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KPMG’s newly published 2022 CEO Outlook found that ESG – even with all the emphasis and gains made in the past few years – is not recession-proof:

As CEOs strive to maintain optimism and take steps to insulate their businesses from an upcoming recession, indicators point to ESG progress suffering as a result, following the trend of CEOs reassessing initiatives in many areas of the business (e.g. transformation and staffing). As economic uncertainty continues, 50 percent are pausing or reconsidering their existing or planned ESG efforts over the next 6 months, and 34 percent have already done so.

The study indicates there is pervasive pessimism at the moment:

Nearly nine out of 10 (86 percent) CEOs believe a recession will happen over the next 12 months, but three out of five (58 percent) feel it will be mild and short and 76 percent have plans in place to deal with it… Seventy- three percent of CEOs believe a recession will upend anticipated growth over the next 3 years… Seventy-one percent of CEOs predict a recession will impact company earnings by up to 10 percent over the next 12 months. 

KPMG continued, listing CEO views on the five top challenges to delivering on ESG:

  • Other pressing business/economic matters that cause us to shift focus away from ESG
  • Increased or frequently changing regulations
  • Lack of budget to invest in ESG transformation
  • The necessary technology to effectively measure and track your ESG initiatives
  • Identifying and measuring agreed metrics

The responses reflect the views of 1,325 CEOs across multiple sectors and countries, and was conducted this past summer. Companies included in the poll have annual revenue of at least $500 million with a third exceeding $10 billion.

Baseball (and quotable quotes) Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Who knew he would be talking about corporate ESG programs? This isn’t – or perhaps I should say shouldn’t be – surprising. We’ve been here before in previous iterations of ESG that were called other things like sustainability and corporate social responsibility. There is still a gap between ESG myth and reality at the operational level in companies – the level where most funding decisions are made. Reducing that gap and clearly demonstrating where/how ESG initiatives drive business fundamentals can help reduce the risk of recessionary impacts on corporate ESG programs – especially where there are no regulatory mandates behind them.

We have several member resources (checklists, Guidebooks and member-exclusive blogs) to help quantify the economic value of corporate ESG programs, linking them to operations (not just investor-driven matters) and communicating ESG value/benefits internally. Additionally, in next week’s 1st Annual Practical ESG Conference, one panel will discuss how in-house ESG staff/management can reduce the threat and impact of a financial downturn on their jobs and work.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile