Updated: Jan 6, 2022
Corporate sustainability missions statements are prominently displayed...but they are just about meaningless.
Sustainability mission statements actually meant something in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the world...and markets...have changed. The same mission statements that were once celebrated are now failing you.
The question is no longer if you believe in sustainability but rather what you are doing about sustainability.
It is time to move on to sustainability materiality statements...and these statements will establish the framework by which your efforts are evaluated. This is a great opportunity to enhance market engagement.
Making a Statement
Corporate sustainability reports, and their interactive web-based versions, invariably open with a sustainability mission statement. We have yet to come across a sustainability report that does not follow this pattern, and we read a lot of sustainability reports.
Not only do they all open with a sustainability mission statement, but all the statements across all issuers also generally fit a familiar format. That is, sustainability mission statements are to be aspirational, positive, active, collective...and inactionably vague. Think we are being too harsh? Here are five mission statements from five large and well-established global companies:
Our mission is to provide goods and services that make people throughout the world happy, or, in other words, to “mass produce” happiness.
We act in ways to create a more sustainable and better shared future. To make a difference in people’s lives, communities and our planet by doing business the right way.
Making a positive impact on people and the planet through innovation.
Growing our business by enabling action and impact on some of humanity’s greatest challenges.
Our Mission is to lead the future of snacking by offering the right snack, for the right moment, made the right way.
[And before you think we cherry-picked examples that clearly support our point, we selected these five simply because they were the first five global brands to show adverts within our social media feeds at the time of writing.]
These examples all come from global companies with resources that surpass the GDP of many nation states, from companies that have the potential to meaningfully impact the trajectory of sustainable development, from companies that so many others look to for leadership...yet what do their mission statements really tell us?
Not much at all.
But this isn’t a blog about what companies can do for others, rather it's what they can do for themselves. So, how do these sustainability mission statements help them?
Not at All.
To be fair, these mission statements did serve a purpose at one point, but that time has long passed...yet these mission statements remain. It’s time for a change.
Once Upon a Time…
The term sustainable development was coined in the early 1980s within the Brundtland Commission and emerged into popular culture with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It’s not that the science of sustainability didn’t exist before this, or that concerned minds weren’t busy figuring out how to address the (lack of) sustainability across our social and economic systems, but rather that being sustainable wasn’t really a ‘thing’ until 1992. The Rio Summit was a tipping point in Earth Summits--it being the third one held after Stockholm in 1972 and Nairobi in 1982--and drew unprecedented global attention. From this, sustainability would trend.
The 1990s and into the early 2000s would become a battle for territory. At issue was the responsibilities of businesses in enhancing sustainability, and all sides urgently sought to shape the narrative and control the trajectory of corporate development--arguably the most powerful of modern institutions.
On one extreme was the perspective that companies are the engines of economic development whereupon governments, civil society, and associated NGOs are free to manage concerns of sustainability. Economic development was the foundation while social and environmental development were the luxuries made possible by this foundation--so ‘don’t mess with the foundation’. Not only was sustainability a distraction, but perhaps even a breach of fiduciary duty for which executives could be held accountable. It’s somewhat cliché to write this, but this was the ‘business of business is business’ school of thought.
On the other extreme was the perspective that companies are part of society and all operate within environmental systems. Following this, sustainability was not an option but rather an unavoidable reality. Ecological parameters were the foundation supporting social systems of which economic development was but one concern and businesses but one approach therein.
Sensing a changing tide in consumer sentiment, and perhaps even wishing to accelerate the tide, an early cohort of businesses sided with the latter perspective (albeit a diluted version of it) and sought to take a position of leadership in sustainability. This was the turning point in sustainability becoming a market dynamic. This was the planting of the flag for what the future of business would look like.
So how could consumers tell a company that cared to contribute to the collective future from one that did not? Simple, look for a sustainability mission statement.
