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Big, Science-Based PivotGoals: A Dialogue with Jeff Gowdy (#SustyGoals 9)

In conjunction with the publication of his new book, The Big Pivot, Andrew Winston partnered with sustainability consultant and Vanderbilt University business professor Jeff Gowdy to create the PivotGoals website, a database tracking thousands of corporate sustainability goals and targets. As a lead-in to the upcoming panel examining “New Opportunities for Leadership in Goal-setting: On to the Next Level of Science-Based Goals” at Sustainable Brands 2014 in San Diego next month, panel moderator Bill Baue conducted the following dialogue with Gowdy about PivotGoals, including detailed research on science-based sustainability goals.

Bill Baue: First, the background: What inspired you and Andrew to compile corporate sustainability goals — what underlying objective are you trying to achieve, and how does PivotGoals do the trick?

Jeff Gowdy: The inspiration to create came from Andrew and his consulting work. We were working together on another project, and it made sense for me to help manage PivotGoals.

In terms of objectives, we envision a few key uses (for

  • Benchmarking: Corporate managers and executives can compare their goals to others in their sectors and from a wider comparison pool.
  • Driving Performance: Closely correlated to benchmarking, employees and managers can use the goals they’ve set, along with others their peers have posted, to light a fire under the organization.
  • Research: Students and academics studying how companies manage our mega-challenges can utilize the data as input to new research projects/publications on corporate sustainability. We hope some will submit their analyses to the site.
  • Accountability: NGOs and other stakeholders can use this data to hold companies accountable to what they’ve publicly stated now or in the recent past.

PivotGoals does the trick by presenting the goals along with other key, relevant characteristics of each goal including Focus Area(s) and Date Due. We also provide multiple search criteria, including Industry and Value Chain (stage).

Baue: Scoping in, what prompted you to launch a subset of inquiry on science-based goals? Did the objective (and research tactics) differ from the overall PivotGoals objective — if so, how?

Gowdy: The prompt to track science-based goals comes from Andrew's latest book, The Big Pivot. One of the "Vision Pivots" is the need for companies to set big, science-based goals. Why? Because, on the whole, corporate sustainability goals fall way short of what the world's leading scientists are indicating we need to do to attain sustainability. Science is the driver of our global economy and likely will continue to be. Science needs to be the driver for how we set our goals to best protect our economy's input resources, our "playing field," our one shared system (Earth). I think this speaks to the objectives of Driving Performance and Accountability.

Baue: Before delving into your findings, I want to push back a bit on the notion that "science is the driver of our global economy and likely will continue to be." It could be argued that commerce is agnostic (or even sometimes hostile) to science. Indeed, if science were a driver of our global economy, then one would expect corporate goals and performance to align with science — but your findings suggest otherwise. So how do you reconcile your stance on science-as-economic-driver with your findings? And as part of this response, please share your top-line findings.

Gowdy: One would expect corporate goals and performance to align with science (in an economic system that internalized and priced all costs — but that is another discussion). And some corporate goals do align with science, and more and more are getting there. But much more progress is needed. From we have found the following top line results*:

  • 154 of the global Fortune 200 (77 percent) companies have sustainability goals
  • There are 2,104 sustainability goals across the Fortune 200
  • 60 of the Fortune 200 (30 percent) companies have at least one science-based goal
  • There are only 117 of the 2,104 (5.6 percent) sustainability goals that are science-based
  • Unilever has the most science-based goals with 20

Regarding science driving the global economy, I think our difference is a nomenclature thing. By "drive" I meant "run," i.e. our economy (airplanes, stock markets, energy grids, etc) runs on hardware and software technology created by computer science.

I, too, would argue that the general public is agnostic or even sometimes hostile to science (again, that is another discussion).

Bill Baue: Very interesting — given how business places such faith in science as the foundation of our infrastructure (I'd extend your software/hardware logic beyond computer science to apply to other forms of infrastructure), one might expect this scientific alignment to extend to sustainability goals. But your research finds the opposite — sustainability goals largely untethered from science. Before hearing more about the science-based goals, what explanation does your research suggest for this disconnect between sustainability goals and science in general?

Jeff Gowdy: I think the disconnect is lessening. The relationship between business and science-based sustainability appears to be a situation of "catch up" in terms of behavior change. From what I surmise from social psychology, Step 1 is "awareness." Most businesses seem to now be aware of the great sustainability challenges we face. Step 2 is "education" and many businesses are in the midst of this step. Step 3 is taking action or behavior change. And science-based goals represent wide and deep behavior change.

In other words, science-based goals are usually difficult. They are often not the first sustainability goals a company sets. It takes a progression of awareness, education, initial and intermediate action before the deep, science-based goals are set --- "crawl … walk … run."

Also, we see that the science-based goals are inherently on the environmental side of sustainability, i.e. not social and governance. The science-based goals found in our research are primarily around 1) Carbon and 2) Water and then a smattering of goals on toxics, chemicals, forest products, packaging and waste. Carbon is really the most important one and also the one with the clearest science-based target. The others might also be called "reality-based" goals, as Andrew refers to them in The Big Pivot, since the science is not always as definitive as it is with carbon.

Bill Baue: Interesting analogy on this progression! Let's see how it applies to your research findings. One thing I'm particularly interested in is the difference between explicitly setting goals based on science (or reality, to cast the net wider), and setting goals that happen to align with the science. How does this distinction apply to your findings? In other words, how many (or what percentage) of susty goals are explicitly science-based, compared to those that don't make explicit claims yet comply with the science? And what does this distinction suggest about the psychological progression model you propose?

Jeff Gowdy: Great question. I think the best way to answer it is to create three buckets that the goals could fall into:
A.) Non-science-based goals
B.) Science-based goals that are explicitly based on science
C.) Science-based goals that are not explicitly based on science (but could be)

For "C," here's what I mean — we pull each goal explicitly from the company Report or Website (and then do slight edits for sizing purposes). It may be that the reference to Science is in a preceding Report paragraph or that the company actually considered the IPCC's latest findings but chose not to state that in their Report. Therefore, the "but could be" ending to "C."

Let's start with the statistic presented before: 2,104 sustainability goals among the Fortune 200. Of those goals, here is how the buckets fill up:
A.) Non-science based goals: 1,974
B.) Science-based goals that are explicitly based on science: 13
C.) Science-based goals that are not explicitly based on science (but could be): 117

I think these results support my point on the psychological progression model – science-based goals are difficult and are likely set after multiple iterations of goal-setting.

We are about to "circle back to the start" again, i.e. scan the Fortune 250 for recently released Reports and pull newly released goals. Hopefully, the sums will tick up for "B" and "C."

*Note: Results presented were taken from a search in April 2014. Data research, review and upload is continuous, thus, results will change over time due to new Report releases.

As an internationally recognized expert on sustainability context, online stakeholder engagement, and sustainability communications, Bill Baue designs systemic transformation. He's co-founder of a number of companies and initiatives: