When the stakes are high enough, when the circumstances demand, you shoot for the moon.

The way Dane Parker sees it, this is one of those times to set big goals and aim as high as possible. To protect the planet, to do what’s best for the work force at all levels of the supply chain and to ensure that businesses are poised to thrive for decades to come, companies may need to establish a sustainability moonshot.

“In reading books about (NASA’s moonshot) and watching things about it, the excitement and the energy and the passion that that 15-year effort unleashed was amazing,” Parker, GM’s chief sustainability officer, said during a presentation that was part of the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars. “If we can do that with bold (sustainability) goals, then we can look back at this time period with that same amount of pride that others look back at that time period.”

For GM, those goals in the areas of safety and environment boil down to a whole bunch of zeroes: Zero emissions, zero crashes, zero congestion.

“That is a bit of a moonshot, and things like autonomous, electric vehicles are going to be a part of that as we go forward,” Parker said. “Right now, electric vehicles are a big part of that, and we can build road maps within that moonshot to get us there step by step by step.”

Sustainability is a tricky term. It evokes images of environmental responsibility and reducing carbon footprints in manufacturing, and those certainly are parts of any company’s overall sustainability vision, Gulay Serhatkulu, senior vice president of performance materials in North America for BASF Corp., said in the MBS session. But sustainability also touches on areas such as profit, procurement and maintaining a talented, skilled work force.

“Studies show that when companies have future and sustainable programs, the returns will be higher,” Serhatkulu said. “So, they are also in this for the money, let’s be honest here. We want sustainability that has three parts, and profit is one of them. Without profit we can’t be established as a sustainable program.”

Serhatkulu said the world’s largest investors are making strategic decisions based on factors relating to sustainability. She pointed to a recent letter published by BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink, in which he pushed companies to not only set sustainability targets but remain open and transparent about how and when they are achieving those goals.

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