Sustainable Living

Many Corporations Are Announcing Sustainability Initiatives—But How Can We Hold Them Accountable?

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images/staticnak1983
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The growing awareness of the imminent threat of the climate emergency (in conjunction with the power of social media), renders it nearly impossible for major corporations to inflict environmental harm without being called out on it. And in recent years, many businesses—like Apple and Amazon and Walmart, to name a small few—have announced sweeping commitments to decrease their eco-footprint. It can't be proven whether fear of disgrace (and associated lost profit) or an earnest desire to advocate for sustainability has guided these initiatives. But even still, being able to gauge whether such efforts are actually meaningful or just hollow marketing ploys can be difficult for conscientious consumers to decipher. So, how can we make sure brands are staying accountable to their climate-change initiatives?

Unfortunately, this is not always an easy mission. According to Kevin Moss, Global Director of the Center for Sustainable Business at the World Resources Institute, no outside organization or government is checking companies' climate-initiative work, which means that if you want to find out if they're making good on their promises, you have to do quite a bit of legwork. And even then, the data you might collect may be largely reliant on an unreliable narrator: the company itself.

But there are several strategies for cross-checking a company's promises against its performance. Below, Moss breaks down how to do your research and hold companies accountable for their climate-change pledges.

Get to know two organizations compiling databases that detail corporate climate action

1. Carbon Disclosure Project

For about the past 10 years, says Moss, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has been asking companies to report their carbon emissions through a standardized format. "I wouldn't expect a consumer to actually want to go and read a company's carbon emissions report, but the fact that [companies] report it or decide not to is an important indicator of how seriously they take this," he says. "Once they report it, people like us and Greenpeace and others can go and look at the reports, so it's significant that they're willing to be transparent."

If you're curious as to whether or not a company you support reports, you can find out via this search tool. (FYI: Amazon has not submitted, but Walmart and Target have, and Apple gets an "A" for its climate change efforts. Also, an "F" score is typically given to those who don't report.)

2. Science Based Targets

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a program run by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Wide Fund for Nature, the CDP, and the UN Global Compact. It evaluates whether companies' environmental ambitions will help meet the needs of the Paris Agreement. (The Paris Agreement is a 2015 commitment signed by 196 parties promising to do their part to help keep global warming below a 3.6°F or, more ideally, a 2.7°F increase.) The program is only a couple of years old, but currently there are more than 1,300 corporations involved. "There are more companies joining every week," says Moss.

You can easily search the site to see if a company is working with SBTi; however, it only tells you whether the company's plans would be sufficient in helping the world meet its Paris Agreement goals, not whether or not it's actually reduced its footprint enough to do so.

The next step for SBTi is to work with the CDP to identify whether or not a company is on track to meet its validated targets. "Those targets tend to be five- to 10-year targets, though," says Moss. "So you won't know [immediately] if they've met them, but you'll know whether they're on track to meet them."

Create your own personal accountability metrics

There are ways to evaluate companies that don't require trudging through data-heavy reports. Below, Moss shares criteria to consider.

1. Is the company innovating its core business?

Consider whether the company's environmental plan involves continuing to do what it does today, but a bit better (in terms of the environment), or whether it's actually changing the way it does business—because the latter is generally more meaningful. "I think it's innovative that Walmart and Nordstrom are bringing in [secondhand clothing retailer] ThredUp," he says. "Traditionally, I walk into a Walmart or Nordstrom and 100 percent of my money is spent on buying something new. The idea of starting to explore business models where you resell something somebody's previously owned? That's disruptive."

"The idea of starting to explore business models where you resell something somebody's previously owned? That's disruptive." —Kevin Moss, Global Director of the Center for Sustainable Business

Ikea is similarly experimenting with repairing and reselling its furniture, which Moss says isn't "technically innovative, but it's operationally innovative." Pepsi's acquisition of SodaStream, a personal soda machine that requires no single-use containers, is another example, he says, of a company innovating rather than bandaging. "A lot of companies are doing things like light-weighting their packaging. I don't think that's innovative—it's just a little less bad," he says. But with the SodaStream acquisition, says Moss, Pepsi is actually helping to eliminate packaging. "That, to me, is disruptive," he says. Beauty company Lush, he adds, has likewise innovated to eliminate packaging through its shampoo and shower gel bar soaps. (Other companies, like Ethnique, Meow Meow Tweet, and Peach are doing this as well.)

Ultimately, Moss says, companies have to come up with new, creative ways to make money that have a lower environmental impact than selling new products—e.g. charging for repair and redesign services, reselling something previously owned, or eliminating packaging altogether. And for this to be effective, change has to happen at the core of the business. For example, he says, a retailer can't just put electric vehicles into its fleet and call it a day, because that doesn't disrupt its (environmentally detrimental) business, but rather enables it. "If you're an automotive company, saying your fleet is going to go 50 percent [electric vehicles] in five years, that's disruptive, because it's your core business," says Moss.

Moss considers this electric vehicle example disruptive only if the electric cars are replacing a portion of non-electric vehicles, not adding to them. So when evaluating a company, consider whether it's just trying to get you to buy more of whatever it's selling, or if it's actually changing its business model to significantly decrease impact over time.

2. How is the company using the power of its brand?

Brands have power, so consider how they wield it regarding environmental issues. As an example, Moss points to a Patagonia Black Friday campaign, which urged consumers to not buy one of its jackets. The idea behind the ad was to encourage consumers to think before they bought that holiday season. "It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy," the company's statement reads. "To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways."

The Dutch airline KLM tried a similar tactic. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, it ran an ad encouraging consumers to take a train instead of fly. Moss admits you could look at these tactics through a cynical lens (are they really trying to dissuade customers from consumption, or are they just trying to attract conscientious consumers?), but he holds that both stand as good examples of brands utilizing their power to, at the very least, create conversation around change.

3. Who is the company lobbying?

Companies also have a lot of potential political power through lobbying efforts, because lobbying influences government action and (inaction). It's not always easy to discern what a company you support is lobbying for, however. One tool Moss suggests may help is Influence Map, a platform that grades companies and trade associations on its lobbying impact, but it has yet to cover many companies. Beyond that, he adds, all you can really do is a lot of research—into what the company itself is lobbying and into what the trade associations to which the company belongs are lobbying.

4. Shift your focus

"What's important to think about is what we buy and how much energy it uses, and if there are ways of buying differently or buying less," Moss says. "That's the most impact a consumer can have."

For example, he says, if everyone were to buy a Tesla, the demand for gas would wane. The gas pumps at stations would be replaced with chargers. Creating that shift is a shared responsibility between the consumer, the automakers, and the governments, which can offer incentives and mandates for making the switch.

This idea harkens back to what Moss considers to be WRI's guiding principle, which is that there needs to be a systemic approach to the climate crisis. The responsibility isn't just with the government, or just with companies, or just with consumers—it's on us all. "We're all a part of the system that leads companies to make what they make," he says. So, it's important not just to hold companies accountable, but yourself, too.

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