The decade we’re facing calls for transformative ambition and sharing insights to multiple challenges will be key to driving change at scale and pace. As Diageo launches its new Society 2030 strategy, what can others learn from the process? 

James Payne, Associate Director for Transformational Strategies, shares insights from Forum for the Future’s partnership with one of the world’s largest producers of spirits and beers. 

“If we know now exactly how we’re going to achieve a goal that we set for 2030, it won’t be ambitious enough.” This comment from a member of the Diageo Executive Team is my abiding memory of the call we held with them to kick off our work together to develop the company’s global Society 2030 strategy. I was so impressed!  One of the biggest mistakes businesses make when setting long-term sustainability ambitions is wanting to be certain the goals they set are achievable/affordable with current technology/costs and killing the opportunity for game-changing innovation before the ink is dry on the new strategy. 

It was really promising that leadership at the highest levels in Diageo understood the importance of including an ‘innovation gap’ between their 10-year ambition and what’s achievable today within current constraints; this gap is vital in empowering people to use all of their ingenuity and creativity to find new and transformative opportunities. This focus on innovation and opportunity can be seen across the Society 2030: Spirit of Progress strategy which launches today; it is particularly evident in the explicit focus on prioritising carbon-positive innovation and on developing groundbreaking new technologies via the Diageo Sustainable Solutions programme.

Reflecting on what others could learn from how Diageo created their strategy, three key principles for success jumped out:

  • Develop future-fit goals
  • Aim for deep, structural change
  • Make transformative choices easier

  1. Develop future-fit goals

Align with decision makers on your future context

Humans generally tend to imagine the future will be a gradual evolution of the present; we usually struggle to imagine just how different the near-term future might be. If you think the 2020s will be a continuation of ‘business as usual’ from the 2010s, investing in bold sustainability initiatives is unlikely to make sense. This means using applied futures tools to engage senior leaders and key decision makers around just how different the 2020s are likely to be is essential. The entire Diageo Executive team committed a full day to exploring the key trends that will impact their operating context in the 2020s and aligning on a view of what this means for the business. 

Set goals that fit the scale of the challenge

Rather than starting with what you think is achievable, start with the change that will be needed to effectively address the challenges and opportunities you face. This is particularly clear when it comes to climate science; given that some businesses will be laggards, leading businesses need to go much further than doing their ‘fair share’ by setting a science-based target. By committing to net-zero emissions from operations and halving supply chain carbon by 2030, Diageo is showing bold leadership.


  1. Aim for deep, structural change

One of my favorite aspects of Diageo’s new strategy is how every issue it addresses is tackled at three nested levels: ‘in our company’, ‘with our communities’ and ‘in society’. This recognises the need to both be credibly addressing each issue within their sphere of direct control, while emphasising the need for deeper, systemic change and the role that Diageo can play in catalysing this.

Build in collaboration and advocacy

Creating systemic, structural change isn’t usually about going on a solo run. This comes through strongly in Diageo’s commitment to addressing alcohol-related harm head-on via collaborations with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) to reach 5 million drivers, and educating over 10 million people on the dangers of drinking underage through their ‘SMASHED’ programme. As the ‘Business ‘Avenger’ for water-focused SDG 6, the new strategy has a big focus on water stewardship in key basins through collaboration with other businesses and advocacy for better water governance and infrastructure.

 Shape culture and mindsets

Anyone familiar with Donella Meadows’ seminal thinking around leverage points, knows that shifting paradigms and mindsets are some of the deepest, most effective leverage points for enabling profound change. As a brand-led business, Diageo has huge power to shape culture through its marketing and advertising. The new strategy leverages this, both in terms of how it can reach a billion people with messaging around moderate drinking, as well as how it can champion inclusion and diversity by using advertising to proactively support progressive voices, celebrate diversity and help shape a tolerant society. This builds on their existing track record around gender balance in advertising.


  1. Make transformative choices easier

Facilitate bold decisions within your business

The point made above about getting to alignment with senior decision makers about just how different the near-term future could be for your operating context is an essential first step to being able to set bold ambitions. It is vital that decision makers are clear about the huge downside risks of inaction or approaches that don’t measure up to the scale of the challenges you face. Once the Executive team had approved stretching high-level ambitions, each work-stream within Diageo embraced this and was empowered to both build on existing areas of strength - such as how they have already halved GHG emissions from their operations - while also designing pilots - such as their global sustainable agriculture partnerships pioneering regenerative programmes for degraded landscapes.

Make better choices easier for consumers

Sustainability-led disruptive innovation doesn’t always have to be flashy. Often it’s more successful to just implement changes like making cage-free eggs the default or requiring home appliances to be more energy efficient. With the new strategy’s focus on regenerative agriculture, net-zero carbon, supporting 150,000 smallholder farmers, water stewardship, etc. it’s easy to imagine consumers increasingly expecting their drinks to just have positive social and environmental impacts built in from grain to glass. And with generational attitudes to drinking shifting, offering no-compromise low and no-alcohol options just makes good business sense, from Guinness 0.0 to investing in exciting new alcohol-free spirits entrants like Aecorn Aperitifs.

Diageo’s ‘Society 2030: Spirit of Progress’ 10-year action plan has been designed to deliver meaningful and decisive action on a global scale. When Forum for the Future works with Diageo and other companies to support future-fit strategies, our aim is always to push the boundaries of ambition and ensure change runs deep. Unless bold action in the next three to five years puts humanity on a transformative trajectory to a hopeful, thriving future, we risk sleepwalking with a ‘business as usual’ mindset into the looming ecological and societal breakdown currently on the cards.

James Payne is Associate Director, Transformational Strategies at Forum for the Future. You can read more about Forum's work in Transformational Strategies here.

See more details about Diageo's new strategy - Society 2030: Spirit of Progress