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Report: Executives fear greenwashing and the economy will stall sustainability progress

April 12, 2023
Justin Keeble

Managing Director for Global Sustainability

Why sustainability is facing a data crisis

Sustainability is a critical corporate issue, touching everything from climate change and clean air, to regulatory compliance and brand integrity.

Now, a global survey shows a new hazard: failure to execute. The second annual sustainability survey, conducted by The Harris Poll and sponsored by Google Cloud, surveyed 1,476 top-level executives in 16 countries. The inability to execute, pressured by fewer resources, threatens to compound previous risks, unless executives take the appropriate steps. These include greater accountability, better measurement and management, and well-defined leadership.

Executives struggle to prioritize ESG amid economic conditions 

The research shows that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts have fallen from the No. 1 organizational priority in 2022 to No. 3 in 2023. Many executives point to the macroeconomic environment and pressure from external parties to cut corners in their sustainability initiatives and prioritize optimizing client relationships and driving revenue.  

But looking at sustainability as a short-term cost instead of a long-term investment is a missed opportunity. The vast majority (85%) of executives acknowledge customers are more likely to engage and do business with sustainable brands, but 78% are now forced to achieve sustainability results on less money than before. The motivation is there, with 72% of respondents saying, "Everyone says they want to advance sustainability efforts, but no one knows how to actually do it” — an increase of seven percentage points from last year. With better measurement, clear decision-making and some creativity, companies can better position themselves to progress on their sustainability and business goals.  

View and download the full infographic here.

Overcoming accidental greenwashing with measurement 

Corporate greenwashing and green hypocrisy remained pervasive concerns among this year’s respondents, with nearly six out of 10 executives (59%) admitting to overstating — or inaccurately representing — their sustainability activities. 

Many believe greenwashing is accidental and underscores the need for accurate measurement, identifying a lack of tools as one of the biggest barriers to true progress. Executives are eager for better systems to track their progress, with 87% of respondents looking to incorporate better measurement into their organizations to help make more accurate targets. Measurement is critical. But coupling accurate measurement tools with more ambitious targets is where we believe there is untapped opportunity.

Driving change in internal structure 

In addition to accurate data, achieving an organization’s sustainability goals requires strong internal teams and structure. The research shows that many executives are also grappling with complex behind-the-scenes logistics of who makes sustainability-related decisions within their company. Most executives (84%) believe their sustainability initiatives would be more effective if they had a better structure with clear accountability. But what does “better” look like? 

Many believe greenwashing is accidental and underscores the need for accurate measurement, identifying a lack of tools as one of the biggest barriers to true progress.

Executives believe having a dedicated leader who would govern sustainability initiatives is the number one action to help advance sustainability efforts. Coupled with strong leadership, 83% believe agile team structures will help them achieve their goals. 

Continuing to build a sustainable future 

Despite headwinds, there’s reason to be optimistic that organizations will continue to operationalize and prioritize sustainability. Nearly all companies (96%) have at least one program in place to advance their sustainability initiatives, and participation in programs remains mostly unchanged from 2022. Interest in organizational sustainability also remains strong, with 84% of respondents saying they care more about sustainability than before. 

Google Cloud continues to help its customers achieve their sustainability goals and push for more, together. We provide tools to help customers decarbonize their digital apps and services, increase their business’ resilience to climate change, and improve ESG measurement and better visibility of impacts in value chains. Check out more sustainability content from Google Cloud on our blog and website.

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