Amid the risk of a recession, are CEOs sidelining ESG?

A survey of more than 1,300 chief executives across the world has found that 86% believe there will be a recession in 2023. Are they looking to improve their ESG performance to weather the storm, or do they feel forced to sideline ESG issues to weather the immediate storm?

Amid the risk of a recession, are CEOs sidelining ESG?

CEOs in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK and US were surveyed

That was one of the questions posed by KPMG to 1,325 chief executives in a survey conducted this summer, with the responses published this week in the 2022 edition of the firm’s CEO Outlook report.

Of the professionals polled, 69% said they had seen a “significant” increase in demand for reporting on, and other transparency around, ESG issues in the past year. A similar proportion (72%) believe that stakeholder scrutiny of their organisation’s ESG approach and reporting will increase in the coming year.

This is perhaps to be expected. Disclosure rules are entering force and tightening up in several key markets. In the UK, where edie is based, the world’s first mandatory requirement for some large businesses to report climate risks in line with the Taskforce on Climate-related Disclosures’ (TCFD) recommendations came into force in April, to give but one example. The mandate was extended to some large pension schemes within the past week.

The survey also revealed that chief executives perceive stakeholders to be more attuned to greenwashing. 17% of respondents said stakeholder scepticism of ESG-related claims has increased this year, compared with 8% of those interviewed for KPMG’s 2021 CEO Outlook. This makes avoiding greenwashing the top concern among the chief executives in terms of communicating ESG progress.

Recession risk

Last month, the World Bank stated that the risk of a global recession being declared in 2023 had increased. 86% of those polled by KPMG agreed that a recession will occur within 12 months, with three-quarters anticipating disruption to their company’s growth for three years.

With this in mind, the survey asked chief executives whether their organisations would be forced to cut back on ESG-related programmes in the coming 12 months.

Promisingly, 45% of those surveyed said that progress on ESG improves corporate financial performance, meaning that the logical approach in challenging economic times would be to lean in and increase ambitions and efforts here.

But financial constraints and a lack of in-house skills are preventing most of the chief executives from doing so. One-third (34%) said their company has already paused or reconsidered its programmes for the year ahead, with a further 50% saying that such a move will likely be taken within six months.

Programmes that are likely to go ahead include those relating to supply chain resilience. Half of those surveyed said their business will diversify supply chains in the next six months in response to geopolitical challenges, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the continuing semiconductor shortage. Deeper monitoring of the supply chain was found to be the top strategy for solving supply chain issues.

KPMG’s global chairman and chief executive, Bill Thomas, said: “The events of recent years have created real turbulence for the business community. Our findings should provide some cautious optimism that, in contending with and overcoming these ordeals, executives are more confident in their companies’ resilience and are focused on mitigating some of the very real uncertainties we face today.”

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