Who will be the top 10 sustainable business leaders in 2020?

Published 24th August 2020 by Joe Mayne

This post is also available in: Fr (Fr)

sustainable business leaders

This year marks EcoAct’s 10th annual ranking of FTSE 100 sustainable business leaders based on their sustainability reporting performance. Ahead of the release of this year’s report, we look back at the trends across the last decade in corporate climate reporting and sustainable business leadership.

2020 is the beginning of the final decade when we still have time to make the meaningful changes required to limit the most catastrophic impacts of climate change according to the IPCC report on 1.5 degrees.  Over the past decade, we already witnessed devastating natural disasters inextricably linked to global heating, including flooding, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and cyclones. We have seen the compounding of climate change’s impacts on food sources, air quality and ecological degradation and how this effects biodiversity, people and communities.

Yet, during that same decade, we also saw climate action grow. Many organisations have responded to intensifying pressure from consumers, shareholders and other stakeholders to make marked progress in their sustainability initiatives, while governments make crucial commitments to emissions reductions and Net Zero targets.

This year’s research is being undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused 2020 to be a year like no other. Much has already been said about the vast and varied consequences of the coronavirus and how these continue to affect and reshape our everyday lives. Under the lens of climate change, we are at a momentous crossroads, with ‘Green Recovery‘ in one direction and ‘Revenge Pollution‘ in the other. We’re unlikely to see these impacts of COVID-19 on companies’ climate change reporting in our 2020 research, but it is important to recognise that COVID-19 will have an effect and time will tell how the decisions made now will influence limiting dangerous climate change in the future.

About the reports

Sustainable business leaders 2019 Report Mockup
FTSE 100 sustainable business leaders 2019 report cover

Each year we conduct research into the public disclosures of companies in four leading global indices; the FTSE 100, CAC 40, IBEX 35, and the DOW 30 covering the UK, France, Spain and USA respectively. We score all the organisations against the same criteria, resulting in a comparative view of some of the largest companies in the world, how they’re acting upon climate-related sustainability issues and disclosing these efforts.

Basing our research solely upon public disclosure, readily accessible to any interested third party, reflects the importance for organisations to be transparent on their climate actions, especially with the rise in the general public, investor and government scrutiny.

Every year our methodology is reviewed to account for evolving best practice as well as the increasing urgency of the climate crisis. This also helps when using the reports to make comparisons on climate leadership from year to year.

A decade of sustainable business leaders

Looking back to the first iteration of this report, Carbon Clear’s Carbon Reporting Performance of the FTSE 100 in 2011, there are some companies that continue to perform highly. Eight of the top 20 from our first year of research remain in the top 20 in the 2019 sustainability reporting performance of the FTSE 100 (Marks & Spencer, Aviva, GSK, BT, Tesco, Barclays, HSBC, British Land).

Two of the top three companies (Telefonica and Acciona) from the first year of the IBEX 35 research (2016) were still in the top 3 in 2019. Similarly, four of the top 10 in the first ever CAC 40 in 2017 (Danone, Schneider Electric, L’Oreal and Veolia) were also in the top 10 last year.

Comparing average index scores across the history of the research, there is a pattern of the FTSE 100 continuing to lag. The average score of the IBEX 35, when introduced in 2016, was higher than that of the FTSE 100 which was still true in 2019. When the CAC 40 was introduced, in 2017, it had the highest average score ahead of both the IBEX and FTSE and this has continued for the past three years. The DOW claimed the second best average index score in 2018 and third in 2019.

Sustainable business leaders index comparison of 2019
2019 Sustainable business leaders average score across each index

A partial explanation for the FTSE consistently behind the other indices is the discrepancy between the leaders and the rest of the index, which is amplified by the fact it is the largest index. Last year, the lowest score in the FTSE 100 was 1% compared to the highest at 87%. This gap between leadership and inaction demonstrates a real issue for the FTSE but less so for the CAC 40 and the IBEX 35. 

Looking at the CAC 40, individual company scores across the index have been close since we first added it to the study in 2017. This indicates that companies are responding to the requirements of more climate legislation at a national level. The index as a whole performs well, remaining the best scoring index on average for the past three years. Despite this, the international leader boards are mostly dominated by companies from other industries, suggesting that CAC 40 organisations are complying, but not necessarily pushing the boundaries of best practice.

Looking at industry trends from the early years of the research until 2017, Supermarkets were consistently the top performers except for just one year in 2015. Then in 2018 and 2019, the industry sector average fell to 15th and 11th respectively. This is made more surprising due to the continued high performance of Marks & Spencer.

Sustainable Business leaders industry comparison 2019
Sustainable business leaders industry comparison 2019

One sector to keep an eye on for the 2020 reports is IT & Telecommunications (ITT). As a sector, ITT spent the earlier part of the decade underperforming across the FTSE 100 average. However, in 2015 the sector showed considerable improvements due to BT and Sky’s high performance. Finally, in the 2018 and 2019 reports, we saw a more consistent approach to climate action across the ITT sector, with all companies scoring 50% or above. This can be partly attributed to the introduction of the DOW, where ITT dominate five of the top 10, but also due to the sector’s ability to innovate and develop low-carbon products, which 92% were doing in 2019.

What’s new this year?

Our methodology is updated each year to reflect updates in best practice climate action. The criteria are not only reviewed but have expanded, almost doubling over the decade as our analysis has deepened and the factors of sustainability reporting have widened. The following are some of the key updates that demonstrate the direction of best practice reporting in 2020.

Net Zero

The surge in national Net Zero commitments to its current figure of 120 countries really gained momentum during the later stages of 2019 and has continued into 2020. This year, we are expecting more companies to be making Net Zero commitments, however, we are also looking for robust strategies for achievement not just declarations.

The TCFD and climate risk

Accounting for climate-related risks is now more vital than ever. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reported in January that for the first time in its history, the top five most likely global risks all relate to climate change and the environment.

Considering these factors, we have reassessed organisations responses to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). This year, a commitment to align with the recommendations of the TCFD is no longer adequate. Companies should now be reporting in line with TCFD recommendations, and we have looked not just for declarations, but evidence that the recommendations (Governance, Strategy, Risk Management and Metrics & Targets) are being implemented.

Target-setting

An important factor in corporate climate action is setting public targets and commitments. Through this research, we’ve seen how setting ambitious targets drives progress. Now more than ever, it is important that these targets are based on science and that they are sufficiently ambitious, aligning to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees or well below 2 as advised by the IPCC. We will be looking for companies to be setting science-based targets (SBTs) that are verified by the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi), demonstrating progress towards targets and evidencing innovation, wider usage of renewable energy, low carbon products and services and other initiatives to decarbonise across all emissions Scopes of a business (1,2 &3).

What will the future bring?

2020 is a turning point for climate action. Time is running out to make the changes required to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change. Our 2020 reports reveal new sustainable business leaders for 2020 and highlight the progress of continued top performers. Reflecting on ten years of research reveals progress but it is evident that the next 10 years will need to build on this momentum if we are to give ourselves a fighting chance of tackling the climate crisis. The release of these reports in September will give us an invaluable insight into whether we are making enough progress as we journey through the next important decade for climate action.

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