ESG: a common language or lost in translation?
How you interpret or define ESG will shape your view on how effective, or ineffective, you think it is
What does ESG mean to you?
Is it about saving people and planet? Is it a business hygiene test? Is it a mechanism to measure and manage risk? Is it a process that helps drive value and performance?
Is it a way for businesses and investors to align values with partners, suppliers and investees? Is it about driving and demonstrating behaviours, performance and progress? Is it a channel to demonstrate impact?
Perhaps it’s just about producing a nice-looking report.
But hopefully it’s about some or ideally, all, of the above.
It’s fair to say that there is no single ‘best way’ of approaching, or even interpreting, ESG.
The technical debate in financial circles around ESG’s value is itself detached from how a lot of businesses are now thinking about or implementing it. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, as ESG becomes common parlance, there’s a growing risk of it being applied so loosely that it becomes cliched and meaningless.
So, establishing what ESG means to your organisation – what and who it’s for – has to be the starting point for anyone looking to put it to good use.
The ESG debate
If your primary ESG audience is a funder (which is very likely to be the case), then it’s important to have a clear understanding of that funder’s interpretation – and also the wider investor community’s interpretation – of ESG. That means getting to grips with the ESG debate.
As ESG continues to move into the mainstream, and is pinned to practically every investment going, there have been clear examples of inconsistency, contradiction and double standards. Yet there have also been plenty of examples of people glossing over the nuance.
I welcome scrutiny – particularly as a former financial journalist whose job it was to wade through the waffle, drill into the numbers and find the real story. (And with any corporate or financial reports, there tends to be a lot of waffle).
I’d argue that the scrutiny ESG experiences today will make the broader sustainability movement better and fitter for the future.
It is already serving the purpose of holding some investors and businesses to account. Just think about how many times we’ve seen investors or companies with strong ESG scores or big claims being called out in the last year or so.
Furthermore, we need context. Take the flurry of negative comment pieces we’ve seen in the mainstream media around ESG’s pitfalls and shortcomings. Such commentators tend to make a strong case for the prosecution. But it’s worth asking – what is the author’s own take on ESG? What do they think it’s there to do? That goes some way to understanding their gripes with it.
ESG isn’t a panacea, but in all seriousness, is it really what’s wrong with the financial sector?
Clarity of message
Rather than adding to the ambiguity, this is where communications professionals can help – and be more than the messenger.
Some people may describe communications as the ‘softer’ side of ESG. Designing and producing an engaging ESG report is a skill in itself, and that’s nothing to be overlooked.
But actually, the real value from the communications function is clarity – and being there right from the start of the process to help guide and influence thinking, develop clear messaging and ask the right questions.
That includes ensuring that ESG has meaning for all the stakeholders you are looking to engage – from funders to your colleagues to your customers.
You need people that can engage and bridge any gap between the leadership team, finance, HR, comms, customer services and other key parts of the business.
It’s a big internal coordination piece. That’s why it needs people who know the organisation inside out, people who understand the sector or market, and people who get the broader ESG landscape to all be around the table and work hand-in-hand.
If you’re grappling with what ESG means to you and your organisation, here are a few things we think it’s worth thinking about:
- Define what ESG means you
- Know who you are talking to
- Be clear about your ESG priorities and objectives
- Get the right people around the table – including buy-in from the top
- Get your data in shape
- Embrace a standard or framework – but use it to underpin your ESG story
- Keep it evidence-based – credible, measurable
- Avoid overegging your environmental credentials or positive impact
- Be creative about how you engage your stakeholders: different audiences will appreciate different channels, but the ore message must be consistent
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘our ESG is a work in progress’
- Tell your own story
Luke is the director of Social’s London division and leads our ESG and purpose-driven finance consultancy. He is a former financial journalist and editor of Social Housing magazine.