Demonstrators gather in Denver in 2022 to protest restrictive abortion policies and rising gun violence in the U.S.
Given rising political pushback against environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies in business, many corporate leaders are staying mum about their non-financial programming. But research indicates such a strategy hardly sets companies up for success.
Seven in 10 U.S. employees agree that companies should respond to seemingly divisive social issues like gun violence, abortion access and climate change, according to recent polling from BSR and Morning Consult. Related research from IBM found that companies with strong ESG performance tend to be more profitable as U.S. consumers continue to seek out sustainability.
Let's take a closer look at what the data tells us — and why brands should rediscover their voice on the major issues of the day.
We're not as divided as we might think
The "anti-woke" rhetoric from politicians and pundits makes the U.S. public seem more divided than ever, but research indicates we agree on more than we might think.
At least three-quarters of Americans say it is important for their state to have social policies that address gun violence (82 percent), voting rights (78 percent), and paid family and medical leave (78 percent), according to BSR's survey. And even as right-leaning state governments adopt more restrictive policies, more than half of U.S. adults feel it's important for their state to safeguard abortion access and LGBTQ rights.
"We need to debunk the narrative that these are highly divisive issues across the country,” Jen Stark, co-director of BSR’s Center for Business and Social Justice, said in a statement announcing the research. “Many have significant majority support from people across America, a fact that can get lost in the way these issues are typically covered in the media."
Importantly, people are looking to their employers to get involved. By a 4:1 margin, U.S. employees say they want to be a part of a business that promotes social justice internally through workplace policies, according to BSR. They also prefer employers that take action outside of their own walls: Only 9 percent of employees said they would be less inclined to work for a company that invests in and advocates for social justice causes, while five times as many said they'd be more likely to seek employment at a company that does this.
"Business can and should find courage to take action on these issues which are important for and aligned with the views of their workers and customers," Stark said. "These issues are material, and how a company responds can impact their reputation.”
People are scared, and they're looking for companies to lend their voice and help
In particular, two-thirds of employees agree that companies should respond to gun violence and climate change, as these issues become increasingly top-of-mind for Americans.
In another tragic month of senseless gun violence — including two young people shot for mistakenly approaching the wrong houses and a mass shooting at a 16th birthday party over the weekend — a shocking report from the Kaiser Family Foundation sheds light on just how much Americans are affected.
One in five Americans have been personally threatened with a gun, according to KFF's research, and nearly as many have lost a family member to gun violence or seen someone get shot. As Susan McPherson observed in last week's edition of her McPherson Memo newsletter, "Gun violence and the mayhem it causes are now a constant and terrifying symbol of our society."
Meanwhile threats of climate change are causing more and more anxiety among the public: Over two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans are concerned about increasingly harsh living conditions due to climate change, with 1 out of 4 worried they may have to give up long-term goals like starting a family, according to January polling.
As people grow more concerned about issues like gun violence, climate change, abortion access and LGBTQ rights, many U.S. state governments are moving in the opposite direction — enacting laws that loosen gun restrictions, clamp down on reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and lock in decades more emissions from fossil fuels. Against this backdrop, companies are challenged not to back down from "anti-woke" crusaders at the state level, but to step up and influence policies in a way that aligns with what their employees and customers want to see.
"Increasingly, companies are navigating a new reality where they are expected to help shape state policy by taking action on issues that affect the health, well-being, and safety of workers and their families," said Stark of BSR.
Customers are looking for real ESG leadership
"While the conversation has become controversial, with pundits pitting the ethics of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives against their economic costs, the data tells a different story," the IBM Institute for Business Value concluded in another report released this week.
IBM's report is the latest to connect ESG performance directly to the bottom line, following similar conclusions from the consulting firm Center for Sustainability and Excellence and the research technology company Glow earlier this year. IBM's research in particular found that companies leading on ESG performance are also 43 percent more likely to outperform on profitability. Leaders at these companies are 52 percent more likely to say ESG efforts have a "huge impact" on profits.
"The key is to see ESG as a transparency enabler," IBM found in the report. "When viewed as a vehicle for driving business value — rather than a narrow reporting exercise — ESG generates insights that create opportunities and boost performance."
As consumers seek out more sustainable brands, they're also less likely to accept company claims at face value: Only 20 percent of consumers say they trust the statements companies make about environmental sustainability, down from half just two years ago — increasing the urgency for companies to ensure they're walking the walk.
IBM found that lack of consistent and actionable data hampers corporate progress on key ESG goals, a challenge cited by other business leaders over recent years. This follows the familiar edict "you can't manage what you don't measure," but when it comes to stepping up and speaking out, the data is clearly already there.
Indeed in years past we've seen companies leverage their voices to shape real progress. And even as we seem to be going backward, those same corporate voices hold the power to turn the tide.
Image credit: Jack Prommel/Unsplash
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.