Are Your Sustainability Goals SMART? Part 5

Young woman in a field with long rows of crops, kneeling in a furrow beside a plant writing observations on an ipad

October 5, 2021

Relevant sustainability goals use innovative strategies & technologies to achieve multiple business objectives simultaneously

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 fifth in a series of six short discourses on selecting scientifically defensible and technologically feasible sustainability goals (see the introductory piece, as well as our coverage of SpecificMeasurable, and Attainable). 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.

Relevant sustainability goals include innovative strategies or technologies that allow companies to maximize value. Choosing a relevant strategy involves considering an individual company's geographical location, business operations, supply chain, neighboring communities, and stakeholders' interests.

For example, there are many ways to reduce emissions or increase resilience to extreme weather; however, some methods may provide additional benefits, such as improvements to local biodiversity protection, cultural and health benefits to neighboring communities, reduced waste generation, or reduced water consumption.

Sustainability solutions are not "one size fits all." Knowing the available technologies to meet sustainability targets along with expertise in environmental and health sciences and engineering solutions can help companies identify optimal solutions that offer meaningful business-relevant benefits at minimal additional costs.

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

  • What is my primary business objective? (Business reason)
  • What secondary business objectives could also be achieved? (Added value)
  • How does this action affect the community where I operate? (Community connection)
  • How do I find the right solutions to maximize capital creation? (Capital creation)

To explore how these questions can be incorporated into setting relevant sustainability goals, consider the broad hypothetical sustainability goal posed below and in our second piece of the series.

Hypothetical sustainability goal: reduce carbon footprint

Carbon footprint reductions are a common sustainability goal for many businesses. Where carbon emissions cannot be reduced directly, carbon offsets such as reforestation projects are frequently used to reduce, avoid, or sequester the equivalent amount of carbon present in emissions. Relevant sustainability actions can also be tied to regulatory compliance. For example, where supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) are allowed, a hypothetical company located on the banks of a river facing civil penalties for a water quality violation could propose an environmental project to restore riverbank vegetation to support fish populations that might have been affected by the violation; the project would also create vegetation corridors that provide some, albeit limited, carbon sequestration. While an SEP or similar project may not have sufficient acreage to fully offset carbon emissions, there is likely a net benefit to the company for offsetting even a portion of carbon emissions while concurrently resolving a civil penalty.

What is my primary business objective? Business reason:

Propose and execute a supplemental environmental project to address civil penalties and reduce carbon footprint.

The primary business objective may be clearly defined by regulation, evolving industry standards, or stakeholder expectations; there may, however, be a number of different ways to achieve that objective. Methods may be available to achieve both the primary business objective and a company's other business objectives as well.

What are my secondary business objectives? Added value:

Improve resilience to extreme weather.

With the increasing pressure on companies to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and reflect the values of their stakeholders, company business objectives have become much broader than simply maximizing profit. As a result, the lowest cost method to meet sustainability goals (reducing carbon emissions, water use, waste) may not be the optimal method when considering the full range of business objectives. A SEP project intended to restore riverbank vegetation and sequester carbon can also create shade and greater habitat complexity for other animals and reduce the potential for riverbank erosion and flooding during extreme rainfall events.

How does this action affect the community in which I operate? Community connection:

Determine what projects or resources our community really needs.

Not all communities have the same needs. Consulting with the local community could identify opportunities to create walking trails or public green spaces to benefit vulnerable communities that have historically experienced a greater environmental burden from industrial development. Understanding the needs of a specific community may require outreach and research. EPA offers tools that identify risk factors that may be elevated in specific communities — from environmental justice metrics to climate stressors. Determining the risk factors in the community may be an effective first step at identifying which projects may provide meaningful benefits.

How do I find the right solutions to maximize capital creation? Capital creation:

Identify the right projects that meet the primary business objective of carbon footprint reduction while resolving a civil liability and are relevant to the secondary business objectives of improving extreme weather resilience and community relationships.

Identifying the optimal projects to achieve both primary and secondary objectives requires a broad knowledge of available sustainability projects and programs and an understanding of whether those methods and technologies are applicable to the specific circumstance of the company, local environment, and community. Because such projects may be included in sustainability reports or other disclosures and may be important to regulators, investors, insurers, and customers, the assumptions and limitations included in assessing the benefits of the sustainability program should be carefully considered and appropriately discussed.

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.