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Corporate Sustainability Goals: Too Scared To Fail?

I wrote a post on Greenmonk this morning adding context to a story about Greenpeace chiding HP for “backsliding” on a commitment to remove PVC and BFR from its electronic equipment this year. The issue being, HP said it never made the such a strong commitment in the first place.

Something has been bothering me all day about this: the danger is that if we slam companies too hard for making sustainability commitments they don’t manage to keep then they might avoid putting forward audacious goals at all. The danger is that environmental reporting goes the way of financial reporting – which is all about managing analyst expectations rather than truly reflecting the state of the business. Be conservative about the numbers so you can beat them- that’s the GE Way. But massaging figures to look good has a rather more unpleasant corollary- fraud.

We’re already effectively defrauding the planet by not accounting for environmental damage and degradation on our balance sheets. If environmentalism is reduced to a PR-driven quarter over quarter “continuous improvement” then we’re really screwed. Of course we should hold public statements by companies and governments up to scrutiny, but we should rate organisations on what they do than rather than on what they say.

Greenpeace may see things differently – thus Apple was applauded this quarter for a new advert about “the green credentials of its Macbook“, whereas others might just call greenwash! (especially given Greenpeace is historically quite critical of Apple).

I want to see the likes of HP make big bold predictions about sustainability. Without big goals after all we won’t make progress. Its important we don’t stymie debates by making corporations too scared to fail. Sustainability is going to have some switchbacks. Progress is never linear. Corporations need to be able to discuss sustainability goals in public without being completely slammed for not meeting them. Once again- lets not make the mistakes of financial reporting.

Categories: sustainability.

Comment Feed

11 Responses

  1. Corporate Sustainability Goals: Too Scared To Fail http://bit.ly/1i9enE [pimp post]
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. James I agree that we must give companies a chance to succeed without feeling they will be hammered if they miss the targets they set themselves. However companies must set targets and they must be realistic just like the financial reporting. A company would not forecast profit performance if they where not sure that they could get close or exceed market expectations. Companies need to view environmental reporting the same.
    I often review statements by organisations who say they are committing to doing certain actions, but what does “committing “ mean, is it lip service because they must be seen to be doing something. By committing should we give such organisations a tick or a cross in the box? One very large organisation I had a meeting with recently impressed me with their honesty, they do not make statements about commitments, they only state what they have done. I believe we need to support companies and help them feel free to set good targets and get away from all the green wash commitment that is still very much used my many.

  3. James Governor’s Monkchips » Corporate Sustainability Goals: Too Scared To Fail?: I wrote a post on .. http://tinyurl.com/c6eqrk
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  4. Shoot for the moon? “The danger is that environmental reporting goes the way of financial reporting” via http://bit.ly/1i9enE
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. Critical observation “Corporate sustainability goals: Risk of backlash” Obama’s got same problem!? @exectweets @timoreilly http://ow.ly/2fR5
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  6. Hi James,

    It is a valid point that companies should continue to set ambitious commitments/goals, but of course meeting these by company action is the highest priority. Over on Greenmonk I posted some background to our electronics campaign and HP. Rather than repeat these points here:

    http://greenmonk.net/hp-claims-greenpeace-critique-unfair/#comment-5058

    I’ll address why we specifically focused on several PC companies who have announced or simply dropped targets for removing hazardous substance by end 2009.

    Of PC makers, Apple has very nearly completed the phase out of toxic BFRs and PVC. They have proved it is technically possible and achievable given enough priority in the company. Other PC makers might sell very different products for different prices than Apple but the same suppliers make PC’s for Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Acer.

    HP has the least products of the PC makers with even reduced amounts of hazardous substances so we consider them to be furthest behind phasing out these substances.

    When companies make commitments/set goals that go beyond legal minimum requirements, which is a key part of Greenpeace’s campaign on electronics, it’s essential that companies meeting these targets are recognized and those that fail to meet targets that their competitor have reached are singled out.

    The success of much corporate campaigning depends on pushing companies to take progressive measures beyond the legal minimum and then use the leverage of these progressive companies to ensure governments raise the requirements of legislation.

    It’s a complex area, but in summary – In an ideal world that should not be the way environmental standards are improved but right now we see it as the best approach to counter the many forces that continually push for weakening of environmental legislation.

    Specifically on HP – when you are significantly behind the progress of others in the industry it’s time to really step up your efforts.

    Tom Dowdall,
    Greenpeace International

  7. is feeling impressed by Greenpeace engagement with, and commentary on, his posts yesterday http://bit.ly/1i9enE http://bit.ly/aeI
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  8. James,
    Great points. The iron is certainly hot on green topics such as these. This may be our(consumers) best opportunity to demand our vendors pony up with greener products and solutions. With economic challenges and considerable focus on green, vendors can be persuaded more than ever to be accountable. No one wants to lose business because they aren’t doing their part.
    Some are ahead of the game, some are very much behind.
    I agree that any commitment is better than none, but much like being fraudulent in misreporting financial statements, corporations should be held accountable in misrepresenting their sustainability. It can be argued it is as much as our (the consumer) responsibility to demand more accountability for sustainable options as it is for the vendor or firm to present them.

  9. Keir – well said on all accounts. this is a pivotal moment, and we need to demand change. we may have voted for change, but we need to push for more of it.

    James GovernorApril 16, 2009 @ 7:41 pmReply
  10. James,
    I agree with you points. Companies need to set goals, but as it has already been stated they need to make sure that these are goals that are within the company’s reach. I will go along with you as well that they need to make some “grand” goals, but they should follow up with more short-term goals that are linked together and provide a fairly solid path to reach the ultimate “grand” goal that was stated to begin with.

    David LemmingFebruary 21, 2010 @ 4:25 pmReply



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] compromise product performance or quality and will not adversely impact health or the environment  James Governor had this to say about the whole affair: I want to see the likes of HP make big bold predictions […]