Are Your Sustainability Goals SMART? Part 6

Time-based sustainability goals identify a target date for completion that is both attainable and relevant.

March 18, 2022

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 sixth in a series of six short discourses on selecting scientifically defensible and technologically feasible sustainability goals (see the introductory piece, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, and Relevant). 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.

Time-based sustainability goals identify a date-specific target for completion that is both attainable and relevant. Time-based sustainability goals consider how quickly companies can act, the available technology, the time required to measure progress, and the deadlines for achieving relevant business objectives. SMART sustainability goals are developed with an awareness of the timelines for technology development and product availability and the expectations of regulators, shareholders, and consumers.

Following the recent Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report (AR6) on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” now is a good time for businesses to revisit whether their current sustainability initiatives will meet potentially accelerating timelines for mitigating climate impacts and protecting against climate vulnerability.

Developing time-based sustainability goals is an inherently interdisciplinary process that may benefit from a cross-functional team that, together, can address the following questions:


  • Are the necessary technologies or products available to meet the goal? If not, when will they be available? (Initial Availability)
  • Will the availability or cost of the necessary technologies or products change over time? (Changing Availability)
  • When will the completion of the sustainability goal produce optimum benefits for the business? (Business Objective Optimization)
  • Are there regulatory or stakeholder deadlines for completion? (External Deadlines)

As this is the last piece in our SMART series, we will revisit each of the former pieces and consider how time-based criteria affect the hypothetical scenarios proposed in our prior pieces.

Specific

In our piece on Specific goals, we discussed a hypothetical sustainability goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement. Depending on the country, the Paris Agreement has specific time-based targets for emissions reductions such as 40% reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 (External Deadlines).

While a company could create a specific goal that reduces net emissions rapidly by purchasing carbon offsets (Initial Availability), this may become too costly if carbon offset prices dramatically increase from their relatively inexpensive current state (Changing Availability). Recent wildfires have called into question the validity of current offset systems, so a goal that reduces emissions now based on the current costs of offsets—costs that are not under the company’s control—may not be a SMART sustainability goal. Alternatively, identifying process changes, material changes, or suppliers with lower footprints may cost more now but could offer a lower cost solution 5, 10, 20, or 30 years from now (Business Objective Optimization). Identifying new technologies, however, is not without risk as life cycle assessments of emerging technologies can give conflicting results.

Measurable

In our piece on Measurable goals, we discussed a hypothetical sustainability goal to reduce plastic waste by using renewable materials (Initial Availability). This issue has become increasingly important with the recent adoption of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws in several states and a law in California implementing specific requirements for plastics marked with the “chasing arrows” symbol by 2024 (External Deadlines).

Similar to the issues described above with carbon offsets, renewable or bio-based feedstocks may increase in cost if numerous companies adopt the same strategy and suppliers fail to keep up with demand (Changing Availability). Companies, therefore, may want to consider how they will develop their supply chains to ensure a reliable and reasonably priced recycled or bio-based feedstock is available in the decades to come. Starting a recycling program with their own products, altering products to use less of certain materials, or identifying novel technologies that enable recycling of materials with low recycle rates, such as polyethylene, may provide more stable long-term sources of feedstocks (Business Objective Optimization) but face their own implementation challenges.

Attainable

In our piece on Attainable goals, we discussed a hypothetical sustainability goal to reduce water consumption. With climate change causing more frequent and severe droughts, restrictions on process water in certain water-stressed areas may cause disruptions for companies that require significant water for operations.

Operations that are attainable today may not be attainable in the future if they require natural resources that are being depleted by climate change (Changing Availability). Certain operations may face increasing regulatory, public, legal, or investor scrutiny if they are perceived as having negative impacts on the environment or public health (External Deadlines). Similarly, goals premised on projected technology developments or cost reductions in sustainable feedstocks may not be truly attainable since they are based on forces outside the control of the organization (Initial Availability). When using such predictions, companies may want to consider scientifically assessing the uncertainty of their projections and the impact of deviations (Business Objective Optimization).

Relevant

In our piece on Relevant goals, we considered the hypothetical scenario of a company trying to meet multiple business objectives with a single sustainability action. Specifically, we considered a company performing a supplementary environmental project (SEP) to meet a regulatory obligation and designing the SEP to sequester carbon, support local ecology and biodiversity, and improve resilience to extreme weather.

While not currently pain points for companies (Initial Availability), issues of environmental justice and biodiversity disclosures are becoming increasingly important to regulatory agencies and organizations developing financial disclosure frameworks (External Deadlines). These developments may become relevant to stakeholders in the short- to medium-term and, therefore, may warrant consideration when companies are developing their sustainability programs (Changing Availability). A SMART time-based goal takes the long-view on future regulatory and reporting developments to incorporate actions to maximize business objectives and minimize risk (Optimize Business Objectives).

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.

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