Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on May 04, 2023
ESG has become more than a tool to aid the governance of business but also to drive the business of business itself
Is ESG more a backspace, than the next page? ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) has emerged as a powerful formalised force in shaping the business landscape, not only in terms of governance but also in driving the business of business itself. ESG considerations are increasingly recognised as critical factors that can impact a company's financial performance, risk management, and long-term sustainability. While governance has been the traditional focus of ESG, there is a growing recognition that ESG can also create value and drive innovation, providing companies with a competitive advantage in today's dynamic business environment. ESG, as a set of criteria used by investors to evaluate a company's sustainability and ethical practices, has gained traction as a tool for aligning investments with values such as environmental stewardship, social justice, and good governance. Many companies have jumped on the ESG bandwagon, touting their efforts to reduce carbon emissions, improve labour practices, and enhance board diversity. ESG has been lauded as a way to hold companies accountable for their impact on the planet and society and as a means to drive positive change. ESG is heralded as the “next page” in responsible investing, promising a brighter future for our planet and society. However, upon closer examination, one might wonder if ESG is merely a “backspace”, undoing the negative impact of unsustainable practices, rather than propelling us forward towards truly sustainable solutions. One key concern is that ESG metrics are often voluntary and self-reported, allowing companies to cherry-pick and report only the positive aspects of their practices while neglecting to mention and address the negative ones. This lack of standardised reporting and transparency makes it challenging for investors to accurately assess a company's true sustainability performance. One of the challenges is the short-term focus of financial markets, which often prioritise immediate financial gains over long-term sustainability. This can create misaligned incentives for companies to prioritise short-term financial performance at the expense of ESG considerations. Additionally, the lack of consistent and standardised ESG data and reporting can make it difficult for investors and stakeholders to accurately assess a company's ESG performance and compare it with peers.
While governance has been the traditional focus of ESG, there is a growing recognition that ESG can also create value and drive innovation, providing companies with a competitive advantage in today's dynamic business environment.
Another criticism of ESG is that it often focuses on incremental changes within existing systems, rather than challenging the status quo or advocating for systemic change. For instance, a company may invest in renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint but still engage in environmentally damaging activities in other areas of its operations. This piecemeal approach may not be sufficient to address the magnitude and urgency of global challenges such as climate change, social inequality, and corporate accountability. ESG also faces limitations in addressing the underlying structural issues that contribute to environmental and social problems. For instance, ESG may not fully capture the systemic risks associated with supply chain practices, product lifecycle, or corporate lobbying. Additionally, ESG may not adequately account for the perspectives and priorities of local communities, indigenous peoples, or marginalised groups, whose voices are often excluded from decision-making processes.

Pros of ESG

One of the ways ESG can help the business of business is through driving innovation. For example, companies that prioritise environmental sustainability are investing in research and development of clean technologies, renewable energy solutions, and circular economy practices. These efforts can lead to the development of new products, services, and business models that address pressing environmental challenges, while also capturing emerging market opportunities. For instance, companies like Patagonia and Interface have successfully integrated sustainability into their product offerings, leading to increased customer loyalty and market share. Moreover, social considerations within ESG, such as diversity, inclusion, and fair labour practices, can also drive innovation. Companies that foster a diverse and inclusive workforce are shown to be more innovative and better able to understand and serve diverse customer segments. Additionally, companies that prioritise fair labour practices throughout their supply chains can reduce reputational risks and ensure sustainable supply chain operations. For example, companies like Unilever and Danone have integrated social considerations into their business strategies, leading to improved brand reputation and customer loyalty. Companies that proactively manage social risks, such as labour violations, human rights abuses, and community impact, can avoid costly lawsuits, fines, and reputational damage. For example, companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola have faced legal and reputational challenges related to water management practices, leading to increased scrutiny and financial risks. Many global investors have started to adopt ESG strategies as a means of deploying growth capital and achieving sustainable growth. For example, private equity firm BlackRock has made sustainability a core focus and has set ambitious goals to align its investment portfolio with ESG principles, including divesting from companies with high carbon emissions and engaging with companies on climate-related risks.

Cons of ESG

However, there have also been failures in the ESG space. One prominent challenge is the lack of standardised ESG metrics and reporting frameworks, which has led to inconsistent and sometimes misleading ESG disclosures by companies. This has resulted in “greenwashing,” where companies claim to be environmentally or socially responsible without substantiating their claims. For instance, the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015 revealed that the company had manipulated emissions data to meet regulatory requirements, despite promoting itself as an environmentally responsible brand.
This piecemeal approach may not be sufficient to address the magnitude and urgency of global challenges such as climate change, social inequality, and corporate accountability.
Another failure is the “ESG paradox,” where companies that score well on ESG metrics may not necessarily align with the broader sustainability goals of society. For example, a company that has a good ESG score due to its gender diversity initiatives may still contribute to environmental degradation or engage in unethical business practices. This highlights the need for a holistic approach to ESG that considers all three pillars—environmental, social, and governance—and their interconnectedness, rather than a narrow focus on individual metrics. Another limitation is the potential for ESG to be misused as a marketing tool without meaningful action. Some companies may engage in greenwashing or engage in surface-level ESG initiatives solely for public relations purposes, without making substantial changes to their business practices. This highlights the need for robust and transparent ESG reporting, verification, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that companies are genuinely committed to sustainable practices. But then, there are concerns about the lack of accountability and enforcement mechanisms for ESG practices, due to lack of or weak legal requirements and regulatory oversight to ensure companies comply with ESG principles. This can lead to inconsistency and variability in ESG performance and reporting, making it difficult for investors and stakeholders to assess a company's true sustainability performance.


ESG is reshaping the governance of businesses and the business of business by promoting sustainability, social responsibility, and stakeholder engagement. There have been successes in the integration of ESG principles, including the adoption of sustainability practices by leading corporations and the rise of impact investing. However, there have also been failures, such as inconsistent reporting, greenwashing, and the ESG paradox. Moving forward, it is crucial to develop standardised ESG metrics, enhance accountability mechanisms, and adopt a holistic approach that considers the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and governance factors. ESG is one change in management that we would want to adopt as part of business culture, however, loud the criticisms are, and early some of the failures are.
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