Three steps to setting business targets for a healthy Earth
By Kevin Rabinovitch, Global Vice President Sustainability and Chief Climate Officer, Mars
When you go to the doctor for a checkup she measures your weight, blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate and more to assess your health, and compares your numbers to science based benchmarks. If your numbers are off, you put together a plan for getting back on track. Wouldn’t it be great if we had such a checkup to assess the health of the environment that sustains us all?
Thanks to the work of thousands of scientists over many decades, we now have the Planetary Boundaries model, a powerful tool for helping us understand the key indicators of planetary health and the risks we’ve created by neglecting the global commons. More and better data is also coming in all the time about how the decisions we make as companies relate to resource use and environmental impact. Now it’s time to take the next step and work collectively on targets and action plans that allow business to make decisions informed by planetary health measures.
There are at least three challenges to solve in connecting measures for planetary health with the operational metrics that can guide business decisions:
Finding the right metrics
Just as getting on a scale after every bite of food is neither practical nor helpful, measuring the change in the Earth’s energy balance for every business decision doesn’t work either. But quantifying the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which drive such energy imbalance can be done and applied to every business decision. This idea led to the Science Based Targets initiative, a game changer in corporate GHG targets.
What about the other environmental boundaries? Biodiversity loss is an important limit to consider, but drawing a direct quantitative connection between rates of species extinctions and purchasing decisions doesn’t work. However, some of the drivers of that loss – like the expansion of land used for agriculture – are easy to see and understand as operational metrics for business. More of this type of thinking can help us adapt the other boundaries in similar ways.
Working out your share
In delivering a global target, the only requirements of the science are that everyone sets targets which, when they are all added together, meet the global total. There are many ways to make this allocation, but the pieces must add up to a whole: otherwise we risk missing the overall goal, to our collective suffering. This can be seen, for example, in how the current sum of national climate commitments would not get us below the 2C threshold.
Making the targets actionable
A manageable framework for organising operational metrics is needed. Today’s sustainability metrics are a pile of broken pottery, when what is required is a mosaic. Insight can be drawn from financial metrics: at the management team level, most businesses track three to five key metrics (eg sales, earnings, return on assets, cash), which are largely the same across all companies. The thousands of other financial metrics all have a home somewhere in a structure that quantitatively adds up to those key ones.
Over a period of several years, working with a range of key external partners including the World Resources Institute (WRI), we at Mars have sought to develop the science-based operational metrics that would enable us to do our share in operating within the planet’s boundaries. This past September we announced and committed to them as part of our Sustainable in a Generation Plan. Our targets – on reducing global GHG emissions, using water sustainably, and holding constant the total land area used to grow our ingredients – are our answer to what individual companies should do as part of the collective action that is needed.
We’re excited about this approach – and about the enthusiastic dialogue it has generated inside and outside our business. We’re rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on action plans to drive progress on our new goals. But there are pieces of the puzzle that haven’t yet been worked out – so we are pleased to be part of a team that includes leading thinkers from the Global Environment Facility, the Stockholm Resilience Center, WRI and others working to make science based targets for climate, land, soil health, water – and perhaps other areas – common practice.
By working together, we can turn the current tragedy of the commons into the most meaningful opportunity for a prosperous, sustainable future.