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An unexpected breakout year for the social side of ESG

In the long road trip of corporate sustainability, the S for social concerns has mostly ridden in the backseat. Now it has moved to the front, alongside the E for environmental issues.

ESG concept

About six months ago, I wrote that 2020 would be a pivotal year for environmental, social and governance (ESG), and that what happens this year and over the next decade could determine the next century. While it would be the world’s biggest understatement to say 2020 isn’t turning out the way we all thought or hoped it would, I stand by my conclusion.

This is a critical time for corporate sustainability. What we do or don’t do will change the world, but for reasons nobody could have predicted in December.

The mass climate protests of 2019 and subsequent outpouring of major corporate climate commitments from the likes of Amazon, IKEA and Kering, among others, seemed to indicate that 2020 would be the year of the E in ESG — when corporate climate action hit critical mass.

In January, the momentum built as Microsoft committed to becoming carbon-negative and BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink’s now-fabled letter to CEOs called the climate crisis a "defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects." The climate crisis even topped the discussion list at the World Economic Forum Annual Summit in Davos.

And then along came a global pandemic, and everything changed. As the world went into lockdown, ESG conversations shifted from the E to the S, or social — how companies were responding to COVID-19 in terms of employee health and welfare. The emphasis on the S intensified even further after the murder of George Floyd sparked a movement for racial justice and employees, customers and investors demanded companies take a stand. 

As social issues move to the forefront of ESG discussions, 2020 is turning out to be the breakout year for the S. To better understand what this means for the future of corporate sustainability, thinkPARALLAX recently gathered investors and corporate sustainability practitioners from TPG, JUST Capital, Workday, The Estée Lauder Companies and KKS Advisors for a digital Perspectives discussion

The S moves to the front seat

In the long road trip of corporate sustainability, the S mostly has ridden in the backseat — with the E and G commandeering the wheel and Spotify playlist. That’s because social issues are tough to quantify. 

While calculating a carbon footprint is comparatively easy, how does one create science-based targets for worker welfare or racial injustice? Sure, an organization can make efforts to diversify its board and workforce, or create programs to improve worker welfare, but this is only a start. 

Addressing deeply rooted systemic inequalities requires a much greater commitment and means of measuring success. Until now, companies have gotten by with doing nothing or just the bare minimum. No longer, thanks to the events of 2020.

"We’re at a turning point in ESG," said Martin Whittaker, CEO of JUST Capital. "What’s happened in the past three months has done 20 years of S work." 

What’s happened in the past three months has done 20 years of S work.

Moving forward, corporate board members, investors and executives will be expected to consider worker welfare and complex social issues such as racial inequality. "Companies are scrambling to address these issues, and everyone needs to throw out the manual and completely rethink how they approach equity in the workplace, because something is not working," Whittaker said. 

But as the S takes over the wheel, are environmental issues, the E, getting pushed into the backseat? No, said Alison Humphrey, director of ESG at TPG. "It’s just joined climate in the front seat."

E and S: better together

The great thing about ESG is that it isn’t a zero-sum game. A renewed focus on the S actually might help companies do a better job of addressing environmental challenges because the two are linked. People of color or low-income socioeconomic status, for example, are suffering and will continue to suffer first and worst from the negative effects of the climate crisis, says Union of Concerned Scientists

"There’s so much interesting intersectionality with social justice and climate — they are both so connected," Humphrey said. "Climate work is hard and exhausting, and many people don’t feel the urgency or balk at the initial cost of the transition or fail to grasp how dependent humanity is on our ecosystems. In many ways, it mirrors many of the challenges with social justice — and you can’t address one without the other."

While measuring social impact remains difficult, this no longer will be an excuse for companies not to try. 

"With this sharp focus on how integral social issues are to our ability to achieve an equitable society and make environmental progress, we will collectively need to get a lot better at measuring and communicating the S, just as we have with environmental topics," said Aleksandra Dobkowski-Joy, executive director of ESG at The Estée Lauder Companies.

Even before the events of 2020, Workday factored social impact into its environmental sustainability strategy, said Erik Hansen, director of sustainability at Workday. "The events of the past months have illustrated how valuable systems thinking is, and showing that we are a connected, global community. That connection between climate, the environment, people and health."

When Workday installed EV chargers at its headquarters, for example, this was not just so software engineers could come to work in a Tesla, Hansen said. It was also so that the company could minimize environmental impacts such as air pollution, which disproportionately hurt disadvantaged communities. Likewise, as Workday works toward its 100 percent renewable energy goal, the company is advocating for a just transition to clean energy that accounts for those who might be affected economically — such as workers in the fossil fuel industry — and ensure that nobody is left behind.

One of the most effective ways to honor the E and the S might be focusing on the G, according to Anuj Shah, managing director at KKS Advisors: "One of the things we’ve looked at is how the G — the governance part — supersedes the E and the S. If you can get the G right, the E and S will follow." 

What racial justice means for business

As mass protests erupted across the globe after the murder of Floyd, a chorus of companies voiced support for addressing racial inequality, and some even committed to doing something about it. But what comes next?

"We’re at a point where we need to take substantive action, as individuals and as corporations, to deliver on social justice. I’m incredibly proud of the commitment made by The Estée Lauder Companies to promote racial equity, as a starting point for real progress and lasting change," Dobkowski-Joy said.

According to Humphrey, TPG came out with a statement and commitment to take action by first taking a step back to reflect on its role and how it can best address system inequalities as a private equity firm. "The question is, what is your company’s role in rectifying injustice in our system? This needs to come uniquely from each department, a top-down and bottom-up approach."

A hopeful future for ESG

Despite the setbacks of 2020, there remains reason for hope. The ongoing global pandemic is shattering the longstanding myth that companies must sacrifice return to be a good corporate citizen — ESG funds are outperforming the wider market during this economic downturn. 

And we are learning through much trial and error — emphasis on the "error" — how to address an intractable problem that harms everyone yet that no single government, organization or individual can solve alone. Relentless competition may be giving way to constructive collaboration. And these lessons might still be applied to address the ultimately more existential crisis of the climate. 

We will collectively need to get a lot better at measuring and communicating the S, just as we have with environmental topics.

"In the midst of this tremendous upheaval, we’re all pulling together in ways which were unfathomable just months ago — and showing that collective action is actually possible," Dobkowski-Joy said.

Climate may begin to take on a new importance as a long-term threat to society as climate risk exposes inequities just as COVID-19 has, Whittaker said. "COVID-19 has taught us the importance of resilience, interdependence and systemic risk and how to address that — and how we can be more effective working together. I’ve seen a lot of collaboration over the last three months, which I wouldn’t have expected to see. I think it has brought out a lot of humanity in business which has all been about profit making." 

Shah of KKS was more cautiously optimistic. "I’m concerned that a lot of companies are going to feel pressure to maximize profits coming out of the pandemic into a new normal. ESG and short termism don’t necessarily go together. Long termism is a prerequisite for ESG."

However, Shah added that he has been inspired by the mass movement for racial justice being driven by the younger generation. As Millennials and Generation Z continue to take over the workforce and enter leadership roles, this activist mindset could change the future of ESG. 

Humphrey suggested companies should take a look at business model resilience and how it is intertwined with ESG issues. "Perhaps we can focus less on the rolling back of budgets, which has happened for many companies across the board, and instead on how the pandemic has compelled us to look beyond one-off CSR and sustainability initiatives toward a more strategic, integrated and business-aligned approach to managing these 21st-century risks," she said. 

As we continue to push forward toward an uncertain future, the only certainty is that things will change. And it’s up to all of us to make sure that it’s for the better.

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