Environmental, Social & GovernanceCategory4 min read

A More Meaningful Earth Day Demands Collective Accountability

Nicola Acutt

Like a lot of people who work in the corporate responsibility space, I have complicated feelings about today.

Earth Day has helped raise awareness about the health of our planet and our impact on it for decades, earning its spot as a noteworthy day on just about every business’s calendar. In the best-case scenario, it can serve as the cornerstone of a much broader Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) agenda—an opportunity to focus efforts and make progress on ambitious goals. But in the worst-case scenario, it can easily become a vehicle for greenwashing—a marketing push fueled by vague commitments that won’t be mentioned again until next year’s Earth Day. It can be difficult to find the signal in the noise.

But finding the signal is more important now than it has ever been before. The 2022 IPCC Report makes it clear: we are losing the war against climate change. If we’re going to turn the tide, we desperately need to close the gap between good intentions and measurable actions. Demanding a more meaningful Earth Day is a great place to start.

To find solutions to this problem, it’s first important to examine the source of this gap between intention and action. If just about everyone agrees on the need for a healthy and sustainable planet, why are we still struggling to make substantive progress? I see a few things at play here.

First, intention doesn’t cost anything—action does. Improving sustainability requires both financial and human resources that have to come from somewhere. This can mean making new investments or diverting resources away from another priority. This can be perceived as a tradeoff—one that’s especially difficult to make when it’s in service of long-term benefits that are far less tangible than the short-term pain being felt today.

Second, taking action involves some measure of risk—something most organizations try to avoid at all costs. Setting ambitious sustainability goals can open a company up to criticism if they don’t meet them. This can incentivize either staying quiet or setting the bar low enough that there’s no doubt about clearing it.

When you consider both factors, it’s easy to understand why some individual companies make the choice to avoid sticking their neck out. But when every company makes that same choice, it adds up to devastating consequences for the planet. And those consequences pose the greatest possible risk—to the businesses themselves, as well as their employees, customers, stakeholders and communities.

So how do we reverse this equation? How do we make pursuing the collective good outweigh the perceived tradeoffs that hold companies back from delivering more sustainable outcomes? The answer comes down to collective accountability.

Collective accountability happens when corporate, regulatory, and consumer interests are aligned around a shared goal. That may sound like an impossibly high bar to clear, but there are examples of it working. Commercial aviation is the safest form of transportation in the world because of voluntary reporting programs that allow airlines to share information about safety issues without fear of negative repercussions. The system succeeds because airlines, regulators and the flying public are all united around protecting the safety of our skies.

A similar system is needed now too—one that brings together regulators, businesses and individuals in service to our planet. Because as a great Canadian philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, once said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

The good news is we’re already seeing movement in this direction. The SEC has proposed rules that would require publicly traded companies to disclose the risks of climate change to their business and their own contributions to climate change. This would be a gamechanger—one that puts the world’s largest companies on a level playing field and ensures everyone has skin in the game. Imagine a future Earth Day that is a truly meaningful day for climate accountability—because it’s the filing deadline for climate disclosures. That possibility is within reach.

We’re also seeing more consumers vote with their wallets for green solutions. It’s estimated that there are more than $330 billion[1] currently in ESG funds. And these investors are expecting more meaningful actions from ESG initiatives—a fact made clear from the pressure[2] on ESG funds to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and focus on the geopolitical risks of our dependence on fossil fuels. This level of interest and scrutiny is only going to increase in the years ahead.

And what about corporations? While greenwashing is still far too prevalent, many companies are being recognized[3] for their substantive sustainability efforts. At VMware, for example, we’re embedding ESG principles into the core of our business through our 2030 Agenda. This includes achieving net zero carbon emissions for our operations and supply chain by 2030. And speaking of recognition, we’re honored to have recently been recognized by JUST Capital as the leading company in our industry—rated #1 for the environment amongst our peers.

I’m especially excited about how we’re using Earth Day to inspire engagement among our team this year. We’re asking our employees to join us in taking climate action in ways that are uniquely meaningful to each one of them. For example, we’re challenging employees to download and use the United Nations’ AWorld app, with special rewards for the most highly engaged participants. We’ve also made Earth Day one of our EPIC2 days off and have encouraged employees to spend the time in service to their communities or reflecting on how they can make more sustainable climate choices.

We’re doing this because that’s what collective accountability requires. Each of us working together toward the same goal. Each of us owning our piece of the problem and taking action. I’ve always believed in setting higher standards for yourself than the ones the world sets for you. If we all embraced and embodied that mindset, there’s no question that it would create a virtuous cycle that turns the tide in our battle against climate change. So, I hope you’ll join me today in creating a more meaningful Earth Day—one that’s not defined by our intentions, but by our actions.

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[1] Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, “ESG: 2021 Trends and Expectations for 2022,” February 2022.

[2] Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, “War in Ukraine: Is ESG at a Crossroads?”, March 2022.

[3] JUST Capital, “America’s 32 Industry Leaders for Environmental Performance in 2022,” April 2022.