Stop Obsessing Over Which Climate Goals are Real vs. Greenwashing, It’s a Distraction

I’m here to make the case for ambitious climate goals, the kind that are taking some heat in online comment sections. If you’re a sustainability professional, you know that LinkedIn has some lively conversations about what companies should, or should not, be doing when it comes to climate goal setting. I’d like to make the case for setting ambitious goals with important pieces of context called out.

Let’s start at the top, the private sector has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to really understanding the climate impacts of the products they make, and we use, every single day. The IPCC has been shouting into the void, releasing annual climate reports that show the scientific consensus and state of our climate meanwhile companies have kept scrolling and worked hard to maximize profits for shareholders. Meanwhile we’ve spent decades pushing the responsibility onto consumers who are obsessing over drinking through soggy straws, sending products to take back programs, and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store (yes, individual actions matter, stay with me).

Over the past ten years a new set of companies—with varying degrees of authenticity—to set and execute against climate goals. They range in timelines (2030-2050) and vary in approach (net zero, carbon neutral, etc). Recently some of the companies who have set climate goals are being shamed and called out for pushing back their original timelines. (Future articles forthcoming about how we seem to be weirdly obsessed with greenwashing, at the risk of losing focus on the real offenders.)

With all this context, here’s what I suggest we do.

Support Brands Who Are Setting Ambitious Goals

A goal is just that, something to aspire to. Let’s not rush to criticize a company if they change their climate goal, let’s help them get there. The latest noise is when Crocs recently pushed back their Net Zero by 2030 goal to 2040, REALLY? This is who we’re going to give heat? We’re in a place of punishing leaders, rather than focusing on the laggards. Sure, many of us see examples where brands sustainability programs start and stop at setting a goal. It’s annoying, but being distracted by that doesn’t really channel our energy where it needs to be: decarbonizing our global economy, and fast.

Focus on Laggards Who Haven’t Set Any Goals

We’re really going to spend all of our time hammering on brands we think are greenwashing rather than pushing laggards to set climate goals and fund programs to support decarbonization? Take a look at oil companies. Major publicly traded and highly carbon intensive industries like the building materials, home goods and fashion industries.

Decarbonizing is Hard, That’s the Point

Brands need to establish goals, hire trained sustainability professionals who know how to do this work, fund and support them, and create company wide incentives to hit the climate goals. Large scale buy in is critical when trying to take action as disruptive as decarbonizing a supply chain and brands need to support the work from the board level, C-Suite, and show junior members of the team why every role is a climate position.

The Real Greenwashers Are Easy to Spot

It’s pretty easy to spot which brands are setting goals and have no intention of doing real work. I usually have red flags when I see a carbon neutral goal and no information other than offsets on their website. Annual reports are part of how companies can show the authenticity of their climate programs. Let the FTC go after the greenwashers, consumers can sniff out who is real and what’s BS quickly.

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