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BW Businessworld

Voices Within, For & Beyond: ESG

In this 21st century “global village”, it is no longer just about maximising profits, but also about using sustainable supply-chain practices to ensure long-term growth and longevity.

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The term ESG was first coined in 2005 in a landmark study initiated by United Nations, titled as “Who Cares Wins.” Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) refers to the three core themes in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company. These criteria also help in determining the future financial performance of companies.  

What’s ESG ?

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues concern and impact every company, irrespective of where the company operates. Environmental issues range across climate change,  carbon emission concerns, waste management, pollution (air and water). Social issues range across labour issues, modern slavery, under-the-table sourcing practices, product liabilities, privacy concerns, data security. Governance issues range across business ethics, corporate culture that shapes how a company functions and its organisational practices, board impact,  enterprise risk framework, granularity of the organisation disclosures. 

ESG will play a vital role in the very-existence, growth and sustainability of purpose-driven companies.  The rise of ESG’s adoption and influence points to a positive way of doing business. 

In the recent years, investing in sustainable companies has been associated with "doing good" investors. ESG is no more just that or about “investing plus sustainability”. It is now the way of responsible investing. It’s no more a “nice to have” special project in a firm; it is a “must make it part of the organisational DNA” culture & board imperative. “ESG”ness of a firm would neither happen overnight nor can be bought by simply copying S.O.Ps from an advisor. ESG will be a continual process in any organisation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the importance of social commitment, environmental championing and governance values of companies. Many a companies have taken up the cause of social impact, as spontaneous response to the suffering all around. They showcase the companies’ true values and commitment to a mission.

Net-Zero

‘Net Zero Emissions’ is a term in usage since the Paris Agreement in 2015, where many governments agreed to their commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero means achieving a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those taken out.

A country just cannot deliver its net-zero promise, unless it transforms its entire industries’ way of operations as well as the economy. With regulations seeking those changes, businesses are increasingly coming forward with net-zero commitments.

It is natural for many businesses globally to “wait and watch”; and in today’s global economic situation, many of those business leaders could simply procrastinate and postpone taking large call for investments towards Net Zero challenge.

As history has shown, as the countdown to the Net Zero tightens, the polity and policy leaders globally will start taking decisions on behalf of corporate leaders and force tougher regulations and tighter sanctions including huge monetary penalties.

Social License 

Sustainability is not a main stream story yet, especially in most of Corporate India. It simply cannot remain as a “notable mention” in ew pages tucked inside the annual report. 

Sustainability is specific to a company, or an industry and to a country. Companies need to measure their positive and negative impacts, identify the baselines, and disclose in a transparent & consumer-friendly manner. Regulatory requirement of such disclosures have compelled the act of disclosures, but not necessarily the spirit and details of such disclosures. 

A social licence simply refers to the acceptance of an organisation by the community in which it operates. In other words, it is the ability of an organisation to carry out its business, simply because the confidence the (local) society has, that it will behave well respecting all rules & traditions, with accountability and in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The ‘social license to operate’ is made of these three elements:

  • Legitimacy: the extent to which an organisation operates by the ‘rules of the game’ (the norm of the community, even if they are informal or not coded as law).
  • Credibility: the organisation’s ability to provide true and detailed information to the community and fulfil all its commitments on time, without reminders.
  • Trust: this aspect of highest quality of a relationship takes time and effort to nurture and sustain.

Organisations which think that social licence is something that they can “pay for”, end up with issues of their credibility at stake. Companies with questionable processes often try and “buy such credibility” by giving out community grants (in the form of social funds). This kind of transactional nature of the behaviour would break the trust that the community has with the organisation. 

Even a broken relationship can be mended or healed by carefully rebuilding that trust. Trust, (binary with either “present” or “absent”), assumes that all parties involved would nurture the relationships, based on mutual respect and highest levels of probity. 

