‘Greenstalling’: Are businesses getting stuck in net-zero analysis paralysis?

Research suggests that many businesses starting on their net-zero journeys are worried about the scrutiny they’ll face, which is halting transformational action. Here, edie explores exactly how this “greenstalling” challenge can be overcome.

‘Greenstalling’: Are businesses getting stuck in net-zero analysis paralysis?

Businesswoman holding her briefcase and checking the time on a huge clock, she is standing and waiting

“The transformation required to achieve net-zero is not yet part of business-as-usual.” That is the opening line of a new report from the Carbon Trust, exploring the key business barriers to reaching net-zero emissions.

Corporates continue to set net-zero targets at a quick pace, with the Net-Zero Tracker noting that such targets have risen by more than 40% in 16 months. However, while the ambition is welcome, many firms are struggling to move out of the target-setting phase to deliver on their commitments.

The Carbon Trust’s new research sought to explore the biggest barriers stopping firms from delivering their net-zero targets. It surveyed more than 400 senior sustainability decision-makers in large businesses across the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The research uncovered barriers to ambition, accountability, and accountability, depending on where a corporate is on its net-zero journey. The research offers up some barriers that sustainability professionals will be no stranger to, such as a lack of supply chain engagement on Scope 3, insufficient policy support and concerns about utilising carbon offsetting in claims.

One area of the report that sustainability practitioners may have less understanding of is that of “greenstalling”.

Greenstalling is an approach whereby businesses intend to do the right thing by drastically ramping up decarbonisation efforts, but ultimately get stuck in “analysis paralysis” where they can’t find the right approach to doing it for fear of criticism. It is likely to be a major barrier for businesses just starting out on their net-zero journeys, especially when taking Scope 3 into account, as the Carbon Trust’s Net Zero Intelligence Unit manager Nina Foster explains.

“There has been this massive acceleration of commitments to net zero among businesses,” Foster tells edie. “And we’re interested to know what is holding these very well intentioned businesses back from this complex, difficult journey.

“Not all businesses have long-term Scope 3 targets, and the data pointed us in the direction of greenstalling. For businesses with long term Scope 3 targets, this didn’t rank really at all among their top barriers, but businesses at the earlier stages are finding it more challenging to understand. They’re wanting to know the initial best steps they can take.”

Carbon Trust’s research found that businesses starting out on their journey view external scrutiny on their targets and progress as a major barrier to net-zero. In comparison, those already progressing toward their long-term targets are less concerned about scrutiny, and therefore, less affected by greenstalling.

The research found that 80% of respondents view regulation of net-zero communications as a concern for their business, while 79% agreed that greenwashing is a major reputational risks.

Many businesses have attempted to showcase the environmental benefits of their products and services, to position themselves in front of an increasingly climate-conscious customer base. However, the EU estimates that three-quarters of products sold within the bloc currently carry a green claim and has heard evidence that more than half of them are vague or misleading.

Indeed, the EU’s new Green Claims Directive was updated this week to further clampdown on vague communications claims from corporates.

As a result, many organisations are unsure how to communicate their approaches to climate action, halting progress as a result. As research shows, vague communication and inaction can come in many forms.

Many heads

In 2023, a report from Planet Tracker identified six types of greenwashing that corporates could fall foul of, stating that a “greenwashing hydra” has emerged when analysing green claims from corporates.

Issues ranged from “greencrowding”, whereby companies can hide in collaborative partnerships and initiatives, to “greenlighting” when they shine a spotlight on green credentials in order to draw attention away from environmentally damaging activities.

Of this many-headed beast, “greenhushing” is the one that aligns the most with greenstalling. It involves corporates under-reporting or even hiding their sustainability data and performance to avoid stakeholder scrutiny. Greenstalling is much more focused on the paralysis of inaction, however and Foster believes that companies need to remain flexible to “walk the fine line between greenwashing and greenstalling”.

“Businesses must remain flexible and vigilant to best-practice changes on net-zero, because of course you know the best practice of today might not necessarily be the best practice of tomorrow as we find more effective solutions,” Foster says.

“What I think is really encouraging and helps businesses in that earlier stage as well as the more advanced stage is that there is increasing international alignment on what good looks like in terms of net-zero.”

Foster mentions the ongoing tweaks to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and the UN High-Level Champions’ advice on stamping out greenwashing when setting net-zero targets as just two examples of how new guidance is helping corporates map and deliver their net-zero journeys.

Additionally, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) has been formally requested to take over the monitoring and responsibilities of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which should help streamline the data that businesses can disclose to the range of reporting frameworks, in turn appeasing potential worries about greenwashing.

Reporting requirements

While the disclosure market is attempting to streamline reporting requirements and disclosure parameters for corporates, it can feel like businesses are spending all their time in reporting mode, articulating progress and data, rather than actually delivering on their strategies.

The majority of EU and UK businesses are unprepared for impending green legislation on reporting and data, and Foster does hope that moving forward, the process becomes less administrative to enable businesses to overcome the aforementioned barriers and really drive net-zero progress.

“We appreciate there are some issues with internal expertise and staffing difficulties [for some businesses],” Forster says. “But if they are able to move beyond just complying with disclosure requirements and actually using those processes to feed their net-zero strategies, that should be the North Star that everyone’s aiming for.

“It should get easier in time as there’s increasing kind of convergence on all the various disclosure requirements that businesses have. I think that alphabet soup of disclosure should hopefully be becoming more simplified and hopefully less of an administrative burden for businesses. The key thing for businesses is to not act like or not communicate like net-zero is something that they have completed or achieved and they should be honest about the progress they’ve made.

“Celebrate your progress, but just be a bit more radically honest about where you are on your journey. That’s where businesses can take action to avoid greenstalling, but also avoid the trap of kind of over claiming what they’ve done.”

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