Mind the action gap: Only one in ten corporates feel they have an ‘actionable’ sustainability strategy

A new survey conducted by Smurfit Kappa, in partnership with the Financial Times, has found that just one in ten businesses believe they have a robust and actionable strategy, creating more concerns over an “action gap” that could be perceived as greenwashing.

Mind the action gap: Only one in ten corporates feel they have an ‘actionable’ sustainability strategy

The survey found that only 11% of businesses were considered leading when it came to transparency

The survey was conducted among 440 senior and executive business leaders across 11 major economies. While more than 50% of businesses claimed to have set ambitious net-zero plans, only 11% of respondents believe they have a robust and actionable sustainability strategy.

In total, 63% claimed to have complete transparency on how sustainability decisions are made, but 29% do not believe that their company’s wider actions rarely align with the sustainability ambitions that they communicate to stakeholders.

The survey warns of an action gap, with corporates unable to demonstrate how sustainability targets are being built towards and achieved.

Smurfit Kappa’s chief sustainability officer Garett Quinn said: “This research highlights how, despite significant ambition across the corporate world, it is often not matched with action, measurement and assurance. By putting these together, you can have a compelling sustainability story backed up with third party assured public disclosures, engaging your stakeholders and removing any greenwashing risk.

“All businesses must be ambitious, but sustainability is about much more than goal setting. While you do need ambition, this needs to be together with action and impact now. Equally, you need to report your progress clearly and transparently to ensure both your actions and challenges are recognized by your stakeholders.”

Of the respondents, 61% stated that they have introduced new mechanisms to account for sustainability in the c-suite, including by integrating targets into performance assessments and incentives.

The survey found that only 11% of businesses were considered leading when it came to transparency. The common traits of these organisations included ensuring alignment between action and ambition, measuring progress, communicating to build trust and independent assurances of sustainability performance.

In stark contrast, however, 17% of businesses were yet to develop a strategy, while 33% are in the process of developing one.

Action gaps lead to greenwash

Indeed, one in every five cases of corporate risk incidents linked to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues stems from greenwashing and misleading communications, according to RepRisk.

Separate research also warns that less than one-quarter of British shoppers take environmental claims by businesses at face value, with the vast majority believing that businesses do not do enough to verify claims.

Conducted by consultancy Sensu Insight, the survey polled 1,682 adults across the UK. Just 19% of those polled said they found ‘green’ product descriptions reassuring and just 23% of them said they take all of these claims at face value – meaning that more than three-quarters are, to some degree, sceptical. Only a minority of people surveyed (14%) said they do not believe any claims from any business.

These fears are now leading some businesses to scale back on green communications, leading to further accusations around “greenhushing”.

Research published by South Pole last year revealed a trend towards greenhushing around corporate climate targets. Covering 1,200 large businesses with net-zero targets, that research found that one in four (26%) of the companies who had applied to the Science Based Targets Initiative had not published information about the new targets on their own websites or reports. This trend was particularly pronounced in heavy-emitting industries, with a significant minority (24%) of companies only publishing the climate milestones that are mandated at a national level.

Read edie’s in-depth explainer of greenhushing, and the risks it poses to sustainability professionals, here.

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