Facility was developed as a public-private partnership between Intel and the City of Chandler.

How Much? Cost:

Increasing recycling will require capital investment.

Some sustainability actions may directly pay for themselves over time through reduced waste disposal costs or higher efficiencies. Others will likely involve capital resources to fund process changes. These resources may come in the form of a required upfront capital investment, an ongoing increase in supply costs, funding for sustainability staff positions to manage the program, costs for third-party auditing and certification of the program, or the dedication of engineering, scientific, operations, maintenance, and procurement resources.

Where resources are scarce, sustainability efforts can reduce uncertainty of supply and enable expansions that may otherwise be unavailable due to water or other resource restrictions and permits. For example, Intel's efforts at water conservation have enabled them to grow their business operations in Chandler, and Intel announced this year the development of two new factories at its Ocotillo campus in Arizona. Intel's expanding operations at the Ocotillo campus show that their investments in resource preservation are supporting business expansion while generating manufactured, financial, human, natural, and social capital gains.

How Exponent Can Help

Exponent is a recognized and trusted engineering and scientific consulting firm that has, for more than 50 years, advised and assisted clients in addressing their most challenging, interdisciplinary, and technologically complex business goals and problems. Today, as companies rapidly pivot operations and corporate culture to meet sustainability goals in response to changing climate conditions, changing stakeholder expectations, and evolving technology, Exponent applies its scientific and engineering expertise to help our clients transition operations for the future. SMART sustainability goals informed by Exponent's rigorous analysis and reporting can help businesses reduce physical, transitional, and liability risk while building an organization's capital and creating stakeholder value.

Exponent's interdisciplinary sustainability team is composed of industry experts in environmental science, polymer science, data sciences, and chemical, electrochemical, mechanical, and civil engineering who regularly support the research, development, and assessment of breakthrough technologies that are enabling the current and future sustainability transformations of companies.