LONDON — Businesses in high-emissions industries are failing to align their actions and performance around climate change with communications and visible CEO leadership on sustainability, according to new research from Salterbaxter.

In the run-up to the COP26 climate change summit currently underway in Glasgow, the Publicis agency, which specialises in creative work in the area of sustainability, carried out a study looking at the triangulation between action, communications and leadership in 57 companies in the oil and gas, automotive, and food and agriculture sectors.

Salterbaxter partnered with the World Benchmarking Alliance for the study, taking the organisation’s climate change performance data on these companies, and then looking at the degree of reach and engagement around their communications on digital, social and traditional media, as well as sentiment towards their CEOs regarding climate change.

It found that few of the companies examined scored highly on all three areas. In many cases, companies were not taking enough action to back up their communications messaging – evidenced by the number of generic “commitments” in the run up to the COP26 climate change summit this week. But in other instances, there was not effective communications to highlight positive action, and not enough leadership to encourage behaviour change across their stakeholders.

The study found that 76% of blue chip businesses in high emissions industries that perform well on their climate actions fell short in their use of communications to enable sustainable behaviour change. A further half of businesses that scored high on climate action scored low or medium on CEO leadership that enhances sustainability.

Of the 18 companies with a high communications score, 12 were car manufacturers: a reflection of the volume of communications around electric vehicles and the industry’s need to be seen to be addressing sustainability.

Salterbaxter deputy MD and head of sustainability strategy Huw Maggs said businesses needed to succeed on action, comms and leadership to “achieve the transformational change required for a 1.5°C future and to get close to the commitments COP26 is pushing for”, and that “none of the 57 businesses analysed come close to closing the gap to the conditions for climate success set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Maggs told PRovoke Media: “Communications has to be in perfect lockstep with actions – too much and it’s greenwashing, too little and you’re leaving value on the table. A lot of companies are scared to communicate boldly around sustainability; a lot are happy to gently plug it in to what they are talking about, but we want to give companies the confidence that it’s OK to be bold in your communications if it is underpinned by your actions.

“The study highlights that communications around sustainability is quite a long way from where it needs to be. It’s not just about communications for its own sake, but because communications and engagement can be a powerful tool in driving change, because it can change behaviour, create demand, shift capital towards more sustainable activities, and influence influencers.

And he added: “It’s not enough to have a shiny section on your website or a dripfeed in your corporate comms, but then not communicate with investors and your CEO not making it a priority and waiting for things to change around them.”

The study is a “proof of concept” precursor to Salterbaxter’s launch of a new data and insights tool, ProgressPoint, that will look at whether companies are effectively prioritising and integrating sustainability into their communications and engagement with different audiences, alongside the WBA data on their performance in working towards sustainability goals.

Maggs said: “We will take a critical look at the frequency and tone of how companies are talking about sustainability, whether the senior leadership is talking about it, and how they are engaging different audiences, for instance is it in their employee value proposition and investor presentations. Alongside that, we have the data on their action – such as whether they are investing in R&D and evolving their portfolio away from carbon-intense products – so we can compare their sustainability performance with their communications.”