Our stories are as important as our strategies when it comes to advancing environmental, social and governance (ESG) within companies and society-wide. While some think of "storytelling" as being inherently braggadocious, superfluous or even disingenuous, to tell stories is to be human. Since the beginning of humanity, people have told stories to transfer knowledge, coordinate group behavior and facilitate collective action. A good story can change the world — or prevent it from changing.
Yet many organizations struggle to communicate ESG effectively. Some are early in their ESG journey and eager to communicate — but don’t know where to begin. Others are further along, but face difficulties crafting the right messaging. And still some shy away from communicating ESG altogether.
One thing is for sure: Communicating ESG no longer is optional even if it remains voluntary for now. And with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) soon likely to require ESG disclosures from publicly traded firms, companies that act to improve their ESG communication will be ahead of the curve.
But talking about ESG remains difficult — we’re dealing with some of the world’s most complex challenges in a time when misinformation, polarization and oversimplification reign supreme. At GreenBiz 22, I explored how companies can do a better job communicating ESG.
Finding success by sharing failures
Embracing ESG means assuming a growth mindset — acknowledging and disclosing your organization’s missteps and setbacks along with the wins — and remaining true to this across all of your communications.
"Consistency and authenticity are important north stars when telling your ESG story," said Sunya Norman, vice president of ESG strategy and impact at Salesforce during my GreenBiz 22 panel discussion. "Whether your audience finds you on social media or reads your ESG report, they should feel like they're engaging with the same company voice and values."
This aligns with what I have seen in my own work as a journalist and ESG consultant. By definition, authenticity means being comfortable with showing both beauty and blemishes. This doesn’t come easy to those reared in the classic model of corporate communications — which focuses on emphasizing a company’s successes and downplaying its failure.
Sustainability is an ideal toward which companies strive — not a state of being. Organizations can be more sustainable, or less so, but never achieve paragon status. And that’s OK. With this in mind, the best ESG communication is rooted in courageous vulnerability.
"It’s about progress, not perfection," said Sasha Calder, head of sustainability at Genomatica during the panel.
Don’t always lead with ESG
While ESG may be having its heyday, the concept remains niche and most people outside of corporate sustainability, investor or analyst circles are unfamiliar with the acronym. This means when communicating ESG, you don’t always need to lead with ESG.
One key takeaway from the panel was that sometimes it's not critical for an audience to understand the jargon or technical specifics completely — it's more important that they have an emotional response and walk away knowing the company cares in a genuine way about whatever ESG issue is being communicated. This is doubly true for general and employee audiences.
"Meeting your audience where they are at is key and using language that connects with them matters," said Roma McCaig, senior vice president of impact and communication at Clif Bar & Company, during the panel.
While reporting remains imperfect, if done right it can be an effective medium for communicating ESG progress to investors, raters and other data-driven stakeholders.
"Our employees would not connect with the term ‘ESG’ but they do understand our Five Aspirations, which are the business values that define our business model and guide our decision making to drive impact." Clif Bar chose the word "aspiration" in recognition that the company is on a journey to challenge itself and the status quo — always reaffirming that it is in business to be a force for good. This is a great example of company embracing ESG as a journey versus a destination.
"Always keep in mind a human is on the other side of the table and emphasize conscience, clarity and connection," McCaig said.
Delivery mechanisms for effective ESG communication
For many folks, thoughts about ESG communication conjure images of PDFs packed with everything from metrics to feel-good stories. There’s little question that ESG reporting is on the rise. In 2020, 92 percent of S&P 500 Companies and 70 percent of Russell 1000 Companies published sustainability reports. In my own experience, over the past two years the number of new companies reaching out asking for assistance with their first ESG reports has increased exponentially.
While reporting remains imperfect, if done right it can be an effective medium for communicating ESG progress to investors, raters and other data-driven stakeholders. When publishing data, it’s important to include the good with the bad, said Davida Heller, head of sustainability strategy at Citi at GreenBiz 22. Being transparent about your challenges towards achieving ESG goals is an important part of reporting, she added.
Aligning these reports to leading frameworks such as GRI, SASB and TCFD also adds credibility to your ESG reports.
"Leading companies can best communicate that they embody ESG best practice by reporting through CDP, working to get an A grade, and taking advantage of emissions reductions opportunities — and cost savings — in their supply chains by using CDP to gather emissions and energy efficiency data from their suppliers," Paul Dickinson, founder and chair at CDP, told me during a lunch chat at GreenBiz.
But reporting isn’t the only way to deliver ESG information to stakeholders. Indeed, trying to engage all audiences with reports leads to massive, complex documents that make everyone miserable.
At Citi, Heller said, while the report is used as a "single source of truth" for ESG information, they supplement this with other communication mediums more interesting to different stakeholders. Citi has an ESG website that breaks up topics into bite-sized pieces of content. If a customer, for example, peruses Citi’s website, they can easily find content about the company’s climate risk or human rights work.
The greatest story ever told
While we more or less already have the means and know-how to address many of the world’s ESG challenges, what we lack is the ability to take collective action at scale. We won’t be successful in addressing the climate crisis and other pressing problems if we can’t do a better job communicating them. Before we can get people to act, we need them to care — and storytelling is the best way to move them.
We are all part of the greatest ESG story ever told — and it's up to us to determine how it ends.