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Finding gold in the grey – Eight areas of ESG resistance in your organisation to tackle next

June 20, 2023

With the arrival of half-year, it is usual practice to take stock of progress and solace in battles won. Many of our clients are creating and cascading ESG and responsible business strategy, and are checking in on their data – not only quantitative progress such as carbon reduction and diversity metrics, but qualitative and subjective measures too, like sentiment mapping and stakeholder analysis. 

As communication experts, we love to study the blockers. Where are things not working? Where is progress slow, or where are people resistant to change? Why? We grab these with energy and curiosity – as engagement problems that can, and will, be solved. 

You see, it can pay huge dividends to lean into the ‘grey areas’ – points that seem too tricky to currently unpick. You may have your targets for H2 already set, but here are eight hot topics to think about tackling next…

*ESG – Environmental, Social and Governance factors.

1. Resistance is engagement

Keeping progress going on sustainability can sometimes feel like pushing water uphill. The sentiment is generally appreciated, but everybody has their own roadmap for the year, and can’t always fit this into their plan. There may also be leaders who still haven’t seen its value.  What we don’t always appreciate is that outright resistance can be better than ambivalence. People may not all be ready to embrace it, but they have given it thought, and got involved in the conversation. It is in their consciousness, and will remain there for a window of opportunity.Think about your reaction to this strategically, and lean in. Is it just noise, or is it from an influencer – someone you should try to get on side? Try to be grateful for the feedback, however disheartening, because you have opened a conversation, and it can pay to continue it. If you make space for these colleagues to feel heard, ask them to dig deeper and explain more, you can create true and meaningful dialogue. 99% of the time, resistance comes from fear, which you are best placed to alleviate. 


2. It’s ok to be commercial

If we had a pound for every organisation who leads with ‘doing the right thing’! This is a grey area in itself (the right thing for whom?), but it is unrealistic to expect all business leaders to get on board with ‘responsible business’ from the good of their hearts. And fairly so, as many leaders are in pressurized positions to deliver for their shareholders, meet their metrics and get home to their families each night. Bandwidth can be stretched, and you won’t always know who is pulling the strings. So, make it easy for them. It is ok to be focused on the commercials. There is plenty of research now on the financial imperatives to embracing ESG. Whether you are increasing retention through good culture or saving money through waste management – do the calcs, present the stats, pedestal the savings. A business case should be well-rounded, and you need investment, so pitch like it. 


3. Reporting is a tool, not a task

Reporting teams are on their knees. With ratings agencies, benchmarkers, standards and disclosures (and every acronym under the sun), a small responsible business team can spend more time reporting than doing the activity to report on. A trick here is to reframe this. Reporting is an excellent tool in your engagement toolbox:

Firstly, it can be easy to see a report as past-facing – what you have accomplished in the reporting period. But, if you tackle a report with a forward-thinking mindset, you will see it as a navigational compass for plotting your next move. Where are your gaps? What new questions are you being asked? Where can you sense external momentum? If you are leaving boxes blank, or explaining instead of complying, don’t ignore these once you’ve submitted. Use this engagement with the external agenda to shape your forward direction and inspire new initiatives.

Secondly, reporting allows you to build allies and partnerships across the business. Do not request complex data at the last minute, or you risk building negative associations with sustainability throughout your internal stakeholders. Instead, bring them into the fold. Plan the year’s reporting cycle with them. Collaborate on new tech solutions. Innovate together, and build their advocacy at the source, by respecting their time and seeking their specialist knowledge and consultancy.

Finally, there has been much criticism recently around reports that are too qualitative. We fully agree that any claims and commitments need substantiating with quality data. But this data needs to be contextualised. Reports are unique opportunities to communicate directly with external stakeholders, so think carefully about who your audiences are and what story they need to understand. Then, engage your internal communicators on this – your analysts, your PR teams, for an eye. If you can build a story as an organisation, rather than squirreling away in a small dark room, you build an accurate and engaging message to deliver to those who are ready and waiting to receive it – a rare occasion indeed!

