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Go ahead and paint the end state. That's what leaders do.

Marshal the resources you need to achieve your sustainability goals and targets.

by Paul Pierroz

Strategy | Sustainability | Marketing

September 28, 2021 - Think for a moment about the goals you’ve worked on that have made a difference in your life. Now think about who set those goals? Do you think the goals you played a part in developing were more rewarding? Every morning we wake up to accomplish something, and what kind of day would you and I have if we’re always working on someone else’s goal?


Being aware of the vast power in setting goals and targets will help you and your organization on its journey.

Think about the last time an organization set a numeric goal around workplace incidents and injuries. You and I know the target should be zero. However, there was a time when personal injuries were accepted as an inevitable occupational risk, especially on epic construction projects where workers frequently seemed to be killed or injured. If the US workforce had the same risk profile as workers experienced in 1933, then about 40,000 more workers would have died over the following 50 years.

It took years of workplace research, education, regulation, investment, and technology to get to a point where incidents and injuries were no longer acceptable. The data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows us that from 1980 to 1995, the rate of deaths from unintentional work-related injuries declined by 43%.(1) Reducing these numbers took the courage of leaders to set the target at zero and work with the highest risk sectors like mining, agricultural, forestry, construction, and transportation to improve results. You can see the connection here to the sustainability journey many of you are on.

And, where do you suppose goals and targets can make the most impact? Is it in regions, countries, sectors, or parts of your organization with the lowest emissions and risk? Not likely. I believe your focus should also be on the areas of highest risk, impact, and value.

Why do you think so many leaders are setting net zero emissions targets for 2040 and 2050? What is it they all have in common? The answer is that they’ve realized they need to change their organization’s behavior and motivations to change the trajectory of future results, but they acknowledge this can’t happen overnight. They are trying to signal, by this action of setting targets, that something is different; that they are preparing to make a change.

Companies in the energy sector are caught in this same dilemma of aspiration versus action. You may have noticed that starting in 2019, several international energy companies declared they will be net-zero by 2050. The Spanish company Repsol was the first in December 2019, followed by BP, Shell, Total, and Equinor of Norway later in 2020.(2) According to the 2018 IEA World Energy Outlook report, about 7% of energy-related emissions, or 2.7 gigatonnes, came from oil and gas operations. This is very similar to cement production, but the use of oil and gas also has a significant environmental impact.

These declarations were a bold move, and a marketing campaign started around net zero. In February 2020, BP’s new CEO, Bernard Looney, moved from words to action, announcing a series of steps to make this rapid transition to net-zero across operations by 2050 or earlier.(3) This included net-zero carbon in oil and gas production, a 50% cut in the carbon intensity of their in-use products, methane measurement and intensity reductions by 50%, and increasing the proportion of investments outside of oil and gas. Its purpose, he said, was to reimagine energy for people and the planet; to help the world reach net zero and improve people’s lives. Some may call this greenwashing, and if they do, then a little greenwashing may not be so bad.

Your pressure to declare could be coming from any number of stakeholders, and it is likely continuous and unrelenting. While this seems like the only reason behind declaring too many, we should consider your other motives: that it could be “very good for business,” or that you believe it’s just “the right thing to do.” It could be all three. Does it really matter if the results improve and the goal is met? Even if you’re not able to meet each one of your goals over the long run, you can sleep easier knowing you’ve given your organization its best chance to succeed.


One of my beliefs is that every individual and organization can make a difference. This belief is one reason I’ve spent so many years working on the inside of companies. I have seen the power of change and how it can accelerate with a group of people like you and me, working together every day. The potential for this change needs to be considered in your purpose-driven marketing efforts. Let’s talk about the four unique advantages you have in your position as an organization leader or someone with access to resources to drive change, and how you can work these in your best interests.

Advantage 1: Access to resources and the ability to shift them quickly. Your organization spends money to keep things operating, purchase new assets, complete work, and grow its product and service offering. You likely have a capital spending and operating budget and a group of suppliers to work with, which gives you the ability to direct your spending, set standards and expectations, and influence your supply base. Among the various Scope levels of emissions, these are Scope 3. Part of your story is applying and shifting resources and working to influence your supply base.

Advantage 2: Access to technology and development inside and outside your organization. There are not many small or large-scale problems solved without innovation or invention. I believe we are in the early stages of low and no-carbon technology development. Your organization may be in the best position to develop and test new ideas in the field. As they are proven and move through various stages, those with the most potential will attract growth investment. Part of your story is how you are accessing and developing new technology to solve problems.

Advantage 3: Tap into your organization’s entrepreneurial spirit. I assure you that your organization has an entrepreneurial mindset. If you doubt this, ask the people in your team what they do outside of work. You will find people with hobbies, inventions, small businesses, and all kinds of creative ventures. This can-do spirit can be unlocked and put to work on your most significant opportunities. Part of your story is how you have succeeded or failed, regrouped, and are trying again.

Advantage 4: Access to talent and the ability to incentivize accomplishment. The talent in your organization is capable of accomplishing great things. I met with a leading supplier of chemicals and science-based products known for developing innovative materials. They built a new sustainability team with more than 25 of their most talented technical and sales leaders that would help customers improve their environmental performance. A significant part of their compensation was determined by the waste and emissions they eliminated in their customer’s value chain. Part of your story is how you mobilize resources to work on customer sustainability issues.

So, what does all this tell us? If you are working inside an organization today, you have an excellent opportunity to activate and align resources and talk to others to improve your sustainability efforts.


(1) CDC, MMWR Weekly, “Achievements in Public Health, 1990-1999; Improvements in Workplace Safety – United States. 1990-1999,” June 11, 1999. mm4822a1.htm

(2) NS Energy website, Analysis, James Murray, “Which major oil companies have set net-zero emissions targets?” December 16, 2020.

(3) BP website, Press Release, “BP sets ambition for net zero by 2050, fundamentally changing organisation to deliver,” February 12. 2020.

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