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The ESG Review: Reporting season shows hunt for new words to frame ESG

To ESG or not to ESG; that is the question.

Actually, if this year’s financial reporting peak season is anything to go by, it’s not. The question now is what words can be used to convey the progress a business has been making towards ESG goals without actually mentioning the maligned three-letter acronym.

As several media outlets have noted in their coverage of key corporate annual results over the past week, companies seem to be grasping for new phraseology that embodies ESG, is meaningful and does not leave the door open to accusations of greenwashing.

It is a merry dance. And some of the alternatives are hardly definitive, and tend to point towards the main environmental drivers of ESG rather than encapsulate its broader remit.

“Green economy” and ”energy transition” are prime examples. “Responsible business” is another one explored in this Wall Street Journal article that outlines why, this earnings season, ESG has become a dirty word for corporate communicators and C-level executives compared to a ‘peak ESG’ moment three years ago.

Quite how responsible business differs from the notion of ESG isn’t really the point though. It is that given the politicisation of ESG investing, and the fact that regulation and standardisation still needs to bite in order to smooth off many rough edges, companies would rather steer clear of any entanglement. Why walk into a row that you can’t win, when you can just change the terminology to achieve what you want to in demonstrating positive change?

At the tail end of last year, Investment Week set out several new buzzphrases it had been hearing in financial circles, including “screening”, “impacting investing”, “thematic investing” and “stewardship”. Surely all contenders for retorts of “are you ESG in disguise?”.

But this is not that other new phase that has crept into the lexicon recently: “greenhushing”. Rather than rowing back on sustainability content in reports, this is about rebadging, or as communicators might call it, reimagining.

Also on the linguistic front, given the recent slew of bad news coming out of the retail sector, it was interesting to see “bluewashing” crop up in stories. This piece in The Retail Bulletin outlines why companies can seek to reference the virtues of positive action on societal topics like diversity and labour practices without actually doing that themselves. The term is a reference to the United Nations flag, and while it may be fairly new itself, seeks to use the age-old communication tactic of cynical deflection.

In a financial reporting season when the focus will surely be more on fiscal performance amidst extremely difficult economic conditions, the words may not seem to matter so much. In the long term though, some clever prose may have a value in achieving aims.

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

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