Blog Post

The ESG Standard: Why Doing Good Is Good for Business (Part 2)

Publish date: Dec 06, 2021 | Reading time: minutes
Orange background and wooden dice with letters.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics matter to more stakeholders than just your investors. Making ESG communications a fundamental part of your overall communication strategy helps build trust among customers, business partners, employees and more. Here’s part two in our two-part series on why robust ESG programs and communications matter for your business.

From the Margins to the Mainstream

Over the past few years, the role that environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics play in the business world has changed dramatically. What was once considered “nice-to-have” for a niche group of stakeholders is now recognized as an important indicator of a company’s future performance.

“Today, most mainstream investors, including the world’s largest pension funds and asset managers, see strong ESG scores linked to lower risk, increased resilience and higher profitability,” says Joel Makower, chairman and co-founder of GreenBiz Group, in a recent interview with Godfrey. “ESG has gone from the margins to the mainstream, with tens of billions pouring into these funds every year. The speed at which this has happened has, frankly, been astonishing.”

And it’s not only investors who are looking for ESG excellence. As we outlined in part 1 of this series, employees, customers, business partners and suppliers are all factoring ESG performance into whom they choose to do business with. As a result, companies are rushing to meet new ESG standards, hire ESG talent and incorporate sustainability reports and ESG performance into their marketing communications.

For many companies, they’re already taking actions that would score favorably on an ESG report, but the bigger struggle is knowing how to communicate achievements to all stakeholders. Whether it’s a LEED-certified facility built with tax credits, a flood plain restoration to comply with regulations or more equitable hiring policies to improve retention, these accomplishments can often get buried in reports that never reach a wider audience.

In this blog, we’ll look at the challenges of ESG reporting and discuss some effective communication strategies to ensure your stakeholders know you share their values. We’ll also look at an example of effective ESG communication to show how it can boost your brand.

Proof Over Promises: Your ESG Accomplishments Matter More Than Your Aspirations

proof over promise

There are endless truisms to capture the age-old notion that what you do matters more than what you say. That’s because walking the talk, so to speak, is an essential part of building trust. And trust matters more than ever when it comes to your company’s social capital.

According to aggregated research from Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in Our World in Data, social trust is on the decline in the U.S., with only 30 percent of respondents agreeing that most people can be trusted. Globally, trust in OECD governments and public institutions is also decreasing. This erosion of trust may be why we are seeing increasing demands for action over words, from the protests at the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this past November to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

What this means for your company’s communication strategy is that demonstrating real-world accomplishments will go much further than a well-crafted mission statement. And verifying those accomplishments with quantifiable data and/or third-party recognition will help reassure your stakeholders that your company is putting shared values into action.

ESG Reporting: It’s a Data Problem

Capturing the right data for ESG reporting can be a source of frustration for companies, investors and other stakeholders interested in ESG. To measure and evaluate ESG performance today, companies must navigate a confusing patchwork of reporting standards and frameworks from various organizations. According to Makower, those organizations include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), CDP and the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), to name a few, along with more being proposed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation and the European Union.

Data problem

The lack of standardization today is the biggest threat to effective ESG disclosures, says global financial consultant firm Duff & Phelps in a blog post. But standardization may be coming soon. IFRS is working to develop sustainability standards globally, and the Security Exchange Commission is taking steps to establish an ESG reporting standard for corporate filings.

In the meantime, public companies are left to make difficult decisions on the best way to capture and report ESG performance, and they have a lot of questions. Those questions range from “How can we disclose more and get credit for the good work we are doing?” to “How do we protect ourselves from ‘greenwashing’ claims and litigation risk?” write Celia Soehner and Jeffrey Boujoukos in Reuters.

According to investors, companies aren’t reporting enough. In a recent survey, 63% of asset managers said the lack of reliable corporate data on ESG activities is a major to moderate challenge to ESG implementation. In the same survey, 85% of fund management firms said ESG is a high priority, but more than half acknowledged that a lack of meaningful metrics is a challenge to achieving those investment priorities.

Many companies are turning to third-party organizations to help validate their ESG performance and reassure stakeholders, sometimes at great cost. Because of the dizzying array of reporting standards, investment firms often rely on these third-party recognitions. But that doesn’t mean they like it.

“Third-party ratings of companies on ESG standards are too simplistic and backwards looking to be useful for investors,” asset managers told the SEC, according to a report in Forbes. Nevertheless, according to a recent study, 38 of the top 50 asset managers use two or more third-party providers of ESG data. That same study lists MSCI, Sustainalytics, ISS-ESG and Vigeo Eiris as the most preferred ESG ratings providers.

For companies looking to attract more investment, the added credibility of third-party recognition may be well worth the cost. But when it comes to appeasing all of your stakeholders, we think Makower put it best in our recent interview: “Overall, the best third-party recognition is from satisfied customers!”

ESG Communications: Making the Most From Your Metrics

Whether companies choose to rely on third-party rating services or compile and report ESG metrics in-house, that data can prove to be an invaluable resource for corporate communications. And the value of ESG metrics extends far beyond attracting investment; it can become a powerful way to connect with customers, build partnerships, retain employees and improve brand perceptions. 

CEOs are realizing this, and an explosive number of executives are making it a top priority for their companies. In fact, according to research from Gartner, the percentage of CEOs naming ESG as one of their top five priorities doubled from 2020 to 2021. Also notable, those companies are choosing an ESG communications framework over the traditional, narrower Corporate Social Responsibility framework. In case you missed it, we explain the difference in part 1 of this series.

