Survey: Three-quarters of UK businesses turning to sustainability to bounce back from Covid-19

Businesses are planning to launch sustainable products and services to appeal to customers in 2021

The survey was conducted by HSBC UK for its latest Navigator report, which tracks trends in business transformation across all major sectors. Representatives of 1,000 firms from the UK and a further 9,000 businesses spanning 38 other countries were interviewed.

Of the UK-based businesses surveyed, less than one-quarter said they are still worried about surviving day-to-day as a result of the financial implications of the pandemic and of lockdown restrictions. The majority (57%) claimed they are making headway in adapting, with the remaining 19% describing themselves as “thriving in the new normal”.

The good news is that most of the firms in the latter two categories are planning to deliver a green recovery rather than a race to the bottom on environmental standards. Businesses generally expect to return to pre-Covid-19 levels of profitability by 2022 and see an increased focus on sustainability as a key driver.

Reasons cited range from reduced energy costs through energy efficiency, to better consumer engagement, media coverage and relationships with investors.

Some recent research has highlighted a disconnect between sustainability ambitions and actions. A poll of businesses with net-zero targets by South Pole, for example, found that just one in ten have interim science-based emissions reduction targets. Moreover, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) now sees greenwashing as a major issue and is consulting on new mandates for business to prevent sustainability-related misinformation.

The businesses interviewed by HSBC, however, seem keen to walk the talk. 75% said they have metrics in place to measure their environmental footprint, up from 62% last year. And some three-quarters of the businesses have either set net-zero targets or are planning to do so in the next 12 months.

“The report tells us that firms genuinely want to build back better and have sustainability and the move to a net-zero economy right at the top of their priority lists as they look to adapt their operations to the ‘new normal’,” HSBC UK’s head of sustainable finance Rob King said.

“We see consumers having increasing expectations when it comes to sustainability and the companies they engage with and this greater focus on sustainability by businesses will help them to build their reputations and make better connections to their customers.

“But there is still work to do.”

Policy support

King’s latter point refers more to the Government than it does to the private sector.

Of the UK-based respondents to HSBC’s survey, almost three-fifths said they do not feel that the government provides incentives that will help them become more sustainable. Particular gaps identified included green finance and engaging the workforce to create a skills pipeline for the net-zero economy.

To the latter point, the government recently launched a Green Jobs Taskforce. Ensuring that the UK has the “immediate” skills for a green recovery, such as those needed in the offshore wind and retrofitting sectors, will be the Taskforce’s short-term priority.

The launch came after extensive campaigning from green groups and after a string of media exposés covering the poor progress towards the overarching ambition of two million green-collar jobs in the UK by 2030. Pre-pandemic, Government figures revealed that turnover in the UK’s green economy accounted for just 1% of national non-financial turnover. Similar investigations into official jobs figures found that while domestic jobs in the renewable energy sector rose year-on-year in 2018 and 2019, they were ultimately down by around one-third on 2014 levels.

Sarah George

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