New ESG report: UK veering off course as climate change takes a backseat

by | Oct 19, 2022

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The UK public no longer ranks climate change as the top concern, placing the cost of living as their primary worry, as revealed in a landmark report on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues from communications consultancy SEC Newgate.

The annual SEC Newgate Global ESG Monitor, which surveyed more than 1,000 people in the UK (and 12,000 globally) in late July, also found that 77% of respondents said they wanted corporates to behave like good corporate citizens and consider their impacts on other people and the planet.

The research also reveals a mere 30% of participants feel that things in the UK are headed in the right direction. This is a substantial drop from last year’s report, when more than half (52%) felt that way, and it is well below the global average for 2022 (46%).

When it came to the top three priorities for the UK’s future, survey participants gave the highest priority to:

  • Addressing the rising cost of living (52%);
  • Ensuring quality, affordable energy and fuel supplies (32%); and
  • Ensuring secure and affordable food supplies (29%).

Meanwhile, unprompted awareness of the term ‘ESG’ in the UK is comparable to last year, with about one-in-ten participants (12%) claiming a good understanding of it. This is slightly below the global total, where about one in seven participants (15%) have a good understanding of the term. 

Further, only around one in ten UK participants feel very informed about companies’ ESG activities and performance (11% gave themselves a rating of 8 or more out of 10), while only one-in-five (22%) actively seek such information – at least sometimes (also lower than the global result at 33%). Among those searching for ESG-related information, search engines, company websites and TV news were the top consulted sources.

In the UK, interest in ESG was moderate over the last 12 months, with participants giving an average interest rating of 5.5 out of 10 – significantly lower than in 2021 (6.1) and compared to the global average (6.5). This shift in focus appears to reflect heightened concerns in the UK around cost of living.

When asked an open-response question about the one ESG issue they feel is most important for companies in the UK to focus on, the front-runners were protecting the environment (13%), addressing climate change (12%) and reducing waste and increasing recycling (10%).

Conversely, two in five (38%) participants in the UK feel they have a good understanding of the term ‘net zero’, vs only one in five (17%) globally, potentially reflecting the concerted focus on net zero in UK public policy. 

Overall, close to one in two participants mentioned environmental issues (47%), followed by social issues (26%) and governance issues (6%). This strong focus on the environment in the UK was aligned with the global results.

However, compared to the global total (average of 6.4 out of 10), people in the UK place less importance on ESG issues influencing their own day-to-day purchase decisions (average of 5.7 out of 10). And like others around the world, they place higher importance on companies taking action on ESG issues (with an average importance rating of 7.3 out of 10; 7.6 at the global level).

Aligned with the global total, not-for-profit organisations were rated highest for their ESG performance (at 6.3 out of 10 on average), ahead of small companies (5.9) and the UK as a country overall (5.8). Large companies (5.3) and the national government (5.1) were rated the lowest. There have been no significant shifts in ESG performance ratings for these measures since 2021. 

When it comes to perceived ESG performance for specific industries, the highest ratings were awarded to healthcare, education/training and supermarkets. Airlines, mining/resources and fashion scored the lowest. These results are roughly aligned with global totals, the study found.

When prompted with a list and asked which actions would genuinely make them stop or avoid using a company’s products or services, the company behaviours most commonly selected by participants in the UK were:

  • Slave labour/child labour (65%);
  • Corruption (58%); and
  • Tax evasion (53%).

Notably, there is a heightened sensitivity to tax evasion in the UK (53%), where more people said they would boycott a company that was avoiding paying its fair share of taxes than the global total of 45%.

Community activism on ESG issues was generally lower in the UK than the global total, though three in five said they had taken action in response to an ESG issue in the last two years (60% UK vs 72% globally). In terms of specific actions, around one in three in the UK reported having signed a petition (38% – higher than the global result of 28%), or avoided a product or service (37%; 47% globally) or purchased one (33%; 48% globally) in response to an ESG issue.

Emma Kane, CEO of SEC Newgate UK, said: “Our findings show that the UK is veering off course as concerns around climate change take a backseat to the cost of living. However, the UK public still deeply cares about the environment and how companies and other organisations act.  The British public is particularly sensitive to businesses evading tax and more than a third have a good understanding of ‘net zero’. Much more work needs to be done by the private and public sector in helping UK citizens understand ESG principles, with only 12% of people saying they had a good understanding of it.”

 

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