Google survey finds execs downgrading sustainability, lying about ESG

13 04 2023

Photo: Shutterstock

By Emma Chervek | Reporter | • Reposted: April 14, 2023

Corporate sustainability isn’t as important to top-level executives as it was a year ago, according to the results of Google Cloud‘s latest Sustainability Survey.

The new research found global executives place environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts as their third most important business priority. That represents a change from last year’s survey, which identified ESG as executives’ No. 1 organizational concern.

This increasingly common view of sustainability as a short-term cost rather than a long-term investment is being driven in part by the way today’s macroeconomic environment is forcing organizations to make sustainability progress with fewer capital resources, which was cited by 78% of respondents.

Justin Keeble, Google Cloud’s managing director for global sustainability, told a group of reporters that even though sustainability dropped in prioritization, executives are still “interested in moving the needle, which is great. But there are new pressures,” he said. “In particular and, of course, economic headwinds, but we’re also seeing challenges around measurement and skill building and some of the implementation challenges that come from having to deliver on the big, ambitious goals that organizations have set,” Keeble explained.

Speaking of ambitious goals, the survey found a majority (59%) of global executives admit they overstate or inaccurately represent their organization’s sustainability efforts. Google Cloud describes this “pervasive concern” as “corporate greenwashing” or “green hypocrisy,” and the research found most executives view this hypocrisy as accidental.

The survey also revealed nearly 75% of executives agree a majority of companies in their industry would be caught greenwashing if they were “thoroughly investigated,” which further highlights the popularity of this tactic.

However, executives identified a lack of sustainability tools as their main barrier to ESG progress, with 87% searching for better measurement systems to help set accurate and reasonable targets.

Chris Talbott, who leads sustainability at Google Cloud, added that because “executives don’t have the insights related to sustainability efforts at their fingertips,” they find themselves “in a precarious position with so much pressure to talk publicly about sustainability efforts.”

Moving past greenwashing

Sustainability continues to be about transforming the business, Keeble argued. “Companies that are taking this agenda seriously aren’t wavering in the face of economic headwinds. They see the imperative to rotate their businesses to more sustainable models, to drive efficiency by doing more with less and building resilience in their operations, in their supply chains,” he said.

To that point, he sees sustainable business as “much more than a PR exercise” or a way to boost brand reputation. And during these tougher times, “you get to see who’s serious about this agenda versus who’s paying lip service,” he noted.

Sustainability also needs a greater focus on its business benefits and value. In light of the budget trimming rippling across most industries, the situation presents an opportunity to bring clarity to strategic areas of investment that make good business sense, like dedicating resources to sustainability-driven technology and innovation, he explained.

Sustainability programs help organizations identify inefficiencies in material or energy use, manage broader risk sets like acute climate risks and provide transparency to stakeholders while working toward environmental goals.

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