Frequent media headlines, debate on our national stage, and marked instances of backlash toward companies have mainstreamed the politicization of ESG. Although the underlying work of corporate social impact and sustainability remains in-tact and durable, newly mounting political pressures have created real headwinds for business leaders — headwinds that can fundamentally change how social impact and sustainability are practiced. To get more clarity on what impacts political backlash is having on corporate practices, NationSwell surveyed 74 corporate ESG leaders (VPs and above), and conducted in-depth interviews with 12 more (whose ranks include senior leaders from Fortune 100 and 500 companies).
Our research surfaced one significant way that political pressure is impacting company behavior: it has sown a growing reluctance to speak out publicly on culturally sensitive and politically divisive topics.
Whereas the social justice movements of 2020 normalized the activist CEO, the current moment is introducing new doubt in the boardroom and among management teams about the relative risks and rewards of taking public and participatory action when an issue is polarizing. If harnessed intentionally, this trepidation can provide a useful moment for companies to reflect, reevaluate, and reset the purpose and impact behind public responses. Companies need to consider their own credibility and opportunity for meaningful impact before making bold public statements or commitments. But too much restraint can be overcompensatory and damaging, both to society and to corporate interests.
As we look ahead to continued global instability and social turbulence, the acuity of questions around if, when, and how to respond to social and political issues will only grow. In conversation with leaders and practitioners, we’ve surfaced four recommendations for companies to help them navigate ESG headwinds while considering the interests of their employees, customers, communities, and other stakeholders. These recommendations will be most effective if implemented together. We have also created four tools to support their direct implementation.
- Create mechanisms for understanding what employees and customers expect of your organization
- Assess the impacts of sociopolitical issues on your company, and your company’s opportunity to influence those issues
- Use a decision framework to weigh and resolve the best available information before acting
- Consult an external advisory council to expand your perspective
- Employee sentiment survey questions
- How to create a social response scorecard
- Template corporate social response scorecard
- Template Community Advisory Council charter