Tackling greenwashing with cloud technology

In this guest post, Justin Keeble, managing director for global sustainability at public cloud giant Google Cloud, sets out why – in the current technology landscape – companies should not be resorting to greenwashing to artificially inflate their environmental standing

Greenwashing is a murky business. In the wake of last year’s COP 26 conference, businesses large and small have been held to a new wave of sustainability standards, and some have acted unethically to stay afloat.

In the UK alone, a number of regulatory bodies moved to hold businesses to account last year, with the likes of the Financial Conduct Authority and Competition and Markets Authority both setting new standards to stamp out misleading climate claims from January 2022. Meanwhile, the UK government is ramping up efforts to ensure ESG compliance in passing two new laws earlier this year for companies and limited liability partnerships, mandating organisations to produce a sustainability information statement in their annual reporting.

Despite this backdrop, recently commissioned research from Google Cloud confirmed that greenwashing continues to be an uncomfortable truth in the corporate world. According to the report, which looked at the state of play across the  Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) landscape, a stagginering 71% of UK executives agree that green hypocrisy exists, and that their organisation overstates sustainability efforts.

Importantly, this isn’t always with malintent. The majority of executives (72%) feel their organisation does in fact prioritise ESG efforts, with 64% adding that those they work with want to advocate sustainable change, but just don’t know how.

Whether it be actively or accidentally, any company engaging in green hypocrisy runs the risk of irreparably damaging both stakeholder and customer relationships, and crumbling their credibility. To avoid this, businesses must look to implement achievable and effective sustainability strategies, and an authentic means to measure their progress. Cloud technology can help with both.

According to our research, over 9 in 10 UK executives feel technology makes it possible for their organisation to be more sustainable. More often than not, tech innovation holds a central role in driving sustainable business processes, practices and operations, and cloud service providers (CSPs) are committed to advancing these areas of innovation. In delivering public cloud technology over the public internet, CSPs have transformed the pursuit and measurement of sustainability goals, and empower their customers to do the same.

The first step to becoming more sustainable is to recognise what needs to change. Leaders must gain a holistic view of their operations and outputs, and adopt accurate measurement capabilities to track their progress. They need both access to data, and visibility on how it can be applied for sustainable ends.

With the data analytics tools offered by cloud providers, businesses can access real-time insights into datacentre and regional energy consumption. This level of visibility enables  them to consider the carbon impact of where services are running, and make greener IT decisions as a result.

As part of Google Cloud’s commitment to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030, we measure the carbon free energy output of each of our datacentres using the Carbon Free Energy Percentage (CFE%), and share this information with our customers.  This kind of data, often enhanced by the range of location-based and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies offered by cloud providers today, allows customers to accurately measure, track and report on their gross cloud-related carbon emissions, and make more informed sustainability decisions.

To take one example, Google partner Salesforce has long leveraged CFE% data to inform its IT strategy, enabling the business to deliver its customers with a carbon-neutral cloud every day. Last year, Salesforce went one step further, integrating the Google Cloud Platform into its own carbon accounting platform. With Salesforce Net Zero Cloud, the business hopes to support its customers on their path to Net Zero, leveraging data-driven insights and visualisations to track and reduce carbon emissions, and drive sustainable change.

From possibility to practice

Despite the majority of executives agreeing that technology makes it possible for their business to be more sustainable, just 32% say that technology currently reduces its overall environmental impact. These executives are missing out on a huge opportunity.

Visibility to prompt possible change is a vital first step, but the practical solutions offered by public cloud technology are equally, if not more, important. The breadth and depth of solutions in artificial intelligence, machine learning and more made accessible through cloud providers today has made previously inconceivable sustainability goals a reality, and ambitious brands across several sectors are reaping the benefits.

One business making a significant, tangible difference in leveraging cloud technology is consumer goods brand Unilever. In 2020, the global brand announced plans to advance its sustainable business practices in commodity sourcing, with the goal of achieving a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. By combining the power of cloud computing with satellite imagery and AI, Unilever has developed better visibility of its supply chain, including the first mile impacts of its palm oil sourcing.

Moving from supply to point of purchase, another innovative use of cloud AI technology is being spearheaded by ethical cosmetics brand Lush. In an important shift for its 900-strong store portfolio, the brand opened up its first ‘Naked’ packaging-free store in Manchester in 2019. Using Google AI, Lush built its own mobile app for in-store employees, utilising augmented reality to recognise products and overlay product information. In using the app at point of purchase, shop assistants can process the payment without relying on printed barcodes or details, removing the need for plastic packaging.

It’s widely accepted that greenwashing is unethical, but as these innovative businesses demonstrate, it is also unnecessary. Advancements in technology means there are often no excuses for falling short of climate commitments, and certainly no excuses for claiming otherwise when one does. Armed with the right tools, businesses of all kinds can set achievable ESG goals, and implement the means to measure, reach and even exceed them.

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