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Corporate leaders are greenwashing — and they know it

The upshot: They may do better with proper tools, information and incentives.

A picture of two glass skyscrapers with a forest reflecting through the glass.

Image via Shutterstock/Melinda Nagy

A new corporate sustainability survey puts cold, hard numbers to some of my most cynical assumptions about corporate sustainability. Namely: While corporate leaders would like to be more sustainable, they don’t know how to do it, they aren’t allocating the resources needed and they’re overstating the impact of the initiatives they have in place. 

The survey, conducted by the Google Cloud team, polled almost 1,500 VP and C-Suite executives in 16 countries in the Americas, western Europe and Asia. It included executives across sectors, including financial services, heavy industry, logistics, telecommunications and manufacturing. 

Here’s what it found: 

Corporations are greenwashing — and they know it

The term greenwashing is thrown around a lot. And, this survey suggests, with good reason. 

Almost 60 percent of executives admit that "green hypocrisy exists," and 72 percent believe "most organizations in my industry would be caught greenwashing if investigated thoroughly." 

What’s more, 93 percent of organizations talk about sustainability goals externally — while only 22 percent are measuring sustainability programs against targets. 

The key reasons they’re overstating their efforts? It’s good for business. Around 85 percent of executives cite customers or clients becoming more vocal about wanting to engage with sustainable brands, so the executives want to capitalize on that. 

Corporations would like to be more sustainable

While their talk is bigger than their walk, the survey found that a key barrier to upleveling sustainability efforts is lack of knowledge and tools. Almost three-quarters of executives want to advance sustainability efforts — but they don’t know how to actually do it. 

Here’s the good news: According to the analysis, 96 percent of the corporations surveyed had at least one sustainability program in place (which remains unchanged from 2022). 

However the impact of many of these initiatives aren’t clear. For example, almost half "implement sustainable office policies," 45 percent "plan to reduce energy / migrate to renewable energy" and 42 percent "run a recycling program." 

While none of these are wrong, they also are unlikely to move the needle on the climate crisis. Many of these programs indicate marginal, internal ambitions, rather than the transformational shift needed. 

But also, corporations like money 

The macroeconomic picture is affecting sustainability progress, says the survey, as many executives point to pressure from external parties to cut corners on sustainability initiatives to prioritize revenue. 

The result: The number of new sustainability programs moving into implementation is down 8 percent from 2022, according to the survey.

This also manifests in leaders striving to do more with less. According to the survey, 78 percent of executives agree "an uncertain economic future forces my organization to produce better sustainability results with less funds." 

This interpretation of our economy is disheartening, if not surprising. I often hear from corporate leaders to do more (in both bull and bear markets) — as long as it doesn’t come at a price premium. Cost is often the excuse corporations use to maintain systems that are inconsistent with a safe climate future, a calculation that often ignores the advantages of being an early mover — including efficiency improvements, innovations that offer a leading edge against competitors, and maintaining a stable ecosystem on which to do business. 

My two cents: it’s incumbent upon corporations to overcome cost barriers by investing in clean technologies to aid the rapid adoption of new technologies. That means making commitments early (to signal market demand) and doggedly working to incorporate cleaner materials and processes throughout the value chain.

The upshot

While it’s easy to get frustrated with corporations intentionally overstating sustainability efforts to boost their brand reputation, it is hopeful to see how many have the desire to do better. That means holding organizations to account requires just a few easy steps. 

First, don’t give corporations a free pass. Read sustainability and climate claims with an arched eyebrow, and never assume the work is complete or done. 

Second, let’s develop the tools, networks and information needed to push everyone to do more, faster. 

After all, addressing climate change is not an exercise in semantics.

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