ESG is big on the comms agenda but it’s a complex subject. It’s not just about addressing a company’s ‘environmental’ impact.
ESG is short for Environmental, Social, Governance, so there are a host of wrap around components, like skills development, workforce reform or equality and social impact on communities. An ESG programme ultimately serves as a framework for measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of a company’s operations. Due to its complexity, breaking ESG down for your audience is vital, whether that be clients, prospects, employees or investors.
Seeing as April is Earth Month, let’s unpack the E in ESG – environment - and the comms challenges that surround that element.
Companies are increasingly being called out for greenwashing when their ESG comms lacks substance or is seemingly a PR stunt. What should be communicated is proper progress, plans and even challenges.
A report recently published by the IPCC reinforces the urgency of taking more ambitious action around decarbonisation. According to the report, to keep within the 1.5°C global warming limit, emissions need to be reduced by at least 43% by 2030 and at least 60% by 2035. Granted, we have a long way to go but every effort contributes to the overall impact and there are a number of steps companies can take to break down the barriers to decarbonisation.
Instead of trying to be all things to everyone and painting a picture of a perfect organisation with a faultless ESG programme, openness is the best policy. Rather zone in on the one or two things that you as an organisation are doing well and communicate this effectively, acknowledging there is always more to be done and that you have a roadmap. Sharing your journey will resonate with others in your position and they will be appreciative of the advice and learnings.
Green hushing on the rise
On the flip side, green hushing is on the rise due to companies fearing scrutiny of their stated targets and facing accusations, or even lawsuits around greenwashing. A Swiss carbon finance consultancy South Pole surveyed over 1,200 self-professed “heavy-emitting” companies across 12 countries, and their report revealed that 25% of respondents were “keeping quiet” about their science-based climate goals. These companies have mostly set themselves net-zero targets but just aren’t publicising them.
We get it – organisations are opting to withhold information on their climate strategy for fear that releasing it will bring some form of reputational risk to their company, but radio silence may not be the way to go.
By not divulging any information, companies may be perceived as hiding something or already greenwashing which could also pose reputational risk and put them at odds with their stakeholders.
ESG influencing employee decisions
No doubt, there is pressure to address the climate crisis, with personal views on sustainability and environmental impact now being carried through into the workplace and influencing employee decisions. In a recent Yale survey, 51% of 2,000 business students said that they would accept a lower salary to work for a more environmentally responsible organisation. Employees are now more willing to leave their jobs, otherwise known as conscious quitting, if they feel an organisation’s ESG commitments are lacking.
Interestingly, research by Cornerstone, revealed that employee demand for corporate responsibility and workplace sustainability learning content increased by 100% from 2021 to 2022 – indicating a gap between company sustainability policies and employees’ understanding of how to support those policies. Companies should create a common language and understanding within their organisation, and the first step in achieving that is through communication. Who better to be your environmental advocates than your employees.
Keep it real!
ESG should be more than good intentions, which should be reflected in a company’s communications plan. It's about communicating a tangible, practical plan that is achieving real results. ‘Fake it until you make it’ should certainly not form part of your ESG comms plan. Our advice? Have a voice, be consistent and be authentic!