After a wave of climate activism hit a peak in 2019, with protests and walkouts around the world, companies scrambled to demonstrate their commitment to change. Many began sharing data about carbon emissions. Corporate pledges for change emerged, including carbon-neutral vows from Delta Air Lines and BP, among others. Microsoft and Ikea said they’d go a step further and become carbon-negative over 10 years.

In July, P&G became one of the latest major organizations to set a big goal for its climate impact: to be carbon neutral by 2030, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and purchasing 100% renewable electricity for all manufacturing sites. The effort includes plans to make investments in climate preservation projects, with the help of partners Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund. Signal 360 asked Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan to talk about business and climate change, with a particular focus on what’s known as “greenwashing” and how companies can move beyond “carbon neutral” to become “climate positive.”

What role does business play in sustainability, and how does Conservation International work with leading organizations on sustainability issues?

Everything we buy, we consume, we use, ultimately comes from and has an impact on nature. Smart companies know that the natural capital that their operations rely on — whether it’s fresh water, rich soils, or even stable climate — are at risk if they don’t protect nature. Moreover, they know that consumers are demanding this, as is their young, informed workforce. What we do is help companies protect, restore, and improve the management of nature to reduce their impact. It is no longer enough to do no harm. We must now actually work towards a net positive outcome for nature.

Greenwashing — climate change announcements with no follow-through — is all too common. How can you tell when companies are serious about sustainability? 

Frankly, today, most reputable companies would not dare greenwash. Consumers are far more informed, watchful and vocal and of course more skeptical. This is a good thing and it sets a high bar. The most important thing companies can do to avoid the perception of greenwashing is to be transparent and realistically ambitious. Of course, greenwashing still happens but most CEOs I have the opportunity to meet seem sincere in their commitments – and their kids or grandkids are watching their actions closely, too.

Businesses should be good corporate citizens, but can they also “do well” by doing good? How do you talk about the profit motive in sustainability?

Doing good and doing well are now one and the same. When a business can accurately account for its risks and its reliance on nature and the climate, it can make better decisions. A 2018 study by Conservation International found that many of the world’s largest companies did not report the risks that climate change posed to their business. Climate change stands to devastate their balance sheets if they don’t start paying attention. If that’s not an incentive toward sustainability, I don’t know what is.

P&G turned to Conservation International for help in selecting projects to fund in natural climate solutions. What was the thinking behind the ones you recommended to them?

Recently, scientists at Conservation International published research that identified areas containing high concentrations of carbon in their soils and vegetation. If these areas were lost to agriculture or burned, for example, that carbon would essentially be “lost” for good, emitted into the atmosphere where it would contribute to global warming. This research created what amounts to a “treasure map” for carbon, and that’s how we will help P&G select projects. We also look for what we call co-benefits, projects that also provide benefits for wildlife and local communities.

How does P&G’s plan to be carbon neutral stack up compared to other major global companies? What more could they do/what do you hope to see next from P&G?  

Given their size, scale and market share, anything that P&G does in this arena is going to have an impact on the planet and their leadership sends a strong signal to others. P&G have ably focused their efforts on the environmental footprint of their operations globally. The next step – and of course it’s a huge step — is to fully understand and address the impacts created by how their products are used by consumers. This is much more difficult, and it’s something that all consumer product companies are grappling with.

Beyond investments in natural climate solutions, what are some ways businesses can do better for the environment, up and down the organization?

Investing in the protection of nature as a bulwark against climate change is critical — but it doesn’t stop there. Businesses must get a full picture of their reliance, and their impacts, on nature for the services it provides to them. In the case of a soft-drink company, for example, that would be to ensure access to a sustainable supply of freshwater that can be resilient to climate effects. And finally, businesses have access to a huge customer base and have an obligation to lead their base — educate them — to protect our planet. 

If you could wave a magic wand, what would be the one thing you wish every large corporation would do for the environment?  

Grow their business not only in a climate-neutral way but also in a nature-positive and climate-positive way. Tie their team, their workforce, and their access to customers to the major challenges facing our planet. If it were up to me, companies would build sustainability into every aspect of their operations and their products, top to bottom, and fully mobilize their customer base on the most important challenge of our time: living on a living planet.