ESG Roundtable with Industry Leaders

Global Strategy Group has been tracking the relationship between companies and social responsibility for almost a decade, and year over year, our polling shows a vast majority of Americans believe that corporations have a responsibility to bring about social change.  When it comes to solving the most important issues facing society, including racial injustice, wealth inequality, and climate change, Americans expect companies to play a role. However, despite the countless benefits derived from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives for employees and consumers, the movement faces continued political backlash and headwinds, including congressional hearings, lawsuits, and anti-ESG legislation particularly in conservative states such as Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma

Last month, GSG Executive Vice President Jade Floyd and Senior Vice President Arielle Confino convened high-level executives from influential corporations and organizations grappling with ESG issues for a closed-door roundtable conversation. Together they shared insights on how they are navigating this challenging political landscape in which the ESG acronym has become a weaponized term. Leaders from banking, hospitality, nonprofit, and consulting sectors shared their perspectives and provided helpful insight into the state-of-play as it relates to social impact work. This conversation will inform GSG’s future research projects that will continue to shed light on perceptions and attitudes around ESG.  

Concern about the “branding” of ESG dominated the roundtable conversation, with one strategic communications consultant remarking, “We try not to call it ESG because of the lightning rod those three letters have become. We think of it as freedom to access information, freedom to disclose information, and sometimes we just call it investing.” A business strategy consultant discussed countering the politicization of terms like ESG and DEI noting, “A decade ago, the benefit of a diverse company was a better product; now, we focus on how diversity increases revenue.” 

These concerns align with recent GSG polling that found significant partisan polarization around the term ESG. A real estate industry ESG leader offered an interesting and simplistic solution for their brand — “I’m personally trying to remove ESG as words and replace it with the value that it’s creating.” By focusing on ESG’s benefits—increasing revenue, reducing risk, empowering employees, attracting consumers—organizations can transcend the controversies of its nomenclature. 

This conversation mirrors the concerns that GSG addresses with our clients daily. Recent GSG research, in partnership with SEC Newgate, underscores the significant importance Americans place on ESG. Sixty percent of consumers agree that companies should speak up when it comes to issues that are important to their employees and customers, and that 72% of Americans think it is important for companies to act on ESG issues.  

An outcome-based approach to ESG communication can effectively counter conservative criticisms that label social impact policies as merely “woke” politics. The fact is, when utilized effectively, ESG is not only good for consumers and employees but also benefits the economy. A report from earlier this year authored by the Texas Association of Business in partnership with an economic consulting firm found that recent Texas anti-ESG laws have cost the state nearly $700 million in lost economic activity

Powerful storytelling also helps push back on the conservative anti-ESG playbook. GSG has worked with dozens of clients on their ESG report creation and narratives highlighting the value of sustainability, employee retention, wellness, and DEI efforts to their key business stakeholders.  

Our roundtable discussion with ESG leaders built on years of research and expertise in the ESG storytelling space, and attendees were clear that ESG is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. As we head into the 2024 election season, it’s essential that organizations have the right resources and messaging at their disposal to inoculate against unfounded criticisms of ESG and disinformation from the right.  Explore the ‘Unlocking America’s Future’ messaging playbook, developed in collaboration with GSG. It offers practical, evidence-based strategies designed to enhance your team’s messaging efforts.