Hitting targets while missing the point

A senior sustainability leader commented the other day that sustainable sourcing programs might be in danger of hitting their targets while missing the point. As sustainability is operationalized, we might be in the weeds of compliance and lose sight of larger goals.

Sustainable sourcing generally requires asking suppliers to complete self-assessment questionnaires that can be spot checked and thereby verified. Unilever has its own code, as does Pepsi, and SAI Platform has created the industry standard “Farmer Sustainability Assessment.” Some companies ask that farmers enter data into a calculator rather than completing a practice questionnaire, and calculator results can contribute to a baseline of current practices and impacts. A few companies combine a quantitative calculator with a practice-based checklist.

The industry has come a long way from the times when sustainability was marginal or a feel-good greenwashing exercise. Nevertheless, it’s useful to ask ourselves the question our colleague asked, “Are we hitting the targets but missing the point?”

The simplest way of addressing this question is to ask another one, “Building from our experiences to-date, what more would it take for agriculture to be resilient, sustainable and inclusive?” Answering this question requires clarity about goals as well as what is resisting change toward achieving those goals. If one of our goals is a sufficient supply of clean water for all needs, then it’s relatively straightforward to calculate water supply, whether it is dwindling, and whether we are polluting it. The gap between what is happening now and what needs to happen is our room for action. For example, if we need to withdraw less water from specific aquifers, we can educate, incentivize, and regulate. Practice checklists and calculators will help, but they won’t get the job done.

We can do the same analysis for any issue. If we need resilient productivity in drought years, we can identify the gap between current and desired practices by estimating their impacts on soil health, and then design the mix of measurement, incentives and education to improve. If we want farmers and farm workers to have livable incomes, we can do a system map of commodity prices, professional support, diversified income sources, education improvement, and so forth.

The point is to look around and continually revisit what sustainability is about, achievements of current programs, and what else is needed.

Decades ago when I was a farmer, one day a local minister came by and invited me to his church. I told him I was too busy. He went away muttering, “Like oxen in a ditch.” Sustainability and procurement managers all have projects and codes to implement. These jobs require dedication and perseverance, but we don’t want to be so deep in the ditch that we can’t see the horizon. We don’t want to hit our targets but miss the point.

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