At COP27 in Egypt, the gladhanding, obfuscating corporate climate cadre dominated—over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists plus petrostate diplomats—and the talks ended without a commitment to phasing out fossil fuels. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres spoke a stark truth about corporations: “Net zero commitments can’t be a mere public relations exercise if we want to win the fight against climate change.” Indeed.
We are in the decisive decade for the climate crisis, a race to implement solutions. Governments can’t do it alone. That means it’s also a decisive decade for businesses to lead boldly. But today, most are awash in a sea of green: green dollars in heaps of profits driving inflation, and greenwashing of their measly climate actions. For the sake of the most vulnerable people on the planet, we need to hold companies accountable for profound actions, not empty words.
Our environmental community must stop grading the private sector on a curve, saluting executives who tepidly announce they believe in climate change or put forward vague, insufficiently ambitious plans. It should no longer be a question of whether a company will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, but how quickly and how justly. Environmental justice communities have been elucidating for decades how businesses largely caused the four intertwined crises we face—climate, biodiversity, injustice, and democracy—and made a windfall doing it. Now, they must be accountable for solutions at scale—not just to do less harm, but to do dramatically more good.
The upside? There’s a new model for green capitalism that doesn’t just crack the mold but shatters it—so we can put the pieces of our planet back together. Patagonia, where I serve on the board of directors, has offered up a groundbreaking alternative. They’re making Earth their only shareholder and directing all their profits in perpetuity to climate solutions and environmental protection. The question for other businesses is: Who’s next?
Most corporations won’t follow Patagonia’s new model. But they can all do a lot better, a lot faster. We need nothing less than a wholesale rethinking of what it means for corporations to be environmentally responsible. Individuals are mapping their ability to drive change via climate action Venn diagrams. Businesses similarly need to figure out how to best harness their skills, resources, networks, and dollars towards transformational climate action.
It should no longer be a question of whether a company will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, but how quickly and how justly.
This isn’t about ideology, it’s about math. At least 4.3 trillion dollars need to be deployed annually to move at the scale and speed the climate crisis demands. In that context, even a billion-dollar company like Patagonia distributing all its dividends to protect the planet is a raindrop in the ocean.
What if businesses got creative to unleash funding, political influence, and cultural clout to address our existential environmental challenges? What if corporations were driven not by maximizing quarterly earnings and shareholder profits, but by the question of what it means to be responsible citizens of planet Earth? What might that look like across the global corporate ecosystem?
We should start with three paths every corporation can take.
Most CEOs, boards, and investors already know that addressing climate change is both the right thing for the planet and key for their bottom lines – including protecting resilient supply chains that can’t be wiped out by climate change’s floods and fires. Yet most sit silently while their trade associations and affiliated PACs fund initiatives against climate action. Corporations must sever ties with the lobbyists who are preventing progress, and instead advocate for robust climate policy aligned with their stated climate commitments.
Next, stop the greenwashing. A New Climate Institute report showed that most major companies have little proof so far of concrete actions toward reaching their much-hyped net-zero emissions targets. Many corporations rely far too heavily on carbon offsets, deferring decisions about deep decarbonization far into the future. We can’t plant enough trees to avoid hard choices. There’s no way around it—corporations, and the banks that fund them, must decarbonize and divest from fossil fuels.
Last, companies should use their market influence to drive a dramatic decline in emissions. Imagine the power of a collection of buyers’ clubs: groups of companies that commit to supporting regenerative organic agriculture, using only zero emissions shipping, or purchasing low-carbon building materials. Wealthy companies can make a virtue out of their ability to do big things at scale creating markets for solutions.
Any company can start charging ahead on all three of these fronts right now, can lead by example and bring their sectors along with them. What are they waiting for? COP27 is over—corporate delay, inaction, and greenwashing must be too.