Setting Reduction Targets with Limited Information

By Hillary Dobos and Emily Artale

Setting sustainability targets can be one of the most intimidating and invaluable steps in creating a robust sustainability program.  Goals need to be measurable and have real appeal to constituents and decision makers, but most importantly, goals need to be credible.  We define a credible goal as one that can be realized while pushing the organization to make meaningful, aggressive changes where real benefits accumulate.  But, how can an organization identify quantifiable, credible targets with limited information? How can they ensure that their goals are achievable so they do not miss their targets, while ensuring that they are not so easy that they are perceived as pointless?

The following is a list of tips that we have found helpful through our experiences helping clients – large and small - set credible, impactful and quantifiable goals with little or no information:

  • Ask facility and fleet managers what they think is possible. Often these employees are much closer to the day-to-day activities of existing procedures and they are among the first to recognize opportunities. In addition, they will (hopefully) be able to provide an overview of recent or expected upgrades that might affect the reduction potential. For example, if a fleet has switched over 25% of their vehicles to electric vehicles, then a goal for petroleum reduction must reflect this recent change. Lastly, facility and fleet managers will also play a critical part in achieving these goals so their input and buy-in is invaluable.

  • Research your competitors. Competitors that have set goals (internal and external) provide a wealth of knowledge of what can be accomplished and what goals speak to your constituent. Companies that have reported on whether or not they have met their goals are especially valuable examples.  In addition, if competition with competitors is one of the drivers for your sustainability efforts, you will want to make sure that your company has equivalent (or close to) goals as competitors.

  • Be creative on where to acquire past data. Most sustainability managers that are creating plans from scratch have very little data to base their goals on; however a lot of data might be more accessible then one thinks.  For example, most companies have tracked their utility costs through their accounting system. Using some “back of the envelope” calculations, a manager can understand if their overall utility costs have been going up at a quicker or slower rate than normal utility cost increases. As long as the process is consistent and transparent overtime your goals will be sound.

  • Understand your budget.  Many goals will cost money upfront even if they have a great return-on-investment. Understanding where and how that budget will be allocated will help you know what is realistic.

  • Align goals with national goals.  Many public and private sector entities have simply matched/joined on to national goals such as the Better Buildings Challenge with the thought process of “they will figure it out as they go”. While this can be risky many companies and public sector agencies have signed on to these goals and have risen to the challenge to meet these targets because the 1) goals come off as credible; and 2) are very public.

Lastly, before setting sustainability targets, we recommend that an organization familiarizes itself with the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time Bound) framework for setting goals. The following shows how the framework would be used for a goal for energy reductions for a company.

  • Specific: We will reduce energy use per square foot (kBtu/sq. ft.) by 20% by 2030 for our entire building stock. (Note: Make sure your goals can be normalized for growth to ensure that you are not penalized for company’s successes. For example, if a company’s building stock grows by 20% during their energy reduction goals timeline they will be unfairly penalized for this growth unless they normalize by square feet.)
  • Measurable: We will track data through software on a monthly basis. (Note: Never underestimate the time consuming nature of tracking data. If you can’t find a transparent, realistic way to track data, then you might want to look at qualitative goals instead. Note: see our last blog titled Why You Should Never Overlook Qualitative Achievements When Developing Your Sustainability Goals to understand why qualitative goals are really important.)
  • Achievable: We believe we can achieve this through low-cost upgrades and behavioral change.
  • Relevant: Energy reduction supports the company’s goals of leading by example, transparency, and reducing costs.
  • Time Bound: The 20% reduction goal will be broken down into intermediate goals of 5% reduction by 2015, 10% reduction by 2020, 15% reduction by 2025, 20% by 2030.

For more information on goal setting see our webinar “How to Set Effective and Measurable Sustainability Goals” and contact us at  or  


Emily Artale is Principal and Owner at Lotus Engineering and Sustainability, LLC. She has been working in the industry for nearly a decade and she has a background in energy management, sustainability planning, and water quality. Emily helps teams develop action-oriented solutions that will improve efficiency and integrate sustainability into current processes. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is a Colorado native and spends most of her time outdoors with her family.

Hillary Dobos is Principal and Owner of Merrill Group, LLC. Hillary brings both expertise and creative thinking to working with clients which she draws from her experience as a consultant advising public and private clients throughout the United States, as well as the one tasked with embedding sustainability throughout a 25,000+ person organization (Colorado State Government). Hillary earned her B.A. in Art History and Economics from Bowdoin College in Maine and her MBA from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Hillary was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she currently enjoys life with her husband, son, and moderately trained canine, Mr. Smiles.

Disclaimer: The information presented above is based on the opinions and experience of the authors. The authors are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.