Sustainable Finance
Thu, 09 Feb 2023
Sustainability, ESG & why they still matter

Sustainability, nowadays appearing in clothing labels, country pledges and corporate targets, has become the centerpiece for the largest recent polarization of key social, economic & political actors. In broad terms, for a business, sustainability refers to the ethical management of the tradeoffs between socio-environmental issues & financial returns, which in turn originates from the traditional corporate perception that good environmental & social practices are in conflict with a company’s bottom-line. Regardless, due to the increase in the public awareness around environmental & social issues & with the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in 2015, most businesses, especially larger & powerful ones increased their budgets for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), to highlight their commitment to the environment & society. This trend resulted in a larger boom to the sector of corporate sustainability consultants, ESG scoring providers and responsible investments. 

ESG alternatively stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, which was introduced by the UN Environment Programme Initiative in October 2005, to serve the holistic purpose of methodically assessing an organization’s sustainability practices. Soon after, ESG and CSR were perceived as being identical at scale and companies were praised on their good practices & low risk scores. As every boom is followed by a bust, the ESG backlash was also quick to follow. CSR is now understood for what it really is, a rather short-term, unsustainable solution for the negative impact that corporate activity has on the environment & society and the millions of dollars thrown towards good marketing, irreflective of real actions, are currently identified as greenwashing. For some, this is perceived as the end of corporate ESG, but for most experts and policymakers, this moment marks an opportunity to transform ESG into what it should really do, assess a corporation's alignment with positive social & environmental impact. 

Experts are equivocally changing the narrative around ESG, arguing it should be about minimizing environmental harm & enhancing social value. Consumers and employees are refusing to buy from or work for companies who do not have good environmental and social policies in place. Regulations are becoming stricter around transparency & proper disclosure, and corporations and investors, in an attempt to meet growing stakeholder demands, tighter regulations & preserve their reputations, have started to look for & work on devising more impact-aligned solutions. This global switch, while costly and painful for businesses in the short-run, has good promises of delivering not only better social value but also higher financial returns in the long-run. A growing body of research is arguing around the benefits of this new type of capitalism, where profits and social value co-exist & enhance each other. Sustainability-centered capitalism has begun and reluctance to adapt to it, will result in a loss of market share & good employees, in addition to an overall lower ability to remain competitive in the long-run.

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