State of Green Business

Speaking Sustainably

When it comes to messaging, it’s all about ESG

For the last two years, I’ve been scratching my head about something: Americans have made it very clear that they want to buy from good companies. And when you ask them what’s good and who’s good they give a range of answers that lump together "good for the planet" and "good to people."

Yet Corporate America has insisted on keeping those two things separate. The sustainability team has lived on an island by itself, or possibly in an EHS department, tasked with environmental compliance and reducing environmental impact — doing less bad, essentially. Meanwhile, the corporate social responsibility people have lived in another department, typically HR, and have been charged with spreading goodness — community projects, philanthropy, diversity and inclusion.

The separation hasn’t been good. It’s meant duplication of effort and competing messaging. In one case, we watched a bold company commitment flounder for over a year because it included both environmental and social impacts and the two separate departments struggled to determine who should "own" it.

This all changes with environmental, social and governance (ESG) as a framework, and that’s a good thing.

Or at least, it should all change. Here’s why:

1. It's just a matter of time

If you work in communications or sustainability at a publicly traded company, somebody on your executive team or your board will come to you very soon, if they haven’t already, and say, "Why is our (fill in the blank with the name of the rating agency here) score so low?" This is often, in my experience, how ESG gets on Corporate America’s radar. An investor or board member brings up one of the company’s ESG scores or a ratings agency reaches out to the right senior leader and starts asking lots of questions the leader can’t answer. Bottom line: As much as some companies are driven by purpose, all companies are driven by profitability. And when Wall Street starts asking questions they can’t answer, they move quickly to rectify that.

2. It makes sense to streamline your messaging

There are dozens of ESG ratings agencies out there. (I’ve seen the number put at 100-plus, but five to 10 "usual suspects" come up in conversations I have with senior company leaders including ISS, Sustainalytics, CDP, Bloomberg, RobecoSAM and MSCI.) I concur with the lamenting of folks who deal with these: It’s a lot to manage. They all ask different questions/are looking for different things, and one could spend half or more of their work time responding to and managing the ESG ratings process. The thing is, ESG ratings are about companies being good across the board (on ESG indices), much as Americans already are wired. So if you’re the sustainability person, you have to work with the CSR person and somebody in corporate governance (legal and/or accounting) to get the questionnaires answered. Better for that to all be streamlined in one department for sheer ease rather than scattered throughout an organization.

3. This is not a check-the-box exercise

And this isn’t just about "gamifying" the ESG scoring, which is kind of how it seems the C-suite often views it. Companies shouldn’t look at ESG scoring as a check-the-box exercise that they "handle." They should look at it as a framework through which to manage climate risk and financial risk — a tool to steer the company to profitability. That’s why Wall Street is increasingly interested in ESG. It’s about money. Companies that have no idea what will happen to their supply chains and human capital when the waters rise will be caught off guard and unable to stay profitable through climate events. Companies that are aware of their risks and shifting and managing their organizations, as a result, are better investments.

This is all top of mind for me, having just attended the GreenBiz 20 conference earlier this month. ESG was brought up many times, as was diversity and inclusion (D&I). My takeaway is that companies need to reorganize so sustainability, social good (including D&I) and governance all live in the same department under the same senior leader. And that leader needs to use ESG ratings, rankings and reporting tools as frameworks for managing their climate risks and driving their company to profitability in a climate-resilient world.