At the time, it was a big development for a company to release and stand behind a sustainability mission statement--no matter how vague the statement was. To do so was to pick a side. To do so was to (seemingly) accept responsibility. To do so was to catalyze a transition in market development...and as in all transitions, certain entrenched interests were going to lose power. It was a battle, and the publishing of even just simple and vague sustainability mission statements was enough to know who was trying to win.
...But Times Change
At the turn of the millennium, sustainability mission statements similar to the five examples at the beginning of this blog were big news. They meant something even though they didn’t mean anything. They were a symbol of positive change.
But now fast-forward two decades and they are meaningless. The spirit may be similar, but the context within which they are being received has completely changed. Collectively, sustainability has evolved from being a project engaged when and where desired to being the foundational guiding lens of civilization.
And we don’t just mean in terms of environmental sustainability or climate change, but look around and you can see a new sense of advocacy--from the personal to the systemic--motivated by a spirit of ‘how can we build the life, community, and world that we want, and how can we make it last?’.
For generations, the future was always promised, today the future is something we are responsible for.
The debate is no longer about whether companies should be involved in sustainability. This is settled in a resounding 'Yes!'. The debate today is whether each distinct company is doing enough, and fast enough, to positively contribute to sustainability.
Investors and consumers have made it clear: sustainability is business strategy. On the investment side, over one third of global assets under management, or $50 trillion USD out of $140.5 Trillion USD, is anticipated to be invested in ESG assets by 2025, with over $1 trillion USD in ESG ETFs alone. On the consumer side, sustainability-marketed products are responsible for over 54% of Consumer Packaged Goods market growth over a recent five-year period--this is not a fringe trend but the leading market driver.
What Can You Do About This?
Look again at the five examples of sustainability mission statements at the open of this blog. Do any of these convey a sense that the issuing companies are acting on, let alone even understanding, that sustainability is business strategy?
Here’s the unfortunate part: Four out of five of the respective companies issuing the above statements are actually delivering very meaningful sustainability programs and business developments. Four out of five of them are actively managing trajectories positioning them on the right side of changes in financial and consumer markets. One of these five is an absolute laggard. Can you tell which one?
Most people do not spend as much time as we do going through every document, policy, and initiative you release (as we explored previously). For most people, your position in sustainability is what they see in your mission statement and perhaps a few additional lines or social media posts thereafter.
You have a very limited window to connect, yet it is critical that you do connect. The question is not whether you ‘believe’ in sustainability--that debate is settled: believe, or get out of the way. The question is: what are you doing about it?
It is time to move past sustainability mission statements and onto materiality statements. Nobody cares if you are ‘innovating for the planet’ or ‘building a better world’. We have yet to meet investors or consumers that are actively seeking companies that are purposefully not innovating or are committed to making the world worse. Twenty years ago, these mission statements did serve to stand you apart, but no longer. The world has changed.
People want details, impacts, and outcomes. Investors and consumers care that you are ‘optimizing your operations for X, minimizing the impacts of Y, and full-out eliminating Z’.
To begin crafting a materiality statement, consider:
Your sustainability programs are likely built from a materiality assessment. Don’t hide this assessment deep in your annual report. Synthesize the details into guiding themes and craft these into a materiality statement that serves as the thesis for all of your sustainability programs and reporting.
No one expects you to do everything, but they do expect you to do everything you can. Investors and consumers are more interested in a company that delivers on what they say they will address and less so in companies that pretend to address everything. Be clear in what it is you think you can address and stay focused. Your materiality statement establishes the framework by which you will be evaluated.
Change is expected. The very objective of sustainability is change. A materiality statement need not be immutable. Through your successes over time, or changing operational contexts beyond your control, your materiality statement will need to be adapted. This is expected and invited. A materiality statement informs the world of what you are working on, and as your work progresses so should your materiality statement. It’s communication, not an anchor in time.
Sustainability is business strategy, so do not miss the opportunity to deliver on your strategy. It is time to progress from sustainability mission statements to materiality statements. People care about what you do and you have a very narrow window to connect with them, don’t waste it on PR boilerplate.