Sustainable Business 2011: Reflecting on Progress

Britain’s companies are failing to meet the challenge of climate change, according to this new report, which assesses the sustainability performance of UK business.

Despite encouraging progress in many areas, Sustainable Business 2011: Reflecting on Progress finds that UK plc is “nowhere near the path” to achieving government targets for an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report is the first independent indicator-based assessment of UK business sustainability. It finds that in the last year UK business has slipped back on industrial carbon emissions, energy efficiency, decarbonising electricity generation, and greenhouse gas emissions from freight transport – all areas which are crucial to the fight against climate change.

The report tracks 16 indicators, each representing an important aspect of environmental, social and economic sustainability, to capture a snapshot of the state of UK business. It gives a mixed picture of companies’ performance on sustainability and creating a green economy.

Indicators tracking business capacity to engage with sustainability are improving rapidly, providing hope for the future. They show rapid growth in the number of companies obtaining environmental management certification and publishing sustainability reports – although these are still a small minority of all companies. The number of workers with sustainability skills is also rising, and more than 10,000 students qualified in relevant subjects in 2010.

Care of the environment is generally improving. Since last year major UK pollution incidents are down 17.3%; there’s been a big fall in the amount of hazardous waste produced and sent to landfill – down 30.6% on a composite indicator; and companies are using less water.

But despite progress on the green economy, there’s a move away from sustainability in indicators looking at wider economic and social issues. Pay inequality, spending on research and development, and companies’ social performance (on human rights and labour and supply chain standards) have all fallen over the past year.

The report also finds a clear imprint of the Great Recession of the 2000s on business sustainability. For example the carbon intensity of road haulage worsened during the downturn after improving almost continuously for at least 15 years. Recession is not good for sustainability, even if it leads to short-run reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or pollution, the report concludes.

ENDS and Forum aim to publish the report annually to track progress on sustainability in UK business.