How to talk about ESG in an election year
2024 is officially the biggest election year ever. 4 billion people from more than 40 countries are set to go to the polls.
We’re in for a surge in global political activity, which is already firing up with the US primaries underway. ESG-related issues – whether the race to net-zero, tackling social inequality or protecting biodiversity – are going to be controversial points of debate. Already polarising topics in some workplaces, a rise in office tensions could be coming too.
As the climate crisis and societal problems like inequality escalate, we can’t be tempted to bury the conversation for fear of being divisive. Politicians are using ESG as a political hockey puck, but it’s up to business leaders to stick with a cool-headed and considered approach.
As you’ll see here, there are ways to keep productive ESG conversations going, without turning back on your values.
The political landscape and ESG in 2024
From the UK to South Africa, expect to see the battle over ESG unfolding in manifesto promises and leadership debates across the globe.
In the US, polarisation on ESG was already stark in 2023. 165 pieces of legislation preventing ESG assessments for investments were tracked across 37 states in the US, while pro-ESG bills were being passed elsewhere. Even Corporate America entered the debate, with Disney taking a stand against an anti-gay state law in Florida.
On this side of the pond, greenlash connected to populist nationalism is sweeping Europe at the same time new EU environmental legislation is being rolled out.
Current protests among French farmers are putting some of those green policies under the magnifying glass. Already hit hard by the climate crisis, they and others in the EU’s agricultural sector argue these policies add more strain on their operations. President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen has urged for “a new consensus on issues which we all struggle with” to overcome the polarisation.
She may have re-election on the mind as she attempts dialogue to repair divisions. But her decision to hear out the concerns demonstrates how leaders – in politics and business – need to embrace diversity of opinion, with emotions spanning from eco-anxiety to complete indifference and denial.
Ways to depoliticise ESG in the workplace
Whether political figures are picking at points of societal tension out of genuine concern or cynical vote-grabbing opportunity, their rhetoric trickles into our daily conversations and can influence workplace dynamics. So, how can we depoliticise the narrative and unite teams on ESG in times like these?
Find the right words
Creative consultancy Revolt’s report Poking the Bear shows getting people on board with ESG might be as simple as rephrasing your ideas. They discovered that using centrist language closes the polarisation gap, with greater appeal to people on both sides.
Climate was the most divisive issue in their survey. Yet when they reframed “Fighting for climate justice for all” to “Securing a safe climate for your family’s future”, it climbed from 17th to 5th most important issue among all participants. Same message, different wording, greater unity.
Focus on specific issues
Getting specific is also unifying. A Thomson Reuter survey found that law firm employees leaned towards the extreme ends of “very” and “not at all” when asked about how important ESG is. But they were more in agreement when asked about individual issues, like recycling or pay equity.
What’s essential here is to hone in on areas of ESG specific to your business and corporate purpose. This gives your position authenticity, while diving into irrelevant issues can come across as performative action.
Actions can be subtle yet powerful, like choosing ethical suppliers for branded merchandise and corporate gifts. Those with a backstory aligned to your mission send an innate message about the positive change you want to see in the world. Our 10-step Impact Checklist is there to help you select suppliers that match your values.
Empathise to anticipate criticism
Mapping out potential criticism can prepare you for challenging questions and answering them in a non-combative way. This is all about understanding where your team and stakeholders are coming from: why might certain issues worry them or have negative connotations?
Objections might not always be because you’re pushing forward with ESG – backlash could come from those saying you’re not doing enough. We’re seeing this in a rise of shareholder activism pushing for greater corporate social responsibility commitments. You may find yourself having to justify not engaging on issues or the pace of your progress.
Criticism might be contained within office walls, but it could also cause a public stir. For this reason, it’s a good idea to refresh your plans for internal and crisis comms – “preparing for the bear to wake up”, as Revolt puts it.
Use data to tell your ESG story
Data is your best friend when it comes to winning people over. Case studies and stats take the politics and emotion out of the conversation, turning people’s attention to things the whole team is united on: performance and outcomes.
Regular updates about the quantifiable financial benefits of your ESG will ease stakeholder doubts and build their trust in you. After all, a narrative that ends in profits and a resilient business model is hard to argue with.
You don’t even need your own data to kick off an evidence-based discussion. Countless case studies and pieces of research show how ESG is linked to company success. Just look at B Corps, which legally commit to using their business as a force for good. They report benefits like faster growth in turnover, greater employee retention and higher levels of innovation.
Practice constructive communication
If there’s a thread that runs through all of this advice, it’s constructive communication. This is at the heart of any healthy, collaborative culture and management needs to set the standard.
Be curious, compassionate and open to feedback. Practise active listening, validate people’s feelings and focus on solutions.
Skills like these will make any discussions kinder, more respectful and productive. The kind of energy that inspires unity and progress – exactly what we need to tackle the societal and environmental challenges of today. Let’s hope our political leaders get the memo too.
Kick off ESG conversations with a positive spin in your office with social impact gifts and branded merch. Connect with brand partners that align with your values, to get your team talking for the right reasons.