Survey: From theory to action, here's how sustainability leaders are putting plans to work

Many companies have done the work needed to advance decarbonization, but ambitions are typically limited to immediate steps 

As of November 2021, 60% of the world’s largest public companies have set commitments to net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It's a good time to take a closer look at specific steps underway and what remains to be done. 

We contacted over 200 sustainability leaders in US companies to help find out. Because we believe net zero requires a business model shift that will touch on much of what companies do, we asked a broad set of questions. The good news is that most have already laid the groundwork to decarbonize: a majority have assigned roles and responsibility, set the strategy to support the sustainability program and established a GHG baseline to track progress. Yet we also found that only a third of leaders have done substantive work to operationalize sustainability.

To continue to step forward, companies need to look more to Scope 3 

Sustainability programs are largely limited to Scope 1 and 2 (direct and indirect emissions). Efforts to embrace Scope 3 (all other sources of emissions in the value chain) are in the early stages. Few respondents say they engage suppliers in emissions-reduction targeting, and to an even lesser extent, customers and employees. The only Scope 3-related steps that have been taken by more
than a third relate to data collection and selection of a data-collection methodology. 

The corner office and compensation

As most corporate sustainability reports begin with a message from the CEO outlining progress toward sustainability goals and actions ahead, it’s no surprise that 47% of respondents say that the CEO is the executive sponsor for the sustainability program. But more than three-quarters say day-to-day activities are run by ESG and sustainability leaders.

Source: PwC Analysis. PwC Sustainability Survey, 2021

What can accountability look like? Some crucial steps to consider:

Match the tone at the top with the mood in the middle

A disconnect between the C-suite and employees can hinder progress toward decarbonization. In a separate survey, we found that employees and consumers think companies aren’t investing enough in environmental efforts. But executives believe they are.

Tie compensation to climate goals

We see progress in linking some part of executive compensation to sustainability goals: 25% of respondents percent agree that executives are incentivized on progress toward net zero commitments. Progress is not always easy to quantify, as accurate and reliable measures of sustainability performance may be hard to come by, particularly in sectors less tied to directly generating GHG emissions. The link between executive compensation and progress in sustainability is clearer respondents from sectors in which decarbonization is measurable and concrete (such as oil and gas, power and utilities, engineering and construction). Nearly 40% say executives in these sectors are incentivized toward net zero goals, compared to only 21% of executives in other sectors.

Importantly, there’s been a shift in how boards are thinking about and addressing ESG

In PwC’s recent Annual Corporate Director Survey, almost two-thirds of directors (64%) now say their strategy is tied to ESG issues—a 15-point jump since last year, and a strong indicator of how quickly things are changing. But while this is promising, leaders will be wise to keep their eyes on risks: 64% say ESG is linked to their company strategy—but only 25% say their boards understand ESG risks very well.

Tech-enabled ESG

Technology offers a myriad of ways to accelerate climate actions. Consider the following:

  • Most (80%) of respondents have completed data collection and have established data quality (52%) for Scope 1 and 2 emissions. For Scope 3, 33% have completed data collection while 19% have established the quality of the data. 

  • When it comes to data management, though, only 58% of respondents have a plan for Scope 1 and 2 emissions, and just 20% have one for Scope 3.

  • The number of sustainability leaders that have investigated digital tools beyond spreadsheets for managing emissions looks promising: 43% have done so for Scope 1 and 2 and 20% for Scope 3.

Leaders know you can’t manage what you can’t regularly measure, yet manual processes are still abundant. ESG systems and applications are changing rapidly, with new innovative technologies available to track and record ESG data. Sustainability leaders should look to these technologies to find innovative ways to transform their processes—therefore supporting more informed and timely decisions.


Mixed results in measuring performance

Results on key performance indicators (KPIs) for sustainability vary:

  • Almost half (49%) of respondents have no measures in place or only have them in place for select parts of the organization. 
  • Just 6% have a portfolio of measures covering all aspects of sustainability.
  • A further 37% of respondents have measures in place for most areas of sustainability.

Opportunities to broaden the scope 

While the majority of respondents (58%) have assessed their directly controlled assets for GhG reduction opportunities, we believe more can be done to invest in other initiatives like employee upskilling, carbon offsets and new product development.

Looking forward

No matter where companies may be within their own sustainability journey, practical steps can be taken today that will lead to dividends down the road. Ask:

  • Has your company issued clear communications outlining your vision and scope? Look to reinforce climate goals and incorporate considerations into operational activity.
  • Are you looking into digital solutions for ESG commitments? Consider participating in (or driving) industry or cross-industry partnerships to facilitate tech innovation in this area. 
  • Where are you looking to make moves in the next 12–18 months? Your messaging to business leaders, employees and across your value chain will be important. Where might you need outside assistance in these areas?

In summary, the cross-section of maturity represented in these results show that there is opportunity ahead as leaders move from sustainability ambition to action. Business leaders, sustainability officers, policymakers, employees and customers should work together as we all drive to a sustainable future.


From June to September 2021, PwC contacted sustainability/ESG leaders at companies with operations in the US. Based on their responses to an online questionnaire, PwC collected and analyzed data from 210 participating entities representing a wide range of sizes, complexities and industry sectors.

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Reid Morrison

Reid Morrison

Global Energy Advisory Leader, PwC US

Ron Kinghorn

Ron Kinghorn

Consulting Solutions Sustainability Leader, PwC US

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