The June solstice is almost upon us. Davos, the World Economic Forum's annual meeting of elite political, academic and business leaders (some would say, talkfest), is over for another year. Private jets have returned to base, and the thoughts of leaders (in the northern hemisphere, at least) are turning to summer holidays and, with it, relaxation, reading lists and an opportunity to cogitate. Meanwhile, leaders south of the equator press on, for the June solstice marks the onset of winter.
Metaphorically, the June and December solstices are signposts: marker pegs that signal pending change.
Over the past couple of years, I have been watching intently one signpost in particular, wondering whether it might portend a change in relation to board work, or whether it might be a mirage that can be ignored. ESG, a three-letter acronym for environmental, social and governance, was coined in 2005 by a group associated with the United Nations. The stated goal was to put pressure on companies to think beyond financial indicators as the primary indicator of business performance, and to report accordingly.
A veritable industry of so-called experts (many self-styled) has emerged in recent years, all claiming to help businesses respond well to ESG demands and expectations. Many business leaders, activists, politicians and directors’ institutions have latched on too, themselves motivated by various self-interests. That interest in operating sustainably and improving reporting is high is no bad thing.
However, to date, evidence to support the proposition that the embrace of ESG leads to better performance is yet to emerge. Indeed, cracks are starting to appear. Several critical thinkers have called out ESG as offering less than what has been claimed. Some have gone as far as asserting that ESG is a ‘solution’ looking for a problem (read: wasted effort). Whether it is or not remains to be seen. However, there is cause for concern: discussion has reached the point that advocates have deemed it necessary to make counter arguments, to defend ESG. That several different definitions of the term are circulating doesn't help. Boards also need to be very alert and ask probing questions, to ensure they continue to discharge their duties. In particular, boards need to assess whether ESG proposals are conducive to improved business performance, and if ESG is a harbinger of substantive change in the way businesses need to operate or yet one more TLA, a fad that will ultimately be consigned to the history books and, in time, forgotten.
That questions are being asked—openly—should be a catalyst for political, civic and business leaders to check that the aspiration (claim), intention (strategy), actions taken and resultant outcomes are aligned. On the evidence to hand, ESG is unlikely to be a panacea. Thus, a level of scepticism in relation to the purported benefits of ESG is warranted.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.