4. Have trust, but transparency, in the trade-offs

Some of the decisions responsible business leaders are asked to make in this space are exceptionally hard or complex. Often they have to make calls and decisions under the radar that play off one priority with another. There’s a requirement to show willing and compromise in the context of the wider organisation, and ultimately play the long game. To outsiders, like employee networks championing environmentalism or inclusion, it can be hard to see priorities shift away from what they are working towards. Familiar causes might be downsizing, role changes or reallocation of spend, or diluting a message to balance with another comm. But, working with so many brilliant leaders, we know that trade-offs are never without meaningful thought. To those making these decisions, our advice is simple: have trust in them, as you are best placed to make them, but where you can be transparent with those who are invested or affected. For example, there is a tricky trade-off between setting a commitment to only work with suppliers who measure and report their carbon footprint, and wanting to support small local businesses without the infrastructure to do so. If you talk transparently with smaller suppliers however, you might find they have other proportional environmental goals, or an aspiration to do so, but just need a little help.


5. The weeds are where the work happens

So often we are told to get out of the weeds and see the bigger picture. This is critical in a planning phase or a wash-up, and to hold at the back of your consciousness to keep your work aligned. But don’t fall into the opposite trap. Not only does progress only happen with action, but it is the tiny moments that really add up to create change. If you think you are spending too long stuck in the weeds, fixing small, repetitive or petty problems or doing menial tasks, don’t lift up out of them – follow their roots. If ESG is embedded, then every tiny action should follow a sustainable philosophy, and your weeds reveal where this is not the case, but also where it can be. 


6. You need to talk tenancy, but bring in legacy

An especially gritty challenge is persuading leaders to set goals and budget beyond their tenancy. It is incredibly unlikely that the board celebrating your achievement of Net Zero in 2050 is the same one approving the commitment now. Senior leaders will have objectives for their tenancies, both professional and personal, and these will be front and centre of their minds. You need to shift the conversation to a question of legacy. What do they want to be known for, remembered for? How do they want to set the organisation up for success in the long term? And (though cliché) what side of history do they want to come out on? One ESG leader for a luxury brand told us she kept teasing a knighthood to her CEO! Build an engagement plan specifically for those legally accountable, and help shift their own narrative and parameters for what they can achieve. 


7. ‘Side-of-desk’ is really a framing problem

Many organisations starting responsible business journeys begin with ‘hat roles’ or ‘side-of-desk’ activity. Some of our clients do have full responsible business teams, but we also work with those who are, for example, chief of staff and sustainability manager all in one, while the work grows legs. Responsible business, we have discovered, has a bit of an image problem, but in a communications sense, this is actually a framing problem. For example, it can be easy to see good community impact as a team litter-picking day, organised by the manager’s PA. While this has a brilliant short-term benefit, the reality is that top community impact means making business decisions that include your community as a stakeholder. For example, will your waste management pollute a local river, or your new carpark reduce natural habitats? The longer we let responsible business be seen as a side of desk operation, the longer it will take to switch people’s mindsets to understand it is just how you do business, and how they do their jobs. Try and interrupt the framing with case studies – highlight the ways that BAU done a little more consciously can really contribute to progress.


8. You already have the resource, but you do need to unlock it

Which leads us onto our final point – and a bit of tough love. You already have all the resource you need – or rather, your organisation does. Acting responsibly and operating sustainably is the sum of all actions taken in the organisation. Every person should be acting towards it. You don’t necessarily need a twenty-strong responsible business team, if you have a 20,000-strong engaged workforce making small shifts to the way they work to achieve your goals. The key is in unlocking this resource, and in the majority, this needs to happen top-down, so that everyone is aligned with a shared narrative and understanding, and feels they have been allocated their own responsibility. 

To successfully align your audiences, map a communications cascade that starts with your CEO and continues down every check point, so expectations around involvement are understood and shared. When you come to middle management, plan to engage them before you instruct them on how to talk to their teams. If line managers feel underprepared or out the loop, this can really block engagement with those who sit under them. It is worth taking time to talk meaningfully to all your layers and build your education plans accordingly, to unlock action at every level.

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Ultimately, embedding responsible business into any organisation is the classic ‘marathon, not a sprint’. Meaningful change takes time, and weaving new ways of working through your internal ecosystem and your value chain is not easy. You will need to get to the source of your challenges and fix the causes, not the symptoms. But trust us, the sooner you wade into those murkier waters, the sooner you find the gold within. 


If you could do with a sounding board for your own challenges, get in touch to see how we can help. 

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