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Companies aren’t showing whether their environmental promises have any impact

A lot of companies that have pledged to restore ecosystems aren’t showing results, according to a new analysis of 100 of the world’s biggest businesses. They might have promised to plant trees and help dwindling forests gain more ground, but many of those companies have made vague commitments and aren’t sharing enough information to track their progress.

There’s so little transparency that it’s virtually impossible to know whether companies’ environmental commitments are having any positive impact. “Put simply, the evidence base supporting large corporations’ claims about ecosystem restoration is wholly insufficient,” says the analysis published today in the journal Science.

There’s so little transparency that it’s virtually impossible to know whether companies’ environmental commitments are having any positive impact

The analysis includes the top 10 companies by revenue across 10 different sectors, based on the 2021 Forbes Global 500 list. Those industries range from Big Tech to other consumer goods, healthcare, energy, and utilities. Two-thirds of those companies say they’re involved in some kind of ecosystem restoration.

But it’s hard to see how successful those efforts are without more information, according to the analysis. More than 90 percent of the companies failed to report a single ecological outcome from their restoration initiatives, like whether it led to more tree canopy cover or greater diversity in animal and plant populations. On top of that, none of the companies reported on how their restoration work affected nearby communities when it came to social or economic impacts.

The analysis is based on sustainability reports the researchers were able to pull from company websites in 2022. They used 11 different criteria, including how clear a company’s commitments were to begin with. If a company doesn’t share how much money goes into its restoration projects or define the spatial scope of a project in terms of area covered or trees planted, for example, those are bad signs. Close to 80 percent of companies provided no information about financial costs, and a third of them didn’t even share the size of their restoration projects.

The analysis also takes into account how well the company monitors progress and shares results. Ideally, a company should have specific, measurable environmental goals and a timeline for lasting impact. The authors also focus on how well companies engage with local stakeholders near their projects. That way, they should be able to disclose how much impact these projects have had when it comes to supporting a healthy environment and empowering nearby communities.

None of the 10 information technology companies included in the analysis aced all these tests. Microsoft comes the closest, ticking nine of 11 boxes. But it still got dinged for not reporting how much money it invested in its ecosystem restoration projects or reporting any socioeconomic benefits those projects had outside of environmental outcomes. Microsoft declined to comment on the analysis.

The company has pledged “to permanently protect more land than we use by 2025.” It also plans to remove more planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits and replenish more water than it uses by 2030. Planting trees and restoring wetlands are part of meeting those goals.

Even so, Microsoft’s greenhouse gas emissions stayed relatively flat between 2021 and 2022, while its water consumption jumped by about 34 percent as business grew. And companies are increasingly under scrutiny for hyping up their environmental commitments even as they continue to produce more pollution or guzzle up water in drought-prone regions.

Timothy Lamont, the lead author of the paper published today and a marine biologist studying coral reef restoration at Lancaster University, hopes the analysis pushes companies to share more information publicly. On top of that, he says, policymakers can craft guidelines for how companies ought to disclose the impact their environmental pledges have.

“If [businesses] can get this right then they could make a really meaningful, positive difference,” Lamont tells The Verge.

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