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28 October 2015

Sustainability efforts in big business more talk than walk

Most large Swedish companies fail to ‘walk the talk’ by living up to their own pledges on sustainability. This is shown in MISUM’s review of their external communication.

The Mistra Centre for Sustainable Markets (MISUM), which started earlier this year, has recently issued its first scientific study, entitled ‘Walking the Talk?’ For it, sustainability communication in the 72 largest companies on the Stockholm Stock Exchange was surveyed.

The authors, Elisabet Ålander and Uta Hönemann, are Master’s students at the Stockholm School of Economics. Under the guidance of MISUM’s director Lin Lerpold, they have reviewed available company information from 2014, including websites, annual reports and policy documents — a total of some 9,000 pages. Their communication has since been rated in terms of 26 criteria relating to aspirations and goals (‘the talk’) on the one hand and how these are followed up and implemented (‘the walk’) on the other.

One key conclusion is that a big majority, nine out of ten companies, refer to sustainability in general terms rather than talking about their own measures and how these are followed up. Ålander points out that she and Hönemann did not evaluate the businesses’ actual work to achieve sustainability, only how they communicate it.

‘Many of the companies are good at communicating their overall sustainability aims, but for some reason they’re poor at explaining how they implement them. Either they're making empty promises or they aren’t telling people what they actually do,’ Ålander says.

Little effect on management

The review also shows that the sustainability manager belongs to the management group in only a quarter of the companies. Another shocking result, Ålander reports, was the short-termism of these companies’ aims. Only one in ten has a post-2016 sustainability target.

‘And the target furthest ahead in the future only extended to 2020,’ she says.

The study has been noted in several media, and when the results were presented at a seminar at the Stockholm School of Economics recently, many of the companies investigated were represented. The purpose was not to identify individual companies, Hönemann states, but to generate a dialogue on credible sustainability communication.

‘We think and hope our study will benefit the companies’ sustainability efforts. In a social debate that is highly characterised by distrust of businesses’ sustainability communication, it is increasingly important to follow up and implement promises,’ she says.

Ålander and Hönemann, who wrote the report in parallel with their own studies, will now study the companies’ sustainability work in greater depth in a joint Master’s dissertation. It will involve in-depth analysis of and interviews at selected companies, for the purpose of understanding more about the general patterns they have been able to discern. Why, for example, are so many holding companies silent about their sustainability efforts?

In the spring, they will complete their degrees. Both are interested in continuing to work on sustainability, but inside the business sector.

‘You don’t have to work in a sustainability department. Sustainability issues are important whatever role you have in a company,’ Ålander says.

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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