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68% of U.S. execs admit their companies are guilty of greenwashing

And two-thirds of executives globally questioned whether their company’s sustainability efforts were genuine.

68% of U.S. execs admit their companies are guilty of greenwashing
[Photos: Richard Wahlstrom/Getty Images, Patrick Hendry/Unsplash]

In a new survey of 1,491 executives across different industries around the world, CEOs and other C-suite leaders said that sustainability was a priority. But 58% also admitted that their companies were guilty of greenwashing; among leaders in the U.S., that figure rose to 68%. And two-thirds of executives globally questioned whether their company’s sustainability efforts were genuine.

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The anonymous survey, conducted by the Harris Poll for Google Cloud with executives primarily at companies with more than 500 employees, has mixed messages: 80% of executives gave their companies an “above-average” rating for environmental sustainability. The majority of leaders both at large corporations and startups said that sustainability is a priority for them; 93% said that they’d be willing to tie their compensation to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals, or already do. But 65% said that while they wanted to make progress on sustainability efforts, they didn’t actually know how to do that.

Measuring progress is one challenge—only 36% of executives said that their companies had measurement tools in place to track their sustainability efforts. (Google Cloud, which builds some of those tools itself, did the survey in part to better understand what its customers need.) Only 17% of respondents said that they’re using data from measurement tools to optimize their sustainability strategies. That’s likely to change as regulations do, at least for climate-related data. In the U.S., a proposed SEC rule would make it mandatory for companies to report climate emissions, along with their climate risk, for the first time. The U.K. already has a similar new requirement in place.

The survey results about greenwashing echo some outside analyses. The NewClimate Institute, a nonprofit, recently assessed 25 large companies with goals to reach net zero emissions, and found that they were exaggerating their progress and on track to reduce their emissions by only 40%, not 100%. (Some of the companies argue that the report’s methodology was flawed.) A new UN panel will also study corporate net zero plans to understand how much is greenwashing, and to issue new recommendations for how to set credible net zero goals. Some regulators are also stepping up enforcement of misleading claims. In the U.K., the number of ads banned for greenwashing tripled in the last year. The European Commission is now considering new regulations that would ban vague environmental claims that can’t be proven, along with other misleading claims.

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It’s obviously not just a problem of misleading consumers: If companies can’t get their sustainability efforts right, it’s a global threat. “We have less than a decade to slash around half of global emissions if we want a livable future,” says Anusha Narayanan, a climate campaign director at Greenpeace USA. “The good news is that the UN’s most recent climate report shows that we have the solutions needed to do it. However, greenwashing and climate misinformation are taking resources away from real climate solutions and undermining the efforts of scientists and experts. Any more delays will be catastrophic.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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