Context Goals – Blowing the Smoke Away From the Finish Line

by Harriet Henry

finish-line2Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant shift in the way that companies communicate with their stakeholders. In an increasingly connected, ‘open source’ world, company marketing and communications teams no longer have full control of their story and are held up to much higher standards of transparency. For the CSR and Sustainability field, this shift has been highly influential in moving companies – both public and private – away from over-exaggerated claims of changing the world towards more authentic and credible actions and communications.

Now expectations are shifting again.

Since the Sustainable Brands New Metrics Conference in Boston last Fall, I have been reading and feeding my inner impact geek with the latest trends around measurement, storytelling, and in particular, the emerging sphere of ‘context goals.’

Context goals highlight the scope of our entire problem or challenge and a company’s role or impact within it. Instead of companies setting discretionary goals based on what they feel able to achieve and what their competitors are doing; companies will set goals based on scientifically-derived “thresholds” that determine what needs to be done to solve the world’s pressing social and environmental challenges. For example, scientists have the data to show us what GHG emissions reductions are required to prevent the devastating impacts of climate change – this is the threshold that can work back from to set goals for the corporate and other sectors to achieve.

Up until now, organizations have been racing along, edging ahead of their competitors and trying to stay at the front of the pack; context goals finally show us the finish line so that we can all train and prepare ourselves to go the distance. As Bob Willard put it during one of the SB New Metrics panel sessions “the time for incrementalism has passed and we need to act based on the realities.”

The focus of the discussions at the SB New Metrics Conference was on context goals for environmental sustainability efforts rather than social issues as the measurement methodologies are more advanced. This highlights the need to advance our understanding of social issues and viable solutions. Having said that, there is still some way to go to set environmental sustainability context goals. There still needs to be agreement on the science behind the setting of thresholds, and the complicated questions around how accountability is determined i.e. how much one company needs to do vs. another. 

Sustainability frontrunners are already leading the charge around context goals. Ben and Jerry’s is piloting the MultiCapital Scorecard Method, which not only positions social and environmental metrics alongside traditional financial metrics, but also shows progress against third party derived thresholds.

bjFor the Cause Consulting team, the advent of context goals is very exciting. Over the past 10 years, we have been proud to work with many companies striving to make measurable progress against difficult social and environmental challenges. The ‘context era’ will continue to support them to tackle the root causes of these issues and demonstrate their important contribution.

It may also facilitate more collaboration between different organizations – both for-profit and non-profit – because there will be unified goals that everyone can rally behind and work towards. While, it will be important to maintain some competition to drive continuous innovation and improvement, by “blowing the smoke away from the finish line,” it will be clear that no one organization can or should tackle the issues alone.

The transition will not be without its challenges. In the short-term, companies will have to find a new level of comfort in, not only being transparent about their impacts and actions, but also about what this means in terms of the broader issue or challenge. In the short-term, this may continue to widen the gap between CSR/Sustainability leaders and laggards, as companies that are not so advanced in their approach to progressive business, may be concerned about exposing the true impact of their efforts.

Rome wasn’t built in a day nor will context goals be the focus of companies tomorrow; nevertheless, as Allen White, Founder, Global Initiative for Sustainability Ranking (GISR), said at the SB New Metrics Conference, “we have a future ripe for change” and context goals are an exciting tool to get us there.

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