UK organisations are failing to realise the business benefits of sustainability programmes, according to a major study by the Economist Intelligence Unit sponsored by BT.

The research, which surveyed more than 1,100 executives internationally, found that while half (50%) said that sustainability programmes helped improve brand value, fewer than one in six (16%) felt they improved profitability.

And the research found that UK organisations lag behind their global counterparts when it comes to engaging their employees with sustainability initiatives, with far fewer people in the UK (26%) have been given sustainability goals to achieve, compared with a global average of 37%. The proportion of UK executives whose remuneration is dependent on hitting sustainability goals is half that of the global average (9% as opposed to 18%).

Nearly one third (29%) of UK respondents admitted that their company only makes sustainability efforts in markets where it is perceived to have an impact on customers’ perceptions of the firm, and a similar proportion (25%) admitted that their company’s sustainability efforts mostly centred on communication rather than actual change.

James Watson, senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “Many companies are moving away from mere rhetoric towards real business initiatives. However, a gap remains between what companies claim they are achieving in terms of managing their social and environmental impacts and the extent to which their executives feel involved in these activities. Companies need to devise strategies that do more to engage staff in sustainability through their day-to-day activities.”

The research went on to identify that sustainability programmes were missing out on board-level leadership. In more than one third of UK organisations (35%), the person responsible for sustainability did not report directly to the board, while 25% of organisations had no person responsible for such matters. Fewer UK companies have consulted on how execs can interpret sustainability in the context of their job than the global average (22% against 34%).