Survey: Sustainability prioritised by less than one-third of UK bank boardrooms

Covid-19 was cited as the biggest barrier to sustainability-related action from banks

Commissioned by consultancy Mobiquity, the survey polled C-suite employees at banks across the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, asking about their sustainability approaches and the role of digital technologies in meeting key green targets.

Of the UK respondents, just 31% said that environmental sustainability is a top concern in the boardroom. Topics that ranked higher included customer retention and the Covid-19 recovery. This is despite the fact that banks have been warned they could lose customers without taking stronger climate action, and in contrast to the growing ‘green recovery’ narrative, which pairs the economic recovery from the pandemic with the response to the climate and nature crises.

Moreover, more than half (55%) said their bank is not planning for any new sustainability-related targets or initiatives in the short term. Executives cited the practical and economic challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic as the biggest barrier to taking action. Another common barrier was a lack of long-termism and long-term targets, against which short-term and medium-term goals can be developed as milestones.

The COP26 Strategy Advisor for Finance, Dr Ben Caldecott, said it is “crucial” that banks do more to embed sustainability – for their own commercial interests as well as the moral and legal imperatives. He urged laggards “not to wait for regulation or the enforcement of recently updated regulations”.

Caldecott said: “Sustainable finance creates huge opportunities for the banking sector, and in addition to supporting clients transitions towards sustainability, banks will also need to become much more sustainable themselves, not only for their financed emissions, but for their own activities and operations.

“The banking sector is where the financial system and the real economy meet. It is in the interests of banks to move quickly given the scale of the opportunities and the risks that are already materialising. Banks need to develop comprehensive strategies, together with detailed plans for implementation tied to appropriate resourcing and levels of accountability to ensure implementation. For example, by enabling investments in digital capabilities, such as platforms that enable new forms of client engagement with sustainability and impact investing.”

The Mobiquity survey comes after separate research, published in March by investigative environmentalist platform DeSmog, found that almost 80% of UK bank directors have close ties to corporates in industries linked to climate change and pollution – which could undermine their net-zero commitments.  Links include being a current director or advisor, or a former senior-level employee, or holding significant amounts of shares.

Climate and the C-suite

In related news, climate social media organisation We Don’t Have Time and the Climate Reality Project have this week unveiled a new programme to help business leaders build climate expertise. The first courses will open in June, to professionals in the UK, US and Sweden.

Delivered in partnership wit Global Utmaning, the training will see attendees learning to understand key climate-related concepts and jargon and to determine what best-practice corporate responses to the climate crisis look like. It will also cover the need for communicating ongoing and planned climate actions to groups including staff and consumers.

The launch of the programme comes after research by New York University’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business found that less than one in 100 executives at Fortune 100 companies had any kind of climate expertise.

“Business has a crucial role to play helping governments deliver the Paris Climate Change Agreement and we want to provide board members with the knowledge, the urgency, and direction needed to step up ambition and develop the businesses and solutions the world needs in the 21st Century,” said We Don’t Have Time founder and chief executive Ingmar Rentzhog.

Sarah George

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