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Walking the Talk
Getting the Balance Right:
3M on Sustainability Goal-Setting

3M's new climate goals culminate in climate neutrality by 2050. We talked with Gayle Schueller, 3M’s VP and Chief Sustainability Officer, to gain more insight into the company’s approach to the ‘balancing act’ of sustainability goal-setting.

Here at Sustainable Brands™, we’re thrilled by the growing wave of companies that have been compelled to take definitive action to help avert a global climate crisis. While the momentum is heartening, the resulting commitments have been all over the map — some companies may feel pressure to keep up with the Joneses and set bold, far-reaching climate targets; and others still might not know where to start.

Last month, 3M joined the fray with a new set of climate goals, culminating in climate neutrality by 2050. We talked with Gayle Schueller, 3M’s VP and Chief Sustainability Officer, to gain more insight into the company’s approach to the ‘balancing act’ of sustainability goal-setting.

Companies are feeling more and more pressure from investors and other external stakeholders to set bold climate goals — what did this process look like for 3M? How did your team go about choosing the key areas of impact?

Gayle Schueller: 3M has a long-standing commitment to the environment, and creating a more sustainable future anchors purpose-driven innovation across our portfolio. To help prioritize our efforts and focus our actions, we engage with a variety of stakeholders on sustainability goals and progress. We conduct a materiality study every two years to gain insights on what stakeholders believe are 3M’s highest-risk areas, as well as our greatest opportunities to create positive impact. We also conduct regular employee surveys to learn what they think is most important and how 3M can maximize our positive impact. During the development of our recently announced environmental goals, we conducted strategic interviews with over 50 stakeholder groups — placing a particular focus on customers in the healthcare, consumer, automotive and electronic industries. Based on the collective insights from our stakeholder outreach, and the global challenges our company felt were most pressing to address, we prioritized new goals to reduce our carbon and water footprints.

Because we analyze our water use and carbon emissions at detailed levels across our enterprise, we know there is significant overlap between our manufacturing facilities with the largest water footprints and those with the largest carbon footprints — as would be expected based on the carbon-water-energy nexus. By using 3M science to advance decarbonization, reduce facility water use and improve the quality of water we return to the environment, we believe we can become a more effective and efficient business — ultimately driving future growth. By continuing to advance our work in environmental stewardship and sustainability, we will be able to meet the increasing expectations of our customers, employees, investors and additional stakeholders, for whom we are always trying to do more.

CEO Mike Roman has said that “social equity and justice” is an area that 3M will lead in as it continues to grow. What will this look like?

GS: Following the killing of George Floyd, we listened intently to our employees and community partners, and expanded our work to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. We know this time must be different. We also know systemic change requires resources and long-term dedication, so we created a new Equity & Community organization within our enterprise. This group will support our goals and commitments to advance equity in our workplaces, business practices, and communities globally.

In the fall of 2020, we established the 3M Foundation Social Justice Fund — putting resources into organizations with a focus on legal justice, racial equity and healing. We also formed the 3M Community Coalition, a group of diverse leaders and organizations driving real change in our communities, who will help direct 3M’s commitment of $50 million to address pressing challenges and make the biggest impact.

To further accelerate racial equity and inclusion in our workplace and communities, we are focusing on two platforms going forward: racial justice for the future of work and empowering an inclusive culture. The former will address racial opportunity gaps through workforce development initiatives, while the latter aims to eliminate internal systemic barriers and empowers diversity and inclusion advocacy. As we move forward in this work, we know transparency and accountability are paramount. It’s why we published our first-ever Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Report in February, and why we plan to openly share our progress on advancing social equity and justice in this report each year. 

Between these new goals and your 2025 sustainability goals, which have been and/or will be most challenging for 3M to achieve?

GS: When 3M sets goals, they are rooted in science. We require ourselves to develop the “math behind the path,” ensuring plans to achieve our goals are based on current or emerging technologies. One of the exciting things about science is that we’re always learning new things and evolving our assumptions and hypotheses. When we set goals and achieve them early, as was the case for our renewable energy goal, then we strive to do even more. In other cases, our goals prove to be more challenging than anticipated.

As a manufacturing business with a global footprint and diverse product portfolio, our path to carbon neutrality differs greatly from that of a retail, finance or software company. With over 60,000 products and sales in nearly every country, the commitment to reduce our carbon footprint 50 percent by 2030 is a particularly challenging, yet important, milestone. That being said, 3M does not set goals that are unattainable. For more than 100 years, 3Mers have demonstrated that our ambition and our innovation can overcome any challenge — and that same persistence will be applied to advance carbon neutrality in our operations and supply chain.

As you are setting these targets, how do third-party certifications/approvals come into play? You share a lot of your data with CDP, for example – are you working with other partners to validate to your targets?

GS: 3M recognizes the importance of rigor in the scientific process and we’ve set targets for sustainability based on science for decades — starting with the Pollution Prevention Pays program in 1975; the 3M Air Emission Reduction Program in 1987; and our 2025 Sustainability Goals, established in 2015. We regularly engage with groups like the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and The Climate Group; as well as our own scientists, to determine the best path forward. Beyond CDP, we report in alignment with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). We continue to evaluate new certifications and frameworks as they emerge and evolve.

As the manufacturer of a diverse product portfolio, spanning virtually every industry around the world, it can be challenging to align with programs developed for a more specific business model or industry. It is important that we continue to collaborate with customers and suppliers in the healthcare, transportation, safety, manufacturing, consumer and electronics industries to discuss and uncover best practices. We can then use these insights to develop new strategies that deliver on our goals and actions as a global enterprise.

What advice would you give to companies that may be reluctant to announce goals or feel pressure to set potentially unrealistic goals — in order to keep up with their competitors, for example – vs setting more conservative, more achievable targets (and risking criticism for not doing enough)?

GS: Like many things in life, setting sustainability goals is a balancing act. By setting stretch goals, you can help drive much-needed progress against the world’s greatest challenges; but to be credible, those stretch goals must be rooted in science, accurate mathematical modelling and specific plans to achieve them. We know that companies, governments and international organizations must collaborate to successfully address major systemic challenges like climate change and accessibility to clean water. When companies set bold goals and have specific plans to achieve them, potential partnership opportunities become clearer — increasing the probability and speed of success.

As a science company, 3M believes that applying an innovation mindset to challenges, spelling out the steps it takes to achieve them, and then holding ourselves accountable to our goals helps us deliver on the promises we make. We would advise others to first look at what is possible to achieve based on known and emerging technologies; and then set about developing specific plans, project timelines and impact analyses. Through this approach, you can focus on setting the right goals for your company and its stakeholders, rather than setting unrealistic goals that are based on what others may do.