A new survey might be the first indication that economic woes are casting clouds over the push for climate action

The prospect of an economic downturn is putting pressure on companies to do more with less when it comes to sustainability efforts.
Mike Kemp - In Pictures - Getty Images

It’s clear there has never been a more critical time for us to address climate issues. The latest report from the United Nations’ IPCC highlights that we’re not on track to meet our goal of limiting the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the early 2030s.

Despite landmark corporate sustainability commitments and progress in recent years, it’s difficult to maintain momentum while navigating economic headwinds. More than two-thirds (78%) of executives say the uncertain economic climate is forcing their organization to produce better sustainability results with less funds–and almost half (45%)  believe the current economic climate is regressing sustainability efforts, according to a recent global survey of nearly 1,500 C-suite executives conducted by The Harris Poll for Google Cloud. The survey is one of the first indications that current economic headwinds are having an impact on corporate sustainability initiatives.

Executives understand that sustainability is now fundamental and key to long-term growth. In fact, 85% say they notice that consumers and clients are more vocal about their preference to engage with sustainable brands. We see that from Google Search trends as well: worldwide, searches for electric vehicles reached an all-time high in March 2022. In the U.S. specifically, search interest in sustainable transportation reached a 10-year high at the end of 2022.

Businesses are facing an inflection point. While there are many unprecedented challenges they are facing, it’s more important than ever to prioritize building a sustainable company. One that balances doing good with doing well, and that integrates sustainability throughout the organization.

However, business leaders are at a loss for what to do next, with 72% stating that they want to advance sustainability efforts, but don’t know how to actually do it. This level of uncertainty is up 7% from the same survey conducted last year.

Having been a chief sustainability officer for nearly a decade in both the public and private sectors, I have seen many different approaches to sustainability. Well-defined leadership, better data and measurement, and an agile approach are key to any action toward these goals. Here are three key ways to do that:

  • Establish a dedicated leader responsible for alignment. 84% of respondents agreed that their “organization’s sustainability initiatives would be more effective if there was a better structure with accountability.” A dedicated leader to govern sustainability initiatives was the top suggestion on how to advance efforts.
  • Embed sustainability within the business units. Climate leadership should start from the top down, but ambitious climate goals are not achievable if sustainability is siloed into a single department. Prioritizing an agile approach will facilitate making rapid, impactful headway against climate change.
  • Institute clear governance models supported and enabled by data and metrics.  We also discovered that although nine in 10 organizations are talking publicly about sustainability commitments, only 22% are measuring their progress against targets. Measurement not only provides a way to track progress and prove the impact of sustainability efforts, but it also helps companies to avoid greenwashing–a major concern for executives, with 59% of respondents saying green hypocrisy exists. 87% wish their organization had better tools to measure sustainability efforts to make more accurate targets. To help address it, technology and operational investment are recognized as top pathways to a sustainable future.

In our third decade of climate action at Google, we continue to seek out ways to operate our business more sustainably. 

In 2017, we became the first major company to match 100% of our annual electricity use with renewable energy, which we’ve achieved every year since. Today, we’re pursuing net-zero emissions across our operations and value chain by 2030, supported by an ambitious clean energy goal to be the first company to run all our data centers and office campuses on 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE). In 2021, we matched 66% of our data center electricity use with regional carbon-free sources, on an hourly basis, and five of our data centers operated at or near 90% CFE. Our carbon-intelligent computing helps us reduce emissions by shifting moveable compute tasks between different data centers, based on regional hourly CFE availability. 

While we’re committed to reaching our goals, we also recognize the importance of collaborating with our customers and partners to help them meet theirs–our impact is far greater when we work together. We’re transparent about our environmental impact, and we’ve created a suite of products so customers can accurately measure, report, and reduce their cloud carbon emissions with recommendations for carbon reduction actions. 

Despite the headwinds, there’s reason to stay optimistic: 84% of executives say they now care more about sustainability than before. By working together, staying focused, and leveraging innovative technology, we can open up even bigger opportunities to create a more sustainable future.

Kate Brandt is Google’s chief sustainability officer.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion