Someone Will Take Offense

Taylor Gray, Ph.D.
|
February 4
|
5 min read

Quick Takes

The growing collective concern about sustainability is a rebalancing of power dynamics, and a rebalancing of power dynamics invariably leads to someone feeling they have lost something.

As corporate sustainability and ESG teams, the better you do--the deeper you push into sustainability--the more likely it is that you will offend someone.

When you joined a corporate sustainability and ESG team, you likely joined to do good, so keep at it, but just don’t be surprised--and certainly do not take it personally--when someone doesn’t agree with your definition of ‘good’.

Be Prepared

There’s something that corporate sustainability and ESG teams are never truly prepared for. It’s not the reams of unstructured data, the vague definitions, the shifting goalposts, or even the mis-aligned incentives within their own organization. It’s the simple fact that the better they do, the more likely it is that they will offend someone.

As you toil away at making the world a better place, you never really prepare yourself for the moment when your good intentions are instead taken as a source of offense.

The more you push into sustainability, or the more you strive to improve upon your ESG data, rest assured that someone is going to take offense. This is now the invariable truth of good business management.

About Carhartt, Inc.

We saw this play out most recently with Carhartt, Inc., the Michigan-based maker of outdoor and workwear. Carhartt, like so many others, was abiding by the federal vaccine mandate for larger employers to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. When the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated the mandate last week, most companies, including Starbucks and General Electric, either suspended or canceled any respective vaccine requirements. Yet a few companies, notably Carhartt, decided to proceed with the vaccination requirement irrespective of the federal mandate’s demise.

Carhartt made a decision that it considered best for its employees, best for its customers, best for its supply chain partners, and best for the communities it engages with. In short, Carhartt made a decision that would generally be aligned with good sustainability outcomes and good ESG governance….and yet by the swift public outcry you would have thought they had been caught embezzling money from the employee pension plan to finance executives’ gambling addictions.

People were offended. Boycotts were called for. Videos of branded workwear being burned were shared on social media. A week or so on and the tempest is quelling, but the tempest did nonetheless occur.

Here was a company doing what it thought (and what many medical experts would agree) was best and yet being treated as if an embodied version of the company had just gone out and slapped someone across the face. Great offense was taken.

(Note that Carhartt Inc. was not the origin of such offense--all credit due to 2+ years of pandemic stress and mandated public health measures. But Carhartt's decision was quick to become an identifiable and actionable flashpoint of such stress. It's much easier to rally against a distinct corporate mandate than it is against a nation-wide matrix of inter-departmental and inter-jurisdictional policies.)

...But Not Just About Carhartt, Inc.

But this isn’t just about Carhartt or Covid-19 vaccines. This is about every company out there working to improve their sustainability and ESG programs and reporting.

For so long, companies were expected to act on sustainability, but only gently and certainly quietly. Sustainability was about changing out a few light bulbs in the main office, adding recycle bins next to every garbage bin, and making a few charitable donations to a variety of NGOs. It really was all more performative than performance--a sense of action yet one which never challenged the the status quo.

Those days are long gone. Today, sustainability matters. Where once companies were concerned with doing too much, now they are pushed to be concerned with not doing enough.

Consumers, investors, communities, and even regulators care about the state of the world and acknowledge that economic activity is at the core of all that we have done and all that we are doing. Sustainability today is about diversity and inclusion, measurable emission profiles, supply chain management, human rights, employee relations, and community development. It’s not about light bulbs and recycle bins, it's about impact and transformation.

Where once you could call yourself an ally to children the world over by making a donation to Human Rights Watch, today you are expected to monitor your entire supply chain for any possibility of child labor and be prepared to shut it down should such occur. Where once you could be inclusive by simply being an ‘equal opportunity employer’, today you are expected to share all diversity and inclusion data to add transparency to what it is exactly that makes you an equal opportunity employer. Where once you could be a climate leader by improving your emissions intensity, today you are expected to fully decarbonize across Scopes 1 through 3.

This is a great development--This is all progress!

But progress is change and change is a rebalancing of power dynamics…and a rebalancing of power dynamics invariably leads to someone feeling they have lost something.

And this is what corporate sustainability and ESG teams need to be prepared for. For many, work to improve diversity and inclusion, climate action, board independence, water management, supply chain dynamics, or so on is progressing so fast as to appear not simply as collective progress but rather as you taking a stand for something.

And today, a stand for something--for anything, really--is often portrayed as a stand against the status quo.

It’s all so polarizing and all happening seemingly so suddenly that to some outside observers you are not improving as an equal opportunity employer rather you are standing up for affirmative action; you are not advancing climate action rather you are bringing about the death of the fossil fuel industry; you are not safeguarding human rights rather you are driving up consumer prices. Simply by acting on sustainability, you are not contributing to a better future rather you are taking a stand against the way things used to be...and many people were (unjustly) comfortable with the way things used to be.

If it is perceived that you are taking a stand, then someone will invariably feel that you are standing against them. This is the nature of rebalancing power dynamics.

It doesn’t matter if this is your intention or not. Change is happening, people will be uncomfortable, and someone must carry the blame.

Keep Pushing

Investors, consumers, and communities want companies to take a stand. We all generally want progress, but we just don’t all agree on what progress looks like. But not acting on sustainability for fear of offending someone is not an option. To not act would be to offend someone else. There is no neutral ground when power dynamics are shifting.

When you joined a corporate sustainability and ESG team, you likely joined to do good, so keep at it, but just don’t be surprised--and certainly do not take it personally--when someone doesn’t agree with your definition of ‘good’.

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