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Published Veröffentlicht 26/07/2023

Reconciling ESG: Rhetoric v. Reality, and the Business Imperative

By Norah Silverstone 

Despite Americans’ overwhelming support of environmental, social and governance topics, ESG has come under fire in recent years. As anti-ESG rhetoric continues to bleed into legislation and media conversations, many companies and communicators now contemplate their next steps around ESG communications. 

But findings from Allison+Partners/Headstand’s latest report, “Reconciling ESG: Rhetoric vs. Reality,” suggests companies should think twice about falling into the “green hush” trap because anti-ESG rhetoric doesn’t align with consumers’ strong support of the topic.

TIME senior correspondent Justin Worland and Deputy Director of Campaigns & Communications for the We Mean Business Coalition Kristen King recently joined Allison+Partners and Headstand Purpose Center of Excellence co-leads Whitney Dailey and Aaron Pickering to discuss the implications and realities surrounding anti-ESG rhetoric and the imperative for brands to remain steadfast in their commitment to and communications around topics like climate action. In case you missed it, here’s a recording of the webinar: Reconciling ESG: Rhetoric vs. Reality – YouTube

And here are key takeaways to help your company avoid playing into the public narrative of ESG backlash and effectively communicate your climate and social impact action. 

Dismantling confusion around the term ‘ESG’

While climate communicators know the term ESG like the back of their hands, it’s important to approach communications around these topics with general consumer-friendly language. The Reconciling ESG report shows only 13% of Americans today feel extremely confident they could define the term ESG. 

When writing for a broad consumer audience, Justin Worland has found that ESG isn’t often the right term to use because general misconceptions of the term can further polarize the conversation around climate action. But despite the confusion around the actual terminology, consumers show overwhelming support for companies taking action on ESG topics. It’s critical to understand your target audience’s comfort level with the term ESG to properly relay your efforts, as confusing terminology can easily be molded to take on whatever meaning the reader understands. 

King’s team advises companies to stay away from the narrative around ESG because using terms surrounded by confusion isn’t effective. Rather, to successfully communicate ESG initiatives, she recommends brands take a step back from confusing acronyms and instead focus on storytelling that showcases tangible impact – such as initiatives to increase access to safe drinking water or decarbonize operations – so consumers can visualize efforts that will in turn help advance the movement. Business leaders in climate action, like Larry Fink, already employ these tactics and change the way they talk about their climate work to appeal to consumers and avoid political fault lines, as Worland illustrated in his latest article on ESG pushback. 

Staying silent isn’t an option

Major funding has gone into confusing the public and manipulating the narrative around ESG. Because of this backlash, we’ve seen some companies fall into the dangerous “green hush” trap where they become more cautious about climate communications. Unsurprisingly, these efforts scale at a national level and further push the anti-ESG agenda. 

As data increasingly shows Americans want companies to lead on climate action, King warns staying silent is no longer a viable option. Rather than succumbing to green hushing, brands must realize the valuable roles they can play to drive forward climate action. Corporate voices are powerful and can counter this harmful narrative and muddy the attempts of big anti-ESG funders by using their platforms to authentically communicate their climate action. 

From her work with companies leading in climate action, King has seen firsthand that companies serious about meeting their targets know they must share their progress and learnings to bring along other peers in their industry. And they are well-positioned to advocate for the right policies and collaborations that will move the industry toward a sustainable future. When companies are loud and proud about what works – and show humility when sharing key learnings and failures around ESG – other companies will follow suit. Climate communications are not only better for business, but they are also better for their industry as a whole and the communities companies work with. 

The business case

Authenticity is critical. What’s natural to your brand and brand actions, where you’ve historically showed up, and where you have credibility to push the boundaries should be the key informers when companies decide which initiatives to pursue. ESG principles are all inherently connected to a business case. If the climate initiative isn’t tied to a key aspect of a company’s business, your story won’t get written. It’s critical to be exacting in climate communications and consistently tie climate initiatives back to the business. Any good journalist would be skeptical of a company sharing initiatives that come off as an attempt to tick a box and simply show the company does something nice.

When Worland speaks with companies that want to share their climate initiatives with TIME’s audience, the first question he asks is, “Why are you doing this? How does it tie back to your business?” Whether you’re decarbonizing your supply chain to improve operations or advancing equitable access to food to nourish your stakeholders, companies always have a reason to take the climate or social impact actions they do. Reporters and consumers alike look for stories that show how climate action shows up to inform and improve business strategy and demonstrate authenticity.

Resources to nail your climate communications

The ESG communications landscape is complex and can seem daunting when you don’t know where or who to turn to authentically and effectively convey your message. Luckily, there are several resources for companies ready to level up their climate impact and communications. 

Freedom to Invest Campaign: A bold new initiative spearheaded by Ceres and the We Mean Business Coalition, along with hundreds of investors and companies, this campaign reminds U.S. policymakers they must be free to consider all material financial risks and opportunities, including those related to the climate crisis, to plan for the long-term and build a stronger, more resilient economy. There are various resources for signatories to participate and support the campaign – from templates to get in touch with local law makers to talk about anti-ESG legislation to guidelines to write an op-ed, post on social media or deploy other communications. To sign up or explore the campaign, visit freedomtoinvest.org.

We Mean Business Coalition: King’s organization is a global nonprofit coalition working with businesses to take action on climate change. The coalition has several resources to advance climate action – like its responsible engagement framework that helps companies understand what good policy engagement looks like to close the advocacy gap between companies setting targets and those that set policy to help them get there faster. Discover how the coalition can help your company by visiting wemeanbusinesscoalition.org. 

Allison+Partners and Headstand Purpose Center of Excellence: Our team of experts in the Purpose Center of Excellence work with companies at all stages of their Purpose journeys. Our expertise spans Brand Purpose platform development, authentic ESG strategy + positioning, breakthrough Purpose + ESG amplification, and advancing nonprofit success. We’ll ask tough questions that help you ensure authenticity in climate comms. Visit purposeunderpressure.com for more information.

If you missed the live webinar, you can check out the recording here

If you seek ways to amplify and advocate climate impact, get in touch and email us at COEPurpose@allisonpr.com.  

Norah Silverstone is a senior account executive at Allison+Partners in Boston and a member of the Purpose Center of Excellence.

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