Rebecca Aston explains why rising to the challenge of ESG is really all about ethics
The impact humans have on our planet has been at the forefront of our consciousness in recent years, be it through news coverage of Extinction Rebellion protests, big-budget nature documentaries including the BBC’s Perfect Planet narrated by David Attenborough and – more recently – Netflix’s Seaspiracy, or reports and papers such as the independent The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, published in February 2021.
ESG has therefore, unsurprisingly, been a standing item on board agendas and a theme of events and discussions throughout the City and financial services. More businesses are publishing manifestos and strategies related to protection of the environment, sustainability, equality diversity and inclusion, culture change, philanthropy and community support. For example, in 2020 Lloyd’s published its Environmental, Social and Governance Report 2020, which set out a series of commitments aimed at contributing to a more sustainable future for the market, customers and society.
The Lloyd’s commitments, and many similar organisational strategies, are based on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are bold, important and also incredibly stretching. The goals include ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’ and ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Even when broken down into more immediately achievable aims by organisations, the task ahead seems daunting, and it can be difficult to prioritise issues to focus on. Is tackling climate change the most pressing goal, or should we instead be reducing the gender pay gap, increasing black and minority ethnic representation in leadership positions, or increasing funding to charities?
Viewed like this, ESG commitments and goals can seem like a series of insurmountable challenges. It can be difficult to remember why we are committing ourselves to such stretching goals. While scary statistics about global warming, inequality, food poverty, ocean plastics, mental health and many more issues can be excellent short-term motivators, fear alone does not inspire long-term sustainable commitment to these challenges – much like the way new year’s resolutions set under pressure are seldom upheld for the full 12 months.
Making a difference
However, we already have a roadmap for making a difference – and it can be found in behaviours we are familiar with and use every day. When faced with choices, we consciously or unconsciously make an assessment about whether it is the right thing to do. For example, we ask ourselves whether taking on a client or project will present any conflicts of interest, anticipate outcomes for clients and the consequences of our actions.
We learn to make ethical decisions from childhood and, while the professional world is often complex, through practise and consultation with the CII Code of Ethics, assessing options and choosing the best one in the moment becomes second nature.
To rise to the challenge of ESG, therefore, we simply need to remember that it is all about ethics. We can reframe questions to suit this particular environment. For example, ‘What is the outcome of this decision for my client?’ becomes ‘What is the outcome of this decision for the environment?’. Some of the questions even remain unchanged, like ‘What would an outsider think of what I am doing?’.
By putting the ethics into ESG, we not only make the challenges ahead of us seem more surmountable, but by translating our existing skills and learned behaviours, we actually give ourselves a greater chance of success.
Rebecca Aston is professional standards manager of the CII