Effectively Communicating Sustainability Goals

Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipIndustry TrendsCareer AdviceSustainabilitySustainability Officers
min Article
July 22, 2022
9 min
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipIndustry TrendsCareer AdviceSustainabilitySustainability Officers
Organizations are under growing pressure to communicate the concrete actions they’re taking to hit their sustainability goals.


Companies today face an increasingly complicated ESG landscape, balancing differing and occasionally conflicting needs and interests of multiple stakeholder groups. They also face a diverse array of sustainability issues and must effectively prioritize goals to make progress in any one area.

With today’s globally digital landscape, there is more pressure on companies to be transparent and communicate their goals and progress clearly, and more ability to make stories and experiences heard, whether to highlight ESG leaders, or bring attention to organizational practices that need updating.

Bridging the gap between organizational strategy and stakeholders

Companies need to incorporate ESG goals into their organizational strategy while also ensuring that they are effectively communicating progress against these goals to stakeholders. Environmental protection, climate change, employee well-being, social issues, economic inequality, and regulatory guidelines are all at the forefront of business priorities. What that means for individual companies varies across region, industry, and size, but the importance of proactively addressing these issues applies to all. To ensure they are prepared to respond, companies should consider the following three principles.

  1. Build transparency
  2. Clearly define your company’s strategy for supporting ESG issues
  3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Building transparency

Get specific

 Get specific

Committing to short and long-term sustainability goals is an important first step for companies investing in ESG. However, organizations need to move beyond announcing support to clearly communicating plans, progress, and specific actions taken.

This will help secure buy-in from internal and external stakeholders, and create an accountability mechanism. Additionally, transparency on your part helps set the standard for others in your industry.


Use your platform authentically

 Use your platform authentically

Companies can support change without becoming “movement organizations" that said, it is crucial for them to commit to progress, especially when it seems difficult.

Ensure that your organization's public positions are supported by stated company values, as well as your private actions. It’s better to say nothing than make a statement that is inconsistent with your values or practices.




Case in Point: Nestlé

Decreasing carbon emissions and prioritizing environmental protection in supply chain

Nestlé is committed to reducing their carbon footprint and halving their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as well as reducing waste, protecting natural forests, promoting an eco-friendly water cycle and sustainably sourcing raw materials. They have set a net-zero date for 2050.

To keep stakeholders informed, Nestlé publicly announces their progress towards these goals and publishes an annual report on their progress, including a space for the public to submit information raising compliance concerns. They have made this information easily available, are transparent in communicating their goals, and are tackling many facets of ESG issues, including environmental, human rights and community building, and compliance and reporting.

Source: Nestlé


Clearly defining your company’s strategy for supporting ESG issues

Remember that change starts from within

 Remember that change starts from within

Stake out a suite of issues that will make a difference to your stakeholders, particularly employees.

It’s not enough to advocate externally for your chosen cause – focus on the change that can be made within your four walls, for example, ending relationships with suppliers or partners that do not align with company values.

Help others hold you accountable

 Help others hold you accountable

Measure: Benchmark your company’s current practices using external tools such as the Leed certification or WHO, then continue to measure your KPIs.

Reward: Create and communicate incentives for supporting environmental protection, diversity, equity and inclusion, and compliance best practices. Consider linking ESG outcomes to executive compensation and recognition practices.

Enforce: Unenforced values have no meaning; create a culture that encourages speaking up when someone’s behavior contradicts company values.




Case in Point: CVS Health

Making health and wellbeing initiatives accessible to all

A 2022 winner of the Best Employers: Excellence in Health & Well-being Award from nonprofit organization Business Group on Health, CVS Health leads in the health and well-being space for their employees.

Their 2021 success KPIs included:

  • Over 70% of colleagues are women and 48%+ colleagues identify as racially diverse
  • Over $3.5 billion spent with small businesses and diverse suppliers
  • Committed to increasing hourly minimum wage across enterprise to $15 by July 2022
  • Over 15 million hours of training and development completed, including compliance training and new leadership development course

They have made progress in this by communicating their progress each year in the “Healthy Business” section of their annual ESG report, detailing their employee well-being programs that align with their organizational foundation as a health company for the public.

Source: CVS Health


Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

Strap in for a long and complicated journey

 Strap in for a long and complicated journey

Be patient—tangible results require stamina, vulnerability, willingness to listen and learn, and relentless commitment to change.

Set long-term goals with interim benchmarks, and have open, honest conversations with critical stakeholders along the way.

Ensure your leadership team

 Ensure your leadership team is aligned around your corporate values, and let those be your “True North”

When sudden issues emerge, a company’s values the North Star for navigating the issue and deciding if and how to effectively respond.

To effectively engage on sustainability issues, start by identifying your company's unique differentiators or areas of comparative advantage, then leverage them to maximize social and financial value (for example, a global logistics company using its proprietary expertise to help governments coordinate disaster relief).




Case in Point: Ingersoll Rand

Driving compliance and ethics to see quick and effective results

In 2021, industrial tech company Ingersoll Rand was named the best compliance and ethics program in large cap markets by Corporate Secretary at the Corporate Governance Awards. They created and finished their program in under a year during the pandemic, highlighting that the crucial speed of progress is attainable, even for large companies.

“Just one year and nine months ago, we combined two industry-leading companies, transforming us into a single global force,” said Robert Mayfield, director of global compliance of Ingersoll Rand. “Simply pushing a transformation like this over the finish line is a huge accomplishment. Standing up an effective compliance and ethics program, seemingly overnight, and then being recognized for that achievement is an entirely different feat that took a tremendous amount of discipline, thoughtfulness, and focus.”

Source: Ingersoll Rand


Further Reading

ESG 2.0 - The Next Generation of Leadership

How to Develop Sustainable Leadership Acumen

Assessing and Selecting Sustainable Leaders




  • Beth Hawley is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Chicago.
  • Tom Handcock leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. He is based in London.
  • Emily Meneer leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Sustainability practices. She is based in Portland.
  • T.R. Straub is a consultant on the Legal, Regulatory, Compliance & Risk team. He is based in Washington, D.C.
  • Leah Christianson is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in San Francisco.