By Roy Snell
One of the discussions I get into on a regular basis is about whether or not ESG is new. I say it’s new and experienced and knowledgeable ESG folks say that it’s not new. The not-new crowd points to the fact that we have had people working on corporate social responsibility, sustainability, governance, and social issues for years. They say there are many experienced people in those professions and I agree with them on that point. However, the fact that we have been working on parts of ESG separately for years doesn’t mean that ESG is not new.
This is the same argument that the HR, risk, ethics, legal and audit folks had about compliance in 1995. They said, “Compliance is not new because I have been working on risk (or HR, audit, ethics, legal) for years and compliance is all about risk (or HR, audit, ethics, legal).” Not only were these people wrong. They were dangerous. If they could convince leadership to focus on one element of a compliance program, their profession’s element, as if that element was an entire compliance program their organization would not have a compliance program. Leadership that listened to the “compliance is not new” crowd would just have a continuation of whatever old school subspecialty profession that dominated compliance in their company. And many people successfully limited the new field of compliance to their subspecialty profession, their limited views, and their limited experience. Damaging the many companies that employed these people
Yes, a few people have 5-10 years of ESG experience doing exactly what this very new ESG profession will be doing for the next 5-10 years. However, it’s a fraction of the people claiming to be experienced ESG professionals. Not only is the limited viewpoint of subspecialist professions limiting their companies from implementing a true, fully functional, ESG program, many of these sub specialists do not have the disposition to run an ESG program in the first place. Social, governance, and environmental activists got us to where we are. Thank goodness they fought for years to get us to this tipping point—1000s of companies implementing ESG programs.
Running an ESG program is not just about running up and down the halls of your company with your hair on fire, telling everyone the sky is falling and that the company and everyone in it are bad. ESG is not just about the E, S OR G, it’s about all three of those metric categories and much more. It’s about interpersonal skills needed to convince leadership to make material changes to improve their ESG metrics. It’s about motivation, collaboration, communication, compromise, and being calm when everyone around you is losing their minds. ESG is about ESG auditing, ESG monitoring, ESG education, ESG risk assessments, ESG investigations, ESG ethics and creating an ESG culture. People who have been calculating CO2 emissions for the last 20 years have experience and bring value to the table but that does not mean they are qualified to run an ESG program.
Before you run off and tell people ESG is not new; you better be specific about what you are claiming “has been around a while.” And that is because the role of the ESG Officer, a job that focuses on all ESG metrics, all elements of an ESG program and the interpersonal skills to materially change a company’s ESG approach is brand stinking new. I promise you that the ESG officer job description in 10 years will look nothing like what people are claiming it looks like now. I think my problem is that I disagree with some very experienced and knowledgeable people because I see the ESG Officer as something more than a data collector and annual report writer. I see the ESG officer as a much more comprehensive position than the very knowledgeable “ESG is not new” crowd do. I think that ESG officers will make their companies materially better than most people do, and I think they will help make the world a much better place. And that my friends, is not going to happen with the existing definition of the role of the ESG officer.