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The Context of Targets - Pildacre Hill

The Context of Targets

Thank you one and all for the comments on “The Problem with Targets”. With comments across LinkedIn, Twitter and on this site, let me respond here and develop the arguments a bit further.

To recap, I believe that there are three problems with targets in the sustainability world. Firstly there are too many. Secondly, the attention is on the setting not the delivery, and finally we need to recognize the differences between complicated and complex problems.


As a few pointed out, there is a problem with incrementalism. If you set a target to continuously improve, you will do just that: continually improve. Targets should instead be there to inspire and communicate intent. But they rarely do.

John Elkington nailed it a few years ago with the Zeronauts. Zero targets (or their inverse, 100%) are by far and away the best way to inspire, communicate and make progress. Human brains are wired to need certainty. Thats why “zero” resonates, not just for consumers, but for employees as well. Getting to zero demands a different thinking and innovation. RE100 for example has proven to be amazingly motivating and a new driver for energy efficiency and GHG reduction. There is room for much more of this.

I suggest its time therefore to retire all targets that aim to merely reduce environmental impact or that embed incrementalism. Let’s have more ambition and zero. But let’s be selective. As was pointed out “what gets measured gets managed” has turned out to be “what gets managed gets measured”. Common sense needs to prevail – we don’t need targets for everything.

Accounting and Accountability

We also need more follow up on targets. Consider palm oil. There are currently six different scorecards that are judging how companies are delivering upon their commitments to eliminate deforestation in palm oil. In reality these all judge companies based upon the solutions promoted by the organisation behind the scorecard, not the outcomes and impacts on the ground. Its no surprise therefore that there is little consistency in how companies perform, and no surprise that the scorecards are becoming counterproductive. Indeed as pointed out, if we want to make progress its time for the same kind of convergence in judging progress in sustainability that we have in accounting standards. The Accountability Framework sets out to help this, claiming that “companies now need clear and consistent guidance on implementation, monitoring, verification, and reporting on progress and outcomes”. This is an interesting framing, as the biggest need, and its biggest impact of the Accountability Framework will be to drive convergence and consistency amongst the NGOs behind it.

Context and Credit for Consumers

Finally, let’s not try and fit targets to inappropriate areas. As highlighted, setting targets on human rights is not sensible. This is a compliance issue. It’s also a complex issue which needs a vision, a clear statement of what actions are being taken, and clear reporting on what is going well and not so well, so that others can be guided in their roles and responsibilities.

Certainly backcasting can help and is much more likely to lead to a breakthrough. And yes, context is important, for both the complicated and the complex challenges we face. If you want to work out how to raising a child who is able to live her full potential then it’s important to know the context. Do you live in rural Ethiopia, or suburban Zurich? If you want to compare how they turned out then you need the context.

But context can’t rescue targets that are the wrong tool at the wrong time. All they can do is help explain. It seems to me that moving the water debate from efficiency to stewardship is moving us from a complicated problem to a complex one. Context can help but lets not stymie the concept of stewardship by obsessing about setting targets.

Perhaps we should also give consumers a bit more credit. A quick straw poll suggests that for some issues talking about “zero” is both understandable and believable. But equally for other issues, being up-front about the vision, the direction of travel and being honest about progress is just fine and equally authentic.

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