As a result, ESG goals and performance are becoming an important part of industrywide conversations among everyone from your customers to your competitors. Whether your company is just beginning the ESG journey or you already have a robust ESG reporting framework in place, there are a few key ways to stand out in the ESG conversation:

1. Make your ESG story a fundamental part of your brand story.
At the heart of any brand is a set of company values. Make sure those values, along with your company’s mission, align with your ESG goals. If they're not a perfect match, consider homing in on ESG priorities that better fit your brand, or try reevaluating your values through an ESG lens. Making ESG an integral part of your brand will enrich your brand identity and help create more authentic ESG messaging that resonates with your audience.

2. Be authentic.
Authenticity is essential to building trust with all your stakeholders. That means acknowledging real-world challenges where your company still has work to do, while also highlighting your success stories to show how your ESG metrics translate into positive outcomes. If your brand and ESG priorities are properly aligned, your messaging about sustainability or diversity inclusion won’t feel lofty or out of touch.

3. Focus on the bigger picture. It’s not all about you.
ESG communications is more about trust and solidarity around a common goal than it is about promoting your company or new product. Customers will care more about your ESG story if they don’t perceive it as self-interested and self-promotional. Of course, your new product or service may solve important ESG challenges, but tying it to the bigger picture and focusing on how you can help others achieve their ESG goals is a more effective way to incorporate an ESG message.

4. Find your unique ESG value proposition.
With more and more companies focusing on ESG reporting and communications, it’s critical to find your key differentiators. What makes your ESG efforts unique? Why is your company different? Answering these questions in your ESG messaging will help your brand stand out as a thought leader in your industry.

5. Incorporate an ESG focus in a variety of channels for all your audiences.
Don’t relegate your ESG metrics to a dense report tailored only to investors. This content can engage all of your audiences and can be incorporated across all of your marketing channels. To establish your brand as an ESG leader, make your ESG goals and metrics easy to find and easy to understand. Turn data into infographics, weave ESG goals and performance into your website, talk about it on social media, make it part of your public relations efforts and make your sustainability report engaging for a broader audience.

6. Make ESG part of your company culture.
Your sustainability or communications teams shouldn’t be the only people in your company talking about ESG. If you want your ESG story to be authentically woven into your brand, it also needs to be woven into your company culture. That means making it part of your employee policies, offering sustainability and diversity trainings, reporting progress toward your ESG goals in meetings and making it a part of daily life at your company. If your employees don’t believe in your ESG mission, how will you convince your other stakeholders?

7. Be a collaborator.
Demonstrating your commitment to a better world can also take the form of partnership. Participating in ESG initiatives and partnerships like Net Zero 2030 can show that your company is willing to work together to solve the big problems. It also helps you amplify your ESG message and build mutually beneficial relationships that can further your business objectives.

So What Does This Look Like in the Real World?

To illustrate how these principles can be applied to advance an ESG story, boost brand perception and generate more interest, let’s look at a recent case study.

A global provider in sustainable water treatment and process improvement solutions, Solenis, had recently broadened their focus from environmental sustainability to a more robust ESG platform. With new priorities in place and a plethora of new data reporting on their ESG objectives, Solenis set out to not only develop their first full-fledged sustainability report, but also develop a new ESG-focused brand identity and website.

Solenis website

Their key objectives in this monumental task were threefold: 1) position their company as a leading sustainability solutions provider; 2) drive awareness that Solenis clearly links environmental, social and governance initiatives to value creation; and 3) address investor demand for in-depth company data and information.

Launching their new ESG-driven messaging, reporting and website was an opportunity to open a new chapter in their brand story. Solenis had always stood on the promise of advanced expertise and support, but now their company had grown to encompass a host of sustainability-driving innovations. Moving forward, their brand would represent the same caliber of customer solutions but also a unique force for change in ESG initiatives. It was the same Solenis story but captured through a wider lens.

The new Solenis website puts ESG front and center in a way that complements their brand and communicates their unique value proposition. It also makes relevant ESG metrics and data easily accessible to a variety of audiences, verifying their commitment to being “a force for sustainable change.”

Since the launch of the 100+ page website, Solenis has seen an increase in return visitors and more engagement. This included a 58% increase in Ask an Expert submissions, a 23% increase in contact form submissions and a 24% increase in PDF downloads, the majority of which were related to ESG reporting.

Start Putting Your Own ESG Communications to Work

As ESG becomes an increasingly important focus in the global business community, it will become a mainstay in your company’s marketing communications. No matter where your company is on the ESG journey, finding ways to align your marketing with ESG priorities will be critical to your future success.

If you don’t know where to begin, reach out to an expert at Godfrey to help you tell your ESG story.

And if somehow you’ve made it all the way to the end of this article without knowing what ESG really means, please check out our first installment of this two-part series.

Additional resources:

To read “The ESG Standard: Why Doing Good Is Good for Business (Part 1)," visit our previous blog.

To read the case studies about our work with Solenis, check out “Building a Versatile, ESG-Driven Website and Brand for Solenis.”

To hear about “Turning ESG Data Into Intelligence,” listen to our podcast with Paul Shahriari, Chief Innovation Officer and Founder of Ecomedes.

To read our Q&A with Joel Makower from GreenBiz Group, check out this blog post.

Donna Harris - Director of Strategy

Donna is fascinated with industry trends and market research. She supports account teams with insight and strategic planning and thrives on conquering challenges that keep clients up at night.