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The ESG Review: ESG communications moves from quantity to quality

Rising concerns over saying too much about their ESG credentials are causing some firms to pick their moments when communicating them, or even say too little, according to some reports this week.

With the acronym ESG having fallen out of favour, at least for external communications, and ‘greenhushing’ apparently on the rise as firms worry about regulation and politicisation, it’s perhaps no wonder.

An extensive article in Financial News covered the ground in the financial services sector, outlining why greenhushing was now holding sway over greenwashing, companies were being more considered about when and what they communicated, and the term ESG was now very much in the background.

Yet the principles of sustainable investing and pursuing business goals aligned to ESG dimensions remains the same within many businesses. In other words, they may be in the swan-like position of maintaining a calm and measured appearance on the outside, while beneath the surface there is much ongoing momentum.

This quote from the sustainability lead at investment management company Abrdn in the piece perhaps best sums up the situation: ““I know from talking to people that there’s still a massive appetite to make sure ESG is integrated into mainstream investment decision-making processes. They just don’t want to talk about it as ESG.”

The Financial News article also pointed to job titles with the term ESG being on the decline and the move away from quantity to quality of communication taking hold in Europe, having begun and now very much in effect in the US.

Another extensive piece in sustainability publication Edie outlined the case for “radical transparency” in the face of these pressures, principally in treading a fine line between needing to communicate their ESG progress with not falling foul of EU regulators clamping down on greenwashing.

There have certainly been some recent examples of bigger, bolder announcements on environmental commitments and action. Electronics firm Ricoh has said that it is bringing forward its central net zero target by a decade, while ITV has outlined a new externally-validated plan to reduce emissions by 90 per cent, with the broadcaster pointing to the influential role it plays in changing public behaviour as well as limiting its own impact.

Perhaps the greatest signal of underlying ESG commitments and investments continuing despite much consternation about what to say about them is the US Government’s news that the Biden administration will put a further $6 billion into public decarbonisation projects.

For communicators, it all speaks to a desire to be more selective but also potentially more ambitious with external ESG communications, particularly in environmental pledges. Planning that communications activity will likely need to become a more strategic undertaking, be better informed and be more creative.

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

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