Boeing is making impressive efforts on the environmental impact of its aircraft, but elsewhere its sustainability performance – and reporting – are found wanting

This is the fifth annual environmental report from Boeing, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and defence, space and security systems. Boeing reports separately on citizenship and environment. The last citizenship report (covering charitable initiatives and impacts on communities) was published in 2011.

It is not clear why Boeing fragments sustainability reporting in this way. It could be evidence of fragmented thinking – the management of social and environmental initiatives as projects that are not part of the core business – or evidence of responsiveness to stakeholders, in an attempt to provide greater granularity on issues that are important to specific groups. Alternatively, it could be an attempt to mask issues that Boeing does not wish to disclose by ensuring that the most sensitive issues fall between both reports.

Boeing’s environmental reporting does not conform to the GRI guidelines, is only partially assured for greenhouse gas emissions, includes no external stakeholder input and makes no attempt to prioritise material issues.

The company has multi-year targets for environmental performance improvement by 2012 from a 2007 baseline: 1% cut in absolute energy consumption, GHG emissions, water intake and hazardous waste generation and a 25% revenue-adjusted improvement in each of these areas. All at US production sites only.

Arguably, a 1% absolute reduction over five years is rather a modest improvement (reported output of new commercial airplanes and defence new-build production aircraft delivered has remained stable with 552 units in 2007 and an average of 559 units over five years to the end of 2011) while revenue-adjusted targets are rather irrelevant. Boeing’s revenue decreased in the four years following 2007, increasing in 2011 for the first time since that year.

The report says: “Boeing has reduced its environmental footprint at a time of significant business growth.” The company makes reference to “unprecedented increases in airplane production”. With mainly negative revenue growth and largely flat average aircraft delivery levels noted in this report, Boeing’s environmental goals don’t seem to be breaking the sound barrier.

Boeing reports being “on track” to meet its multi-year commitments, having met absolute reduction targets (with the help of a little rounding up on energy consumption, which shows an actual 0.8% improvement and not a full 1%) but advises that “revenue-adjusted improvements will still reach the mid to high teens”. This is a major shortfall against targets, even after the “discount” of lower revenues (with the exception of solid waste diverted from landfill – 76% – which is 31% better in 2011 than in 2007), with no explanation other than an over-optimistic estimation of absolute to relative ratios.

Technology advances

Where Boeing appears to excel, however, is in the development of new technologies in aircraft design and alternative fuels. Boeing planes represent three quarters of the world’s fleet, with nearly 12,000 planes in service, so Boeing’s indirect footprint is far more significant than its factory footprints. Boeing shows evidence of tireless efforts to reduce the environmental impact of aircraft and improve the efficiency of global aviation.

“Designing the Future” offers examples of participation in the ecoDemonstrator programme with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s CLEEN (Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise) programme to test and advance new technologies, developing liquid hydrogen fuelling for the Phantom Eye unmanned aerial vehicle and new commercial technologies for Nasa.

“Inspiring the Industry” is achieved through pioneering biofuels, now used in commercial flights, and other collaborative initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel and develop a standardised approach for environmental responsibility in the sector such as identifying the chemical components in aerospace parts and greenhouse gas reporting.

“Clean Products” include Boeing’s more environmentally efficient aircraft such as the 747-8 and 787 Dreamliner, new in 2011, and the Boeing 737 Max, which is claimed to be the world’s most fuel-efficient single-aisle commercial aircraft. All these efforts appear to place Boeing in a leadership role in improving environmental impacts from aviation.

Despite this technological prowess, Boeing’s environment report is selective in its disclosures. There is coverage of some of Boeing’s remediation (waste-clean-up) efforts in the US but not about overall materials used, sourcing of materials, parts and components, biodiversity impacts, life-cycle analysis, and aircraft end-of-life; and no coverage of environmental practices (or environmental data) in R&D operations, non-manufacturing facilities or logistics.

While a link is provided to Boeing’s full Carbon Disclosure Project submission, which is actually more transparent than the Environment Report itself, Boeing’s reporting has gaps. In addition, given that Boeing has seriously missed its stated environmental targets, we might have expected to read about what Boeing is planning to do to step up performance by the end of 2012, and even what Boeing will commit to in the next target period. With this report, it seems that Boeing’s environmental disclosures are not quite reaching cruising altitude.


Follows GRI?            No

Assured?                    Carbon emissions only.

Materiality analysis? No
Goals?                        Yes – multi-year 2007-2012.

Targets?                     Yes – multi-year 2007-2012.

Stakeholder input?    No

Seeks feedback?        No

Key strengths?           Good focus on new technologies which are changing aviation.

Chief weakness?        Incomplete coverage of environmental issues.

Pleasant surprise?     Link to full Boeing’s full CDP disclosure.

Elaine Cohen is a sustainability consultant and reporter at Beyond Business and CSR blogger.

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