Social license of profit-making entities has to be a full-time engagement. Organisations which champion their community-initiatives, usually have their best and senior resources overseeing those initiatives. Such organisations ensure that their Boards are appraised regularly of the initiatives, however small the projects could be in their balance sheet. It is the guiding principles of those initiatives which matter and not the project-cost-outlay !

ESG - a journey

To really achieve sustainability, it has to be a top-down, company-wide cultural effort.

There are many firms that “rate” the ESG initiatives of entities. Most of them have opaque attributes whose count & quality differs between their industry counterparts. It is surprising that globally the rating agencies have not come together to have a unique global framework including attributes.

“What you measure is what you get” - if you measure the wrong attribute, you can make the data look nice in the final interpretation. Standardisation is key for creating a common language and benchmarks, and therefore a need for transparency. That’s where critical stakeholders have to showcase the hallmark of ESG - “transparency” .

And this is also where the ESG detractors or naysayers go wrong; however rich and popular they are. ESG measurement cannot be just a number, but has to be seen in context of qualitative parameters too. Addressing all ESG concerns at once is nearly impossible even for the most forward-looking and well-intentioned companies. The key to success is materiality. The understanding of which ESG risks are relevant to a company’s sector and overall operating context is important.

While ESG seems to be a black-box to some, it looks like the magic moment for many. It’s not as easy as getting the company rated and just spouting the “ESG pride”. 

Boards usually have governance expertise on business matters. At the beginning of this millennium, climate change became a global debate. It took time for it to percolate to the corporate world as a serious topic that could impact their ‘future-business’ as well as ‘future of business’. With ESG standards gaining momentum across stakeholder groups, Boards are discussing :

  • Societal changes and evolving expectations of the society 
  • Adapting the corporate brand promise in alignment with ESG objectives
  • Various risks including Global risks, country risks and corporate risks.
  • Reputational issues 
  • Disruptive elements in their industry / geography  
  • Global momentum on ESG and expectations.

ESG - bringing all voices together 

The first observation on “social licence to operate” debated the intersection of corporates and communities. The net-zero observations debated the intersection of governments globally and corporates. The ESG measurement is about the assessment of individual corporate.

Whereas a successful ESG-way-of-life would be possible only when we have the above three intersect, and work-in-tandem. 

Conversations around ESG needs to move out of specialist journals, multilateral institutions annual summits and corporate board rooms to classroom debates, panchayat discussions, and populist mass media across various languages !

A productive ESG thinking depends in building initiatives which are authentic, inclusive, actionable and focused on driving a real-world result, not just an ESG rating or award. ESG is not a revolution, but more a mindset-evolution. Just as how an ECG can detect heart condition and potentially save lives, ESG assessment can foretell organisational health ! 

This might be a good starting point for you to think of your ESG journey ahead :

  • Do all your stakeholders know your ESG goals ? Are all of them aligned in the mission ahead?
  • How do you improve the existing ESG standards ?
  • Do you know of the parameters that make up your firm’s ESG score or ratings ?
  • How do you improve on the existing processes that impact ESG performance of your firm ? 
  • How do you compete with the global benchmarks ? 
  • How do you work-in being a ESG-pioneer in your industry / geography / globally ?
  • How strong is your ‘social licence to operate’, in the locations your firm operates and serves customers ?
  • How do you communicate about your ESG initiatives - both to your internal stakeholders and to the external world ? After all, “perception is the new reality”.
  • You might have “goodness” as a Value. Is it reflected in each of the stakeholder  behaviour and processes within your firm ?

In this transformational journey to make the world ‘good’, every voice counts and every positive act matters. Capital, human capital and social capital have to come together for sustainable & impactful ESG outcomes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Shailesh Haribhakti

The author is a Chartered and Cost Accountant, an Internal Auditor and a Certified Financial Planner & Fraud Examiner. He is a well-known thought leader on the Indian Economy and Public Policy. He is a Board Chairman, Audit Committee Chair and Independent Director at some of the country's most preeminent organizations.

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