Hasty, imperfect ESG is not the path for business

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The writer is a global economist. Her book ‘How Boards Work’ will be published in May

Good environmental, social and governance practices take a company from financial shareholder maximisation to multiple stakeholder optimisation: society, community, employees. But if done poorly, not only does ESG miss its sustainability goals, it can make things worse and let down the very stakeholders it should help.

To be sure, the ESG agenda should be pursued with determination. But there are a number of reasons why it threatens to create bad outcomes. The agenda is putting companies on the defensive. From boardrooms, I have seen organisations worry about meeting the demands of environmental and social justice activists, leading to risk aversion in allocating capital. Yet innovation is the most important tool to address many of the challenges of climate change, inequality and social discord.

Pursued by $45tn of investments, using the broadest classification, ESG is weighed down by inconsistent, blurry metrics. Investors and lobbyists use different evaluation standards and goals, which focus on varied issues such as CO2 emissions and diversity. Metrics also depend on business models.

Without a clear, unified compass, companies that measure themselves against today’s standards risk seeming off base once a more consistent regulator-led direction emerges (for example, from worker audits, the COP26 summit and the Paris Club lender nations).

ESG is not without cost and the best hope for long-term success lies with business leaders’ ability to stay attuned to its impact and unintended consequences. For example, while the case for diversity is incontrovertible, efforts at inclusion should account for the possible casualties of positive discrimination.

Furthermore, despite ESG advocates setting a strong and singular direction for governance, organisations have to maintain their operations and value while managing assets and people in a world where cultural and ethical values are far from universal. While laudable, a heightened focus on ethics (such as human rights, environmental concerns, gender and racial parity, data privacy and worker advocacy) places additional stress on global companies.

It is often asked if advocates appreciate that ESG is largely viewed from the west’s narrow and wealthy economic perspective. To be truly sustainable, ESG demands global solutions to global problems. Proposals need to be scalable, exportable and palatable to emerging countries like India and China, or no effort will truly move the needle.

Much of the agenda is too rigid, requires aggressive timelines and lacks the spirit of innovation to achieve long-term societal progress. Stakeholders’ interests differ, so ESG solutions must be nuanced, balanced and trade off speed of implementation against the breadth and depth of change.

Video: Gillian Tett explains ESG’s importance

Business leaders are aware of the need for greater focus and prioritisation of ESG. We also understand that deadlines can provide important levers for senior managers to spur their organisations into action. After all, in the face of pressure for a solution to the global pandemic, vaccines were produced in months instead of the usual 10 years.

I live at the crossroads of these tensions every day. Raised in Africa, I have lived in energy poverty, and seen how it continues to impede living standards globally. As a board member of a global energy company, I have seen much investment in the energy transition. Yet from my role with a university endowment, I have also been under pressure to divest from energy corporations. 

Business leaders must solve ESG concerns in ways that do not set corporations on a path to failure in the long term. They must have the boldness to adopt a flexible, measured and experimental agenda for lasting change. In this sense, they must push back against the politically led narrative that wants imperfect ESG changes at any cost.

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