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ESGClarity reported on the recent Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) conference in Barcelona. Among the issues highlighted in the summary of the meeting:

  • “Screening, as an ESG strategy, means too many things to too many people and the confusion is leading to claims of greenwashing… When you look at definitions of positive or negative screening, people will highlight different aspects of the screen. Some definitions of negative screening say it is products and services, some… just that it’s exclusionary and some definitions say it’s done for ethical reasons. So there’s just a lot of inconsistency among those definitions.”
  • Lisa Woll, CEO of US SIF (The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment), said “it has been the strategy ESG integration, which entered the US market in 2014, that has caused the most confusion. If you look at the firms that have been associated with greenwashing, it’s largely around the term of ESG integration because it’s been able to be used in a way that can mean anything and everything.”
  • Simon O’Connor, CEO of the Responsible Investment Association Australasia and chair of the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, touched on the importance of fund labeling and naming: “there can be products with strong strategies that then have their label simplified for something ‘cooler’ sounding by the marketing desk at the firm.”

While the conference and its lessons focused on investors, these concepts apply equally to operating companies as well. Operating companies are trying to improve their ESG messaging to investors, regulators and the public while concurrently working through internal definitions and implementation – struggling with the same questions themselves.

Some ways operating companies can address the three points above:

  • Be clear and specific about the boundaries of your ESG program – i.e., is it focused on inside the fenceline or does it include Scope 3 emissions, product use and disposal impacts, etc. This helps every user of your ESG information understand what your data is intended to cover (and not cover).
  • Similarly, be clear and specific about your ESG implementation status. For instance, don’t conflate aspirational ideas with initiatives you have already put into practice. At an even more basic level, it might be a good idea to explain what you mean by “ESG implementation” to begin with. For instance, developing policies and procedures is one element of implementation, but is certainly different from putting vetted technical solutions in place at scale.
  • Use caution when using names, labels, buzzwords or other marketing ideas to describe your ESG program/efforts. Those can detract from the real message or success and even mislead audiences.

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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