In a year fashioned by the shared experience of the pandemic, the environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement has achieved a degree of sustained visibility which even a few years ago would have been hard to predict. Following the declaration of a “code red for humanity” by the IPCC report (August 2021) which stated “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”, the COP26 summit saw 450 financial institutions from 45 different countries pledge to help limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. From 2023, all UK financial institutions and listed companies will be obliged to publish their net zero carbon transition plans. The self-declared corporate social responsibility (CSR) positions of past years are fast receding in the face of government and regulator action which will lead to a level of scrutiny and accountability that was unimaginable when ethical investing and CSR first came into focus in the 1970s. Public sentiment is growing in its expectation, to the point of insistence, that big business assumes the burden of driving the ESG agenda.
Are GCs ready to lead?
Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that companies are increasingly looking to their General Counsel (GCs) to shoulder the weight of increased ESG responsibility. By any measure the scale of the challenge is daunting, and potentially much wider, and deeper, than the ‘E’ in ESG. Other key ESG categories of interest include, but are far from limited to, resource scarcity, supply chain integrity, diversity and inclusion, poverty, mental health, human rights and inequality. Each a substantive area of activity in itself.
With the upturn in regulation and scrutiny, corporates are increasingly turning to their GCs to lead enterprise wide efforts in response. However, are they ready, and do they have the necessary tools at their disposal to meet the challenge?
The data issue
A critical issue for managing the ESG agenda is the challenge of adequately measuring and reporting on efforts to meet standards and requirements. The availability of consistent and reliable measurement data remains a notable work in progress and an area of considerable debate. Even as electric car sales are breaking all anticipated records globally, questions are being urgently pressed around the sustainability of electricity sources and the safe disposal of lithium-ion batteries. What then appears at first glance to be a straightforward answer to at least a part of the problem of fossil fuel consumption falls into increasingly aggressive contention for lack of data that can be agreed on.
Will GCs step up to the mark?
It remains to be seen how the role of corporate leadership will mature and evolve in response. Will distinct skillsets emerge? As a talent pool, do GCs possess the aptitude to acquire and develop those skills? Whilst also managing regulatory interventions, litigation and potential activist targeting by interest groups, the growing risk of ‘greenwashing’ will need to be guarded against by those responsible with the creation and oversight of data supporting a given ESG narrative.
Among the legal community there has been a reshuffling to make room for the surge in ESG agenda; however, from an in-house perspective there does appear to be a gap in the market for ESG talent as companies declare their commitment to invest. The increase in investment, illustrated in PwC’s recent monumental $12B and 100,000 staff rebranding ESG bet, will naturally increase job opportunities and, in turn, allow for the creation and fine-tuning of relevant skills.While the role of the ESG leader is still taking shape, now is the time for GCs to step up to the mark. The opportunities for those who do, show no sign of being anything other than enormous.