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Growing your ESG proposition through thought leadership

ESG (environmental, social and governance) is where the global crisis meets a political problem. Social inequality is growing, with consequences for political stability. The climate crisis continues apace. Governments are divided.  

Where does private enterprise lie in this story? Many companies are trying to act, whether that means becoming a DEI and ESG-first company (think Starling Bank) or nudging the machine towards change with systematic targets and community support programmes.

Thought leadership is the bow for the ESG arrow. But how do you translate words into meaningful action?

In our session, Levelling the Playing Field: ESG in Thought Leadership at Thought Leadership for Tomorrow in New York, industry experts shared their diverse experience of leading ESG programmes and what meaningful thought leadership might look like in this field.

Begin with the thought

At a time when some governments are rolling back on ESG and DEI, with companies following in their wake, it seems pertinent to ask why businesses would try to act on ESG. The simple question of ‘why’ can help shape organisational strategy.  

To some degree, the answer is simple. If we look at B2C companies, it is consumer demand that drives ESG.

Michael Nevski, Visa’s Director of Global Insights, discussed the trends driving what he called ‘confrontational consumerism’.

The rise of systemic risks such as inflation, war and climate change, tech innovation, the rapid growth of digital platforms, and the attention economy (the confidence to share opinions online, particularly among GenZ) is driving a growth in consumer activism.

Consumers demand more from companies than their products, and companies have to respond.  

It’s important not to assume that companies are solely reacting to consumer demand. For many companies, ESG and sustainability engagement have always been part of their DNA. Cristene Gonzalez-Wertz, Director and Managing Editor of Schneider Electric’s Energy Management Sector said of her 180-year-old company that “values drive our value.”  

They see themselves as an impact-driven company. “You can’t make change unless you believe you are doing the right thing, and you have to be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” Their function and thought leadership are about making it easier to reach net zero through energy management and automation.  

However, embracing ESG is more than a reactive response to consumer demand and core business models. It’s also about managing business risks.  

Emily Janoch, Associate Vice President, Thought Leadership and Design in Care. Care’s analysis revealed that 190 million women are in global supply chains, and they have less pay, fewer tools, resources, and information, fewer rights, and a significant care burden.  

Not tackling gender inequality is a business risk. Research by the International Labour Organisation showed that gender equity led to greater profitability and productivity, enhanced reputation and an innovative culture.  

It’s not just women. Climate change is also a business risk, disrupting agriculture, energy production, supply chains and economic resilience.  

Janoch says businesses should consider social and economic impact, explore human risks in their supply chains, and change their practices accordingly.  

These perspectives can drive innovative thought leadership programmes. Let’s look at how.  

Ending with the leadership 

Our speakers shared valuable insights into how to deliver effective thought leadership ESG.  

For Janoch, businesses seeking to act on ESG must engage with people. That means co-creating projects with communities and non-profits. Launch a pilot, then scale if possible.  

Translating that into thought leadership means communicating more than impact numbers and success stories. It’s not about selling the organisation.  

Instead, it’s about telling human stories, not corporate ones. Thought leadership should not be clean. It’s valuable to embrace failure, as failure is something others can learn from. Ultimately, it’s about changing the narrative, where the story becomes that we need to go beyond growth to consider human risk.  

Gonzalez-Wertz advised that you need to go beyond values and passion to data, detail and proof – showing in your thought leadership exactly how you and they can make an impact. It’s crucial, she argues, to tell an ‘and’ story, not an ‘either/or’ because that’s how you can engage people.

Developing relationships with consumers and customers is vital for companies. Nevski discussed key insights into trust in brands and how to grow that trust. Take technology.  

Research shows that “businesses are more trusted than the innovations they produce.” For example, people trust OpenAI 10% more than Chat GPT.

This finding is true across all sectors. The clip shows that some technologies are more trusted than others. The good news is that more people embrace green tech than reject it (because it aligns with their values). However, many other technologies find themselves in the ‘reject over embrace’ pile.  

So, how do you rebuild relationships with consumers when it comes to tech? He argues that you need to: 

  • Be inclusive – speak to everyone, not just particular consumer market segments.  
  • Consider the impact – acknowledge the fears but educate people about how technology such as GenAI can help us be more productive.  
  • Show the benefits – stories about how technology can help.  
  • Show your ROI.  

The ESG/thought leadership intersection 

Businesses face many challenges right now in understanding and implementing ESG into their products, services and supply chains.  

Our session showed the vital role that thought leadership can play in articulating values and reshaping corporate strategy toward incorporating social impact. It can help enterprises implement ESG standards. Finally, thought leadership can share novel insights about the need for, and impact of, ESG on consumers and customers.  

Most of all, it’s about sharing good practice—what works, what doesn’t, and why we need to act now.  

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