The ESG spectrum and interconnected impact: the need for a broader view of sustainability

The media has been full of projections, proclamations and perspectives around ESG priorities for 2022 this week.

That was pretty predictable of course, but amidst the op-eds, news announcements and analysis articles have been some reflective pieces that considered the acute challenges businesses will face this year as the world continues to face pandemic uncertainty but also works to transform and adapt for the short, mid and long-terms.

For me, this letter in the Financial Times hit the ESG nail squarely on the head. It made the case for sustainability to be reconsidered, or even reframed, as a business endeavour that cuts across practically all aspects of the ESG spectrum, and hinges on the impact that a business’s activity creates – positive, neutral and negative.

Its point is that too many people, and businesses, get caught up in sustainability being about environmental factors only. Many will reference diversity and inclusion drives under a broad sustainability banner. Some might connect governance factors that drive policy and decisions over environmental and social action and nominally tag them as sustainability factors. But few take a truly broad view of sustainability and see it through the lens of the broad – and net - impact that a business has on the world in which it operates. The environment, the people and the way that it runs its affairs.

I wouldn’t profess to give a clinical definition of what ESG is versus what sustainability is, but perhaps a simple way to think of it is that sustainability is the broad playing field on which the net impact a business has on its ‘world’ is played out, while ESG is a frame of reference for how that game is played and how achievement is understood.

Those opinion pieces in this area have come thick and fast in recent days. Fortune covered CEO perspectives on the priorities around “increasing ESG performance or improving sustainability footprint”. GreenBiz looked ahead to a “wild and woolly year” in sustainable finance. Forbes carried opinion about there being no way back now on the ESG agenda. And the WEF reflected on ESG adoption by start-ups. Verdict gazed at the COP27 (gulp) horizon.

There will be much change, continued uncertainty, balanced priorities and opportunity to tackle in 2022. As communicators, if we can start by being crystal clear on what sustainability is and the part that it plays in all of our futures, and the purpose that an ESG focus has in achieving it, then we’ll be better placed to help.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT

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