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Terry E.  Cohen headshot

Corporate Executives Reveal Disconnect on Sustainability Progress

By Terry E. Cohen

By the dawn’s early light in California today, Google Cloud released a new survey conducted by The Harris Poll of 1,491 executives in 16 countries who assessed their companies’ sustainability efforts. The survey reflects the good news that 80 percent of respondents rate their companies as above average in their environmental efforts.

However, a real disconnect surfaced when these leaders — vice presidents on up through C‑suites — were asked about quantifying progress on those actions. Only 36 percent stated that tools were in place to measure sustainability impacts, and only 17 percent said the information was being used to optimize implementation.

More than half (58 percent) of these executives believe their own company engages in greenwashing, i.e., claiming that the organization’s products, services or practices are more environmentally beneficial than they are in reality. About two-thirds of them (65 percent) have their hearts in the right place in wanting to achieve greater sustainability, but confessed they really don’t know how to go about doing it.

This is where the sustainably-sourced rubber must hit the road. 

The sense of urgency is rising — along with seas, heat, wildfires and storm severity — given the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealing that carbon emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Numerous countries and regions are advancing regulations and frameworks for targets that must be met, including proposed disclosures by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Why the gap?

Ninety-six percent of the executives in Google Cloud’s study said their organization has at least one sustainability program in place. Most of the executives themselves (86 percent) feel they are making a positive impact. However, 82 percent also wanted more “room” to achieve results from their boards and senior leadership, which includes more information and transparency.

This need for clarity circles back to the executives’ expressed concerns about the lack of tools for measuring progress. Over 90 percent of the surveyed executives believe in the power of technology to help them achieve sustainability goals.

At the same time, however, over a third of them felt that finding the right technology to invest in was a barrier to achieving results. About the same number identified a lack of investment in initiatives, a “relentless focus on growth and profit,” and insufficiently understanding the issue to be additional obstacles.

Information tools for measuring sustainability progress are available

Executives can give themselves a crash course in understanding carbon footprints and measurements with overviews that spell out what terms like “Scope 1 emissions” mean. Information about the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol standards features calculation tools applicable to different countries, industry sectors and more.

Government sites like the U.S. EPA's Center for Corporate Climate Leadership offer abundant information about setting up measurement, reporting and action opportunities. Google Cloud makes its own contribution by way of its Carbon Sense suite of tools, which enables companies to quantify carbon emissions associated with the use of cloud computing.

Corporations can and do share information to help each other, even among competitors. For sectors like large retailers, the measurement pursuit may be more difficult since carbon emissions beyond transport may be hidden in supply chains. Apparel and shoe companies came together in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which promotes the use of the Higg Index suite of technology tools for measuring sustainability across all aspects of design, manufacturing, delivery and operations.

The case for optimism does not reduce urgency

Celebrating progress matters. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, have dropped considerably in price. The rate of carbon emissions growth slowed in the last decade. Innovators race to improve electric batteries and eliminate negative consequences of mining minerals. Consumers want more environmentally-friendly products and packaging from companies that reduce their carbon footprint.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. Coal-burning power investments are up in China and India, and even the U.S. has seen a recent jump in coal use. Oil company executives flat out told Congress they would not cut back on dividends to shareholders or on stock buy-backs made possible by record profits to provide gas inflation relief — which supports the concern of “relentless focus” on profit voiced in the Google Cloud survey.

Numerous opportunities for carbon emission reduction were missed — or more accurately, were not taken. A sick planet translates to illness and death for consumers. Recovering from catastrophes costs far more than risk abatement.

Worldwide, business can’t afford to kick the carbon can down the road any longer.

Image credit: Laura Penwell via Pexels

Terry E.  Cohen headshot

Terry is a U.S.-based writer and editor. With an extensive background in business, government and media, she writes about economic equity for women, public policy, education and efforts to improve environmental impacts.

Read more stories by Terry E. Cohen