Survey: Business failing to keep pace with public pressure for climate action

The publication of the study comes in the same week that Extinction Rebellion has kick-started its summer wave of protests 

Conducted by global communications consultancy FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF), the ‘authenticity gap’ study asked 1,140 UK residents aged 18-65 for their opinions on business action across ethical and environmental issues, from climate change to data protection.

At the same time, 160 UK-headquartered corporates across 20 industries were asked to disclose what, exactly, their actions in these spaces have been to date – and what their future plans are. These questions were posed between mid-April and early May 2019.

The study found that climate change is now in the top three issues which consumers expect big businesses to take action on, along with data security and privacy. In comparison, climate change ranked just 17th in the consumer list of priorities in FHF’s 2018 report.

A key conclusion of the study is that corporate action on these public concerns has been slower than their proliferation among consumers. It found that 84% of the climate efforts disclosed by the businesses surveyed were not perceived by consumers as strong enough.

“The message is clear: less talk and more walk,” FHF London’s partner of purposeful business Paul Afshar said.

“Folk won’t give you credit for PR-ing a 30% carbon emissions by 2030, because they see it as table stakes. But they’ll sit up and pay attention when you’re investing in sustainable behaviour change for your consumers and employees.”

FHF claims that its findings prove that, in order to regain consumer trust, big companies must clearly and authentically communicate their environmental and ethical ambitions – and be more transparent about what has and hasn’t worked for them in these areas.

Indeed, the survey found that while half (47%) of the survey respondents would like to see and hear more about how companies are creating solutions to reduce their climate impact, companies across 17 of the 20 industries studied were not producing “authentic” communications. This so-called “authenticity gap” was found to be highest in the personal care sector.

The concept of authentic purpose has been championed by the likes of Unilever’s former chief executive Paul Polman, who has urged companies to move past having a CSR department to becoming purpose-led ‘RSCs’ – responsible, social corporations – as well as countless other green economy experts such as Ikea’s former CSO Steve Howard. The benefits of this approach are proven; a study of 474 executives by EY and Harvard University found that firms which clearly articulated and understood an authentic purpose experienced larger revenue growth between 2014 and 2017 than those that did not. 

Nonetheless, the task of finding, embedding and communicating your purpose is generally easier said than done. In the same PwC study, only 34% of respondents said they used their organisation’s values as a guidepost for decision-making. In the Harvard and EY survey, just 46% said their organisation had a strong and shared sense of purpose in the first instance.

edie readers keen to find out more about how their business can bridge its own authenticity gap are encouraged to read our features entitled ‘Can sustainability help retailers overcome a ‘trust deficit’?’ and ‘Seven top tips for making your organisation a purpose-led business’.

On responding to the ‘Climate Emergency’, edie recently hosted a live question and answer event which featured Skanska, Nottingham City Council, Business in the Community, and sponsor Ørsted. The key takeaways from that session can be read here, or you can watch the full broadcast on demand by clicking here.

Sarah George

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