How to Best Refresh Your Sustainability Strategies and Goals: What to Do and What to Look out For

For many companies, 2024 will be a year to revisit their sustainability/ESG strategies and refresh their goals and targets for 2030. This is a key window of opportunity to take stock, consult stakeholders, and engage business partners on ways to enhance impact and performance.

What has changed today, what trends will we be navigating in 2024, and what is the best way to update your goals? GlobeScan hosted a thought-provoking discussion with top sustainability executives from Anglo American, Sun Life, and Unilever to share their insights into what best practice looks like.

1. Start from understanding how your business context has changed

  • Change of pace, uncertainty, and polarization. Against the backdrop of constantly shifting political dynamics, geo-political uncertainty, and rising social polarization, companies are now experiencing a heightened sense of urgency on sustainability issues, with a dramatic shift in pace and action. GlobeScan’s annual Radar global public opinion survey shows a similar trend, with 63 percent of people across the world now saying that climate change is “very serious” (a sharp increase since 2014).
  • Scrutiny and mounting pressure. With stronger regulatory norms, mandatory reporting, and growing stakeholder expectations (from clients, customers, partners, civil society, and NGOs), companies will be held to higher standards and will need to speak openly and transparently about their objectives, performance, and potential shortfalls to build trust.
  • Increased complexity. The sustainability function has evolved and matured in complexity, and organizations that can demonstrate a higher level of sophistication in the way that sustainability is embedded within their core business will not only stand out but will also create exciting opportunities for innovation (in products, services, and processes).

It is a good challenge to make sure that what we disclose is legitimate and grounded in the core of what our business does.

Alanna Boyd, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Sun Life Financial

2. Less conversation; more action

  • From aspiration to execution mode. The last ten years have seen a decisive move from setting out large goals and long-term vision to the very concrete need to implement clear pathways and roadmaps to integrate sustainability goals across the organization and business functions.
  • Know what matters. Identifying and understanding areas of material importance to the business and where it can have the biggest impact will be key to stepping away from a pure box-ticking exercise, designing achievable targets and objectives with clear metrics, and understanding how to best mitigate your biggest risks.
  • Make it tangible and break it down. To bring the execution mode to life, rooting your sustainability objectives within a hyper-granular, step-by-step journey (backed with clear business plans, interim milestones, reward systems, costed roadmaps, timings, dedicated team, and resources) is critical to creating a higher level of internal buy-in, delivering progress on impact, and ensuring long-term delivery. Breaking long-term goals into bite-size targets and commitments across business functions can also bring continuity and clarity despite changing business environments and human resources.  

3. Focus on people

  • Update your skillsets. Sustainability has become more and more complex, and skillsets need to reflect this growing complexity and professionalization. Continuous training and investment in recruitment and talent retention contribute to maintaining a high level of sustainability ambition sprinkled with a necessary level of self-awareness that there is always more to learn from outside the company.  
  • Bring in expertise. Many organizations engage with external technical expertise to keep up with a shifting context and directly shape operational decision-making:

Bringing in that deep specific issue expertise into the center of our operational teams over a whole range of environmental and social topics to really shape our approach and our thinking has made a big difference.

Katie Fergusson, Group Head, Sustainability, Anglo American

  • Collaboration and ownership. Sustainability is not a theoretical concept but rather exists through the people that have accountability for implementing it as part of their core function and deliver on its impact daily. Creating internal business ownership coupled with a sustained cross-function collaboration between growing sustainability roles emerging in all functions (marketing, legal, strategy, finance, corporate affairs, etc.) will also be critical to achieve concrete goals.

4. Listen and refresh

  • Collaborate and listen. The context that organizations are evolving in is moving quickly and understanding it will require deep engagement with stakeholders to clarify what has been achieved, what needs to be adjusted, and what the future looks like. With trust in companies well behind that of NGOs and science/academia in GlobeScan’s long-term Radar research, it is vital that organizations listen and collaborate to drive collective impact and create change at scale.

Make sure when you make decisions and develop a strategy that you are listening to your stakeholders.

Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever

  • Refresh, refresh, refresh.  Business goals can be subject to competing short-term priorities and evolving business environments. Many leading organizations have built sustainability into their own governance models to create regular feedback loops and strong accountability strategies, from integrating it within boards to setting up external advisory committees.

How GlobeScan can help