The growth of sustainability has been nothing short of spectacular but some question the depth of the engagement. Some cynics dismiss it altogether saying sustainability amounts to little more than a public relations exercise. Sustainability is no longer a niche project it is now a mainstream phenomenon.
Sustainability has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. This is the finding in a survey by Fundação Dom Cabral . This study and many like it point to explosive growth. We have come so far so quickly. Five years ago sustainability was virtually nonexistent, since then sustainability has grown exponentially.
Companies with a CEO led sustainability agenda increased by 27 percent in only 2 years (51% in 2014 compared to 78% in 2016). In the same 24 month period companies where the Board of Directors control sustainability programs increased by 13 percent (51% in 2014 compared to 63% in 2016).
Sustainability is often criticized for being a talking point with little practical effect. This is because some corporations laud sustainability in public yet give it tertiary consideration when it comes to their strategic priorities. This is the implied conclusion of the Cabral survey. The survey of 465 executives suggests that those who are engaged in sustainability are on-board to enhance efficiency and reduce costs.
Making sustainability claims without environmental and social initiatives is greenwashing. A linkedIn question from Nigel Howard, Principal at Clarity Environment asked a prescient question: “Are Sustainability Professionals Making Life too Easy for Greenwash to Succeed?” In response, Eric Truelove, PE, GGA, LEED AP BD+C said, “Yes, greenwash has become far too common. Our biggest problem has come from the energy modeling community which has become expert at releasing bogus models that get certification points, but not actual energy savings.”
In response to Howard’s question Matthew Bittenbender, owner of Toxic free Clothing said:
“While greenwashing can happen to a sustainability practice, it depends on the individual motives and culture of the company. There are many that will capitalize off of the movement claiming they have the answers, products, etc., at a premium, price. What they deliver will make all the difference in the world to the sustainability as a practice. Anyone can sell snake oil and cheap the entire discipline. Not everyone can move the needle forward. There will always be exploiters.”
Despite a disquieting level of hypocrisy, some corporations are putting
their money where their mouths are. These firms are serious about
sustainability and ultimately their own survival. The realization is inescapable, sustainability is an imperative and corporations will live and die by the decisions they make.
A 2015 CPS Climate Change Report found that 90 percent of the almost two thousand companies surveyed are working on measurable efforts to decrease their carbon emissions. An even larger percentage of these companies had a member of their board of directors or senior management dedicated to working on climate change. Three-quarters of the companies surveyed offer incentives for improving climate performance. These efforts are more than just talk, they have contributed to a two-fold increase in GHG reductions over the last five years.
Business leaders are standing up for the environment and climate action and they are openly opposing Trump. They urged him not to quit the Paris Agreement and they condemned him when he did. “Sustainability has to start by being a personal motivation and
mission,” Bittenbender says. Led by passionate CEO’s, businesses are
doing more than just talking about climate change they are acting in ever increasing numbers.
Companies like Mars, Patagonia, and Unilever are showing leadership through tangible, measurable actions. They are setting science-based emissions-reduction targets and scrutinizing every detail of their operations and extending that effort outward to leverage their supply chains.
Led by the vanguard of the next generation of CEO’s, businesses are
doing more than just talking about sustainability they are acting in ever increasing numbers. To be a truly relevant guiding principle sustainability must be championed by the leadership. “Sustainability has to start by being a personal motivation and
mission,” Bittenbender says.
While greenwashing is undeniably rampant, the fact that a growing number of businesses are doing more than just talking, squarely refutes allegations that sustainability is a hollow vessel.