Big companies say they are leading the way to a cleaner future, but with only voluntary disclosures to keep them honest we just have to trust them

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in California’s Mojave desert is partly owned by Google (Photo: USFWS)

Private sector firms claim to be leading the fight against climate change, harvesting public approval and the moral high ground. But beyond self-reported, voluntary measures, experts say holding them to account is nearly impossible.

Climate change is now ingrained in corporate culture at many firms, a marked departure from the greenwashing of the 1990s and 2000s when companies appointed largely token sustainability chiefs. That’s important given the popular narrative that big businesses will play an outsized climate role after president Donald Trump said he would pull the US out of the Paris accord.

Companies like Apple, Google, IBM and Amazon all pushed Trump to remain in Paris and have since joined We Are Still In, a coalition of businesses, cities and states that will still adhere to the Paris targets, many having announced lofty emissions-curbing pledges, commitments to sustainable sourcing and promises to reduce water consumption.

Much of that may amount to good publicity for the largest multinational firms most affected by public opinion, but there’s scant few ways to hold the private sector accountable for information. And in the private sector writ large, there’s very little emphasis on sustainability, especially when it comes to energy-intensive industries, said Cynthia Cummis, director of private sector climate mitigation at the World Resources Institute.

“It’s still just the top couple hundred companies,” Cummis said. “It’s still not standard practice to take a leadership position on sustainability.”

Companies sometimes disingenuously report emissions reductions in corporate sustainability reports, said Gary Cook, a corporate campaigner for Greenpeace. He said Apple, for instance, is 100% renewable at facilities in the US and 23 other countries, but about four-fifths of its emissions come from its manufacturing supply chain.

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Amazon and Amazon Web Services document how much renewable power they add but refuse to share data on their net emissions – for a company that’s constantly growing, it’s unlikely the additional megawatts of renewable power match its increasing emissions despite Amazon Web Services’ goal of being 100% renewable. (Amazon did not return a request for comment.)

Of the myriad reporting standards and fora that exist – which businesses say can be confusing for them and the public – none offer…