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Back in 2015 when I was in another position – perhaps well before many of today’s ESG/sustainability practitioners entered the profession – I wrote a blog titled Sustainability is Stupid. The article formed the basis of my book Killing Sustainability that carried on the same basic theme: ESG/sustainability professionals are frequently our own worst enemy in gaining internal approval of our programs and initiatives.

Many recent articles and LinkedIn posts made me realize this hasn’t changed much. Therefore, I feel compelled to once again offer my controversial perspective.

How Can Sustainability be Stupid?

Let me be clear up front – I don’t think sustainability as a concept is stupid. What is stupid is that ESG/sustainability professionals continue using the term without understanding its’ negative connotations in the minds/attitudes of senior management and others. I’ve written previously that

“… sustainability is too frequently portrayed in a stupid manner in publications, by consultants, and around corporate conference room tables. We sustainability, ESG and corporate social responsibility practitioners too frequently also make fools of ourselves.”

What do I mean by sustainability being “portrayed in a stupid manner”? And how do we “make fools of ourselves”?

It’s pretty simple actually – by the language we use to communicate. ESG/sustainability professionals live in our own world of abbreviations, acronyms and concepts we think everyone knows, understands and agrees with to some extent. That is rather arrogant on our part and is flat out wrong – especially in most C-suites. Remember, before your ESG/sustainability programs see the light of day, you need C-suite approval and support. Odds of success there are far better if you approach senior management in their terms, using their vocabulary.

You simply must adapt your messaging to your audience.

However, this isn’t always what ESG/sustainability professionals do:

“A typical response from ESG practitioners is to continually present the facts repeatedly, yelling them louder and louder ‘delug[ing] the listeners or readers with ever more facts, statistics, figures and ominous projections.’…  Facts alone about long-term benefits of sustainability aren’t likely to convince executives. And repeated repetition of facts will not change that.”

That tone-deafness, especially in light of pre-existing cynicism about sustainability concepts based on sustainability’s history, ain’t gonna get you far.

What You Can Do

In my opinion, one easy way to get through this obstacle is to simply stop using the word “sustainability.” I know that will rile up a lot of people because yes – technically ESG and sustainability are not the same things. But is that really important to anyone other than other ESG/sustainability professionals? C-suites are sensitized right now to the term “ESG” for a variety of reasons – it is silly to not take advantage of that:

“Remember the audience. Pride can’t get in the way of success. Does it really matter if an initiative is called sustainability, cost optimization, strategy or flying pigs?

Key point: To many executives, the word sustainability is a cue to stop listening based on existing frames.

Upon hearing ‘sustainability,’ imagery entering executive thinking includes:

  • The lack of a consistent, reasonable and/or actionable definition to which they can relate and use of incomprehensible jargon.
  • Bias of the executives against change or the options offered.
  • Expectations of inappropriate, unrealistic, or inconclusive value.
  • Fear of choices that are new or unfamiliar.
  • Perceptions of product performance tradeoffs.
  • Inconsistency with short-term financial pressures.
  • Perceptions about the sustainability function and staff.

Approaching internal decision makers in a way that recognizes their terms usually results in a higher likelihood of success (i.e., framing). Conversations do not need to be wholly on their terms, but it is necessary to understand what their terms are and if you can use them in some way.” 

Moving away from using “sustainability” internally is a small step but can have outsized benefits. It reminds me of the discussion of making the bed in Admiral (Ret.) William McRaven’s 2014 University of Texas commencement speech, as well as his recognition about the audience to whom he is speaking.

As a bit of self-serving self-promotion, if you haven’t read Killing Sustainability, consider doing so. It goes into detail on the history of sustainability, why it has negative connotations in C-suites, and what ESG/sustainability professionals can do to adapt and overcome senior management preconceptions around the concept – including how to build sound business cases for programs and initiatives. The book is available on Amazon (or as a Guidebook available as part of a membership), but make sure to get the 2022 updated edition.

If you want to understand more about linguistics and how that can help your communication approach, I suggest George Lakoff’s book The All New Don’t Think About an Elephant! Know your values and frame the debate, and Per Espen Stokne’s’ What We Think About When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action.

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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