Sustainability in UK media businesses: a mixed bag

18 June 2024

In a world where business sustainability directly impacts reputation and success, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles are becoming increasingly crucial for media companies.

Implementing ESG practices allows media firms to demonstrate their commitment to positive environmental impacts, ethical operations, and transparent governance. This not only fosters trust among audiences and stakeholders, but also aligns with the growing demand for responsible investment. For media companies, ESG is a strategy to ensure long-term viability in a market that values social consciousness and environmental stewardship as much as financial performance.

Why then, are we seeing a slight downward trend in terms of ESG policy progress?

Are UK media businesses struggling to deliver on ESG promises?

In our 2024 survey of media industry professionals, we sought to understand:

  • how they feel the sector and their organisation are faring in relation to sustainability, and;
  • why they feel sustainability is important to their business.

Of the 301 respondents, 78% believe that the media industry is making good or excellent progress in effectively developing and implementing ESG policies. While this may seem encouraging, it is a 10% decrease from last year’s 88% of 152 media respondents from our 2024 Media and Tech Industry Outlook.

This decrease may be due to a trend we are seeing in corporate sustainability. In recent years, many businesses made bold sustainability pledges and set ambitious targets, resulting in the feeling of great momentum. However, as businesses now shift their focus toward delivery and implementation, many are realising that achieving their pledges and targets will require more of a business transformation than they initially thought. In many cases, the rate of change required does not yet match actual change. This could be contributing to survey respondents feeling that the sector is making little (if any) progress.

Survey respondents also reported a decrease in optimism about the future of their businesses: 80% of media respondents in 2023 felt somewhat or very optimistic about the next 12 months, compared to only 59% of respondents in 2024. When future revenue and funding appear difficult to secure, sustainability is often scaled back, which could be another contributing factor to the lack of confidence in sustainability progress in the sector.

Sustainability seen as a real value driver

A very encouraging survey finding is that respondents are making clear links between sustainability and value creation, with 46% of respondents stating the primary driver behind their business engaging with sustainability was due to one of three types of value created for their business: supporting business growth, resilience and brand value (16%), helping to access finance and investment (15%), and helping to retain and recruit people (15%). 

Graph showing businesses are most driven by social responsibility, brand value, and talent attraction when implementing sustainable practices.

The results indicate that the industry is moving beyond the mindset of engaging with sustainability solely to positively impact people and the planet, toward engaging with it because it has real business benefits. This could bring renewed motivation for sustainability initiatives, to reach the ambitious goals. 

Material sustainability topics vary by media sub-sector 

Unsurprisingly, the sustainability topics that industry professionals ranked most important to their business depended on the sub-sector they operate in. ‘Sustainability impact through products and services’ ranked most important when considering all participants’ responses. This points to media professionals acknowledging the enormous reach that their products and services have, and therefore the significant impact that their industry has the power to create.   

'Which of the following sustainability topics are the most important to your business?'
Sub-sector  #1 Importance  #2 Importance  #3 Importance 
Audio and music Sustainability impact through products and services
Business ethics Reducing scope 3 carbon emissions
Film and TV Sustainability impact through products and services Diversity, equity and inclusion Reducing scope 3 carbon emissions
Marketing, communications and agencies Customer privacy and data security Sustainability impact through products and services Reducing scope 3 carbon emissions
Print and publishing
Customer privacy and data security Sustainability impact through products and services Waste management
Video games and interactive media Sustainability impact through products and services Diversity, equity and inclusion Reducing operational carbon emissions
It was interesting to see ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ (DE&I) absent from many sub-sectors’ top three most important topics. This may be due to the topic increasingly being seen not as a sustainability initiative, but as business-as-usual. Film and TV, and video games and interactive media, were the only two sub-sectors to rank DE&I as important. Only 58% of film and TV businesses, and 52% of video games and interactive media businesses, have policies in place to ensure that DE&I are discussed at a senior level (compared to 79% of print and publishing businesses, for example). This may explain why it is still a key topic for these sub-sectors, where other sub-sectors appear to have shifted their focus to other topics.

Media businesses must prioritise to progress

The overall media industry outlook, with its decreased optimism for the future, is at odds with the need for increased funding and resources for businesses to deliver on their sustainability targets. But businesses must not stop progress in the pursuit of perfection. The most effective way to create real business value from sustainability, while also making the best use of limited resources, is to adopt a materiality lens. That is, to understand which sustainability topics are of key importance to your industry, sub-sector and stakeholders, and to channel your efforts into making meaningful progress in these areas.

The 2024 survey results contained glimmers of hope for the accelerated rise of sustainable media – it’s now up to businesses to find ways to work sustainably, and to make sustainability work for them. 

Cathy Faria
Cathy Faria
Senior consultant, Consulting services
Cathy Faria
Cathy Faria
Senior consultant, Consulting services

Media industry outlook 2024

Explore results from our survey with 300 media industry business leaders focusing on workforce, sustainability, innovation reliefs, funding and exit planning.