Values, value and corporate sustainability
Cleveland’s Sustainability Summit
On Friday, January 26, the world celebrated the first International Day of Clean Energy, declared by the United Nations to promote an inclusive, equitable transition to clean energy around the world.
In Ohio, that transition is not going well. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Ohio ranked 46th in the nation for renewable energy consumption as share of total energy consumed in the state in 2021, with renewables representing just 4.7% of all energy consumption in Ohio. In 2023, we ranked 47th in the nation for the share of our utility-scale electricity generated using renewables: just 3.8%, compared to the national average of 22.3%. (“Utility-scale electricity” does not include power generated by smaller sources, like rooftop solar panels.)
When controlling for population, Ohio emits more than our share of carbon dioxide (4.0% of the national total) and consumes slightly more than our share of energy (3.6% of national consumption). Our large industrial sector – which makes up a third of Ohio’s total energy consumption – is one factor in Ohio ranking 22nd in the U.S. for per capita energy consumption. At utility scale we generate less than our share of electricity (3.1% of the national total). And we contribute far less than our share of renewable-generated utility-scale electricity: just 0.5% of the national total, placing us 37th in the nation.
Ohio’s poor performance in renewable energy is largely a result of the controversial House Bill 6, the passage of which was ensured by $60 million in bribes courtesy of the bill’s primary beneficiary, FirstEnergy. In addition to subsidizing dying coal and nuclear plants at ratepayers’ expense, HB 6 reduced the energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards for Ohio’s investor-owned utilities. Originally, Ohio’s utilities were required to generate 12.5% of their energy from renewable sources by 2022. HB 6 pushed the deadline to 2026 and lowered the standard to just 8.5% – the lowest in the U.S. out of all states with renewable portfolio standards. While FirstEnergy ratepayers were reimbursed for a portion of their contributions to the fossil fuel plant subsidies, the harm done to Ohio’s renewable energy policies has yet to be reversed.
But the news is not all bad: A 2023 analysis by the Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Ohio 4th in the country for projected growth in solar installations, anticipating an 8,960-megawatt increase in solar capacity over the next five years. We’ve also seen a 42% decline in solar costs over the past decade.
The excitement around clean energy and sustainable development in Ohio isn’t limited to the rise in renewables. The environmental justice movement is gaining momentum across the state, especially as local governments work toward their climate goals with the help of substantial federal investments delivered by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
In fact, the Ohio EPA received funding through the IRA’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program, which provides pass-through grants for local governments to design comprehensive climate action plans that improve economic and environmental outcomes for the communities they serve. Larger cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton are hosting public events to engage communities in planning and implementing these grants, which will directly benefit Ohioans in historically marginalized communities.
Climate and sustainability efforts have even reached the business community. In Cleveland, celebrations started several days before the International Day of Clean Energy, with Greater Cleveland Partnership’s (GCP’s) second annual Sustainability Summit. The summit drew local sustainability leaders, students and corporate stakeholders from across Northeast Ohio. Presentations and panels covered topics including corporate finance and sustainability, public-private partnerships, and local decarbonization efforts featuring speakers from the private, public and philanthropic sectors.
As the region’s chamber of commerce, GCP serves the business community. So it was no surprise that most of the summit’s agenda focused on “corporate sustainability”: increasing profits by leveraging environmental considerations. Still, several panels highlighted local clean energy projects, efforts to protect our natural resources, and ways to innovate and collaborate to achieve community-level benefits. GCP also made an effort to minimize the waste produced by the event, serving food sourced by local vendors, offering composting services by Rust Belt Riders, and using digital signage and reusable dishware.
But for many community members and activists, these efforts were overshadowed by GCP’s choice of keynote speaker, a representative from the asset management firm BlackRock, Inc. BlackRock manages investments that finance a variety of environmentally destructive industries, including $170 billion in oil and gas companies in the U.S. alone. Moreover, BlackRock has the 4th-largest institutional ownership stake in FirstEnergy with 7% of FirstEnergy’s shares outstanding.
In fact, FirstEnergy sponsored the Sustainability Summit, an apparent effort to greenwash its responsibility for gutting Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards. It’s also worth noting that GCP partnered with Energy Harbor, formerly FirstEnergy Solutions, to offset the summit’s carbon emissions with low-carbon nuclear energy, presumably sourced from the plants kept running by HB 6.
As counter-programming to the BlackRock keynote (delivered by Kaitlin Bergan, BlackRock’s Head of Sustainable Client Solutions for the Americas), local groups including the InterReligious Task force on Central America, Cleveland Owns, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), and the Greater Cleveland Housing Justice Coalition organized a walk-out and teach-in to promote an energy transition that puts people first. Several of the teach-in’s organizers called out the hypocrisy of an event ostensibly organized around efforts to build a sustainable and prosperous region featuring one of the largest investors in the fossil fuel industry.
