According to a recent survey discussed in Global Executives Say Greenwashing Remains Rife, in the WSJ, executives think greenwashing is widespread: almost “three-quarters of executives said most organizations in their industry would be caught greenwashing if they were investigated thoroughly.” Moreover, almost “60% say their own organization is overstating its sustainability methods.” However, the article suggests, although some companies may be intentionally overstating their progress, for the most part, the greenwashing is more benign: companies set their sustainability goals but didn’t have a “concrete plan” to achieve them or reliable data to measure them. At least that’s the view of some commentators cited in the article: “There are actors that are maybe intentionally overstating what they’re doing, but I honestly think for the most part, companies are sincere—they’ve set their goals, they’re working towards them, but they don’t always have the data to be transparent.” 

The survey was conducted in January by the Harris Poll and included almost 1,500 executives across 17 countries and seven industries.

According to the survey, 85% of executives believe that “customers and clients are becoming more vocal about their preference for engaging with sustainable brands,” creating more impetus for sustainability initiatives.  By the same token, these external influences also create more pressure for greenwashing. The article reports that the risks related to greenwashing are increasing, with the threat of potential “crackdowns.” (See, also, this article.)

The survey provides some indication of companies’ assessment of their progress on sustainability.  Six percent said that they haven’t even started on a plan and another 9% are just thinking about it (“planning to plan”). About 27% are developing their sustainability programs, 22% are implementing their plans, “another 22% are able to measure its impact, and 14% are in the final stage of optimizing their plan based on measured outcomes.”

Interestingly, almost three-quarters of executives surveyed indicated that they wanted to move their sustainability efforts forward “but don’t actually know how to go about doing it.”  The WSJ identified as key tools to advance their efforts “having a dedicated sustainability leader, support from senior management, advanced measurement tools, and education for employees and executives. And the two main ways they expect advancement is through technology innovation as well as investment in sustainable operations or services.” A commentator cited in the article agreed that “strong governance powered by good data and metrics” were important factors, along with “a dedicated sustainability leader to be the center of gravity but one who can also embed sustainability inside business functions.”

When asked about their top organizational priorities, 61% of executives identified their ESG efforts, compared with 64% last year—among the top three in both years.  The article attributes the slight decline this year to the impact of economic uncertainty, which has led executives to focus more on traditional financial metrics, such as customers, revenue and growth. Economic conditions were also affecting funding for sustainability initiatives. According to the survey, two-thirds of executives reported “having to cut corners on sustainability initiatives and 45% said the economy is negatively affecting their organizations’ sustainability efforts.” 

Posted by Cydney Posner