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Moving targets

26 April, 2024

Setting targets and keeping to them is hard, whether that’s fitness goals for the year ahead or your business’s sustainability goals.

This certainly seems to be the case for Unilever which is scaling back its environmental and social goals. Understandably, this has ruffled feathers, and the business has been criticised for stepping back from some of its most ambitious targets, and setting shorter, more realistic goals around issues like plastic use, supplier living wages and diversity.

Targets are tricky for several reasons. There is a good case for making them ambitious, in order to stretch the company to achieve more and go further, particularly given the scale of the social and environmental challenges we face. But they also need to be realistic – businesses need to think through the pathways to reaching them and expect to be held to account for overall progress and their ability to meet milestones along the way.

All of this is made even harder by the fact that it’s often hard to know exactly what can be achieved in the future, given there will be changes that can’t be foreseen or controlled directly by the business. Plastics are a good example – as an explosion in demand for recycled plastics has pushed the price up significantly, problematising business planning around transitioning away from virgin materials.

As the end date of some of the long-term targets that businesses set some years ago come closer, it makes sense that a greater sense of reality comes into play, and in these cases a recalibration is necessary and right – as well as being the best way to bring about change. Unilever has stated that refocusing on more tangible and targeted impact over the near term will allow it to be more effective.

But the worry and the risk is that changing targets, or setting less ambitious ones, comes at the expense of the commitment, drive and ambition we need. That is takes the pressure of companies. And that it stops them from taking steps, particularly those related to financial investment, which might incur some short term pain for long term transformative gain.

Sustainability needs to operate in the real world. But it also needs to help create a better one.

By Patrick Bapty

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