Prior to the summit, organizers distributed a public letter explaining why BlackRock is not a model of sustainability, encouraging community members to sign on and join the teach-in. More than 50 registered attendees, representing an array of organizations and schools, participated.
The teach-in focused on the principles of a Just Transition, highlighting local, community-driven initiatives to transition to a clean energy economy that serves the needs of our communities, not just the private interests of wealthy investors. Just Transition strategies integrate principles of environmental justice and democratic organizing to empower community members to build collective economic and political power. The Just Transition offers a new model of economic development, enabling a shift from a profit-driven, extractive economy to a regenerative economy, where ecological benefits and community-level benefits take priority. Speakers at the teach-in also discussed energy democracy, which hinges on decentralized ownership and democratized control of renewable energy resources, and strategies to build energy democracy through cooperative ownership models.
The teach-in provided context for the myriad contradictions and false solutions underpinning the corporate sustainability movement. Speakers discussed the intersection between environmental and housing justice, explaining how putting profits over people has led to widening wealth disparities, housing and food insecurity, and stark inequality — especially across racial lines. These disparities are exacerbated by a history of environmental racism in the U.S., characterized by a range of policy decisions that favor white communities. Chronic disinvestment and redlining have left Black, Indigenous, and Latine communities disproportionately exposed to rising pollution levels and corresponding public health issues, without equitable access to the financial and material resources critical for building community prosperity.
Some teach-in participants returned to the summit later in the day, and themes from the teach-in were relevant throughout. But with panel titles like “The Business Case for Sustainability,” “Corporate Finance and Sustainability: How to Keep Your CFO Happy,” and “Attract Talent through Sustainability,” it was easy to see: Where corporate leaders and investors are concerned, sustainability is a marketing tactic.
For example, Nestlé’s Director of Sustainable Sourcing Emily Johannes cited Nestlé’s efforts to increase the use of recyclable or compostable packaging as one of their environmental strategies to “meet consumer demands.” Robert Kurtz of Rust Belt Riders — also on the panel — suggested this practice is misleading, since the amount of energy used to produce single-use packaging negates the benefits of recycling or composting it. In fact, he pointed out, the branding used on Nestlé’s packaging to entice an eco-conscious consumer can contain PFAS, the “forever chemicals” that build up in the environment and can contaminate our drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to health issues including increased risk of some cancers, decreased fertility and developmental delays in children.
This exchange highlights the irony of GCP’s repeated desire to “go beyond the buzzword” with the Sustainability Summit. So much of corporate sustainability appears superficial, its only purpose to satisfy the “business imperative” — a phrase used by GCP President and CEO Baiju Shah often enough that it too began to sound buzzy. Corporate sustainability efforts are predicated on profitability. When exploitative practices and extractive industries are more lucrative than sustainable ones, we know how corporations will respond. That is why we should be wary of a clean energy transition powered by the companies like BlackRock, which treat sustainability not as a way to ensure future generations inherit a habitable planet, but as contingent on their "fiduciary duty to [their] clients.”
As corporate sustainability takes up more space in the broader environmental movement, it’s important to understand the private motives and strategic framing that displace real progress toward a just transition. As Craig Ickler of Cleveland Owns – who moderated the Sustainability Summit’s counter-programming – puts it, "business as usual will not bring us the equitable and sustainable society we need." While BlackRock’s Bergan emphasized the priority of “value over values,” real grassroots leaders of the movement for sustainability were gathered nearby to discuss an energy transition rooted in racial and economic equity, solidarity and justice. That kind of transition will never be a reality if civic leaders continue to prop up corporations that have more to gain from maintaining the status quo.
Private companies should engage in sustainable and ethical business practices. Consumers should demand it. But corporate sustainability is not enough. Leaders looking to kickstart a clean energy transition should listen to and prioritize the people most affected by corporate degradation of our environment, and use public policy to give them the power.
 EIA’s renewable energy consumption estimates (2021) include biomass, conventional hydroelectric power, geothermal, solar thermal and photovoltaic, and wind energy.
 Ohio’s population is 3.5% of the national total. We’re the 7th-largest state by population.
 BlackRock is also the second-largest shareholder in Norfolk Southern, whose hazardous train derailment contaminated close to 200 tons of soil and more than 40 million gallons of water in East Palestine. Cleanup efforts are ongoing, and residents are still feeling the long-term environmental and economic impacts as its one-year anniversary approaches.
 “Greenwashing” describes corporations’ misleading claims about their ethical and sustainable practices to appeal to a broader base of consumers.
 "Latine" is a gender-neutral alternative to "Latino" and "Latina.” It affirms that gender is not binary while conforming to conventions of Spanish grammar. Policy Matters consults with stakeholders on preferred terminology and will continue to do so.