Huge gap between businesses and British public on sustainability, new survey finds

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A new survey commissioned by the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business and carried out by YouGov has shown a huge disparity between public opinion on how businesses should behave when it comes to environmental and social issues, and how businesses are conducting themselves.

The Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business is a strategic initiative from Birmingham Business School. The Centre is funded by Lloyds Banking Group, but operates independently, to help develop insight for businesses to work towards a more responsible future in business.

A surprising 50% of senior business decision makers surveyed said that they have no net zero strategy whilst 74% of British adults surveyed say that businesses should have one. Three in ten (30%) senior business decision makers surveyed said that their purpose was to generate profit over sustainability, growth or purpose, whereas 42% of British adults said businesses should balance profit with social and environmental justice and a further 25% saying a business’ purpose should be to make a positive impact on society. Professor Ian Thomson, Director of the Centre and author of Urgent Business: Five myths business needs to overcome to save itself and the planet, said: “At a time where social inequality is growing, and time is running out to meet the target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, our survey shows that the British public expects and believes that businesses should be taking an active role in combatting these issues.”

However, it seems that some businesses are failing to align with public opinion, both on the wider topic of the environment and their impact as employers on society overall. For example, only 13% of businesses said it is important to tackle precarious work in their strategy, whilst 64% of the public expect businesses to do this for low paid, unprotected forms of employment. Similarly, 52% of the public said that the gap between the highest and lowest paid employee should be published in the same way the gender gap is, whilst just a tiny 14% of businesses surveyed said they currently publish this.

Despite the demand from the public that businesses act responsibly and have a positive impact, the survey findings show this pressure may have little impact. When asked what would inspire businesses to act more responsibly more people said they believed a business would change out of fear of public boycotts, where only 7% of businesses said this would make them more sustainable.

Professor Thomson continues: “These findings show that the public greatly overestimates its power to influence change in businesses behaviour. However, this could be a brilliant opportunity for businesses. 28% of people said they want to choose the most sustainable option, if given clear and trustworthy information about the environmental and social impact of a product whereas only 13% of businesses believed the same. Sustainability and responsible behaviour aren’t just challenges for businesses, but also a chance for them to build a brand based on trust and help futureproof their companies against further legislation (which the survey showed is a popular sustainability measure amongst the general public) and avoid hefty costs further down the road.”

There also seems to be a sizable gap in the amount of action taken by smaller and larger businesses. The survey results indicate that very few businesses are taking any radical steps towards become more sustainable and only larger business are making incremental changes. Many small businesses see engaging on social justice and environmental issues as a luxury that only big business can afford.

60% of small businesses said that they don't regularly collaborate with external people when solving complicated or ongoing problems compared to 19% of large businesses. Professor Thomson, who will be speaking at the Forum for Global Challenges at the ICC in Birmingham on Wednesday 4th May concludes: “Across the board there is a huge gap between what the public expects from business and how business acts when it comes to sustainability, whether it is global warming and the environment or unstable employment and social injustice. What this survey proves is that business is stuck in the traditional view of what it’s purpose in the world is. As we outline in Urgent Business, the business community needs to completely revolutionise the way it sees itself and make radical changes in order to reach net zero and have a positive impact on the world. If business doesn’t make the most of the time we have left to make these changes, then before we know it, it will be too late.