Aug 9, 2023

You can’t make big ESG commitments while failing at the basics of kindness

Like many people today, I am often kept awake at night by the enormous challenges that our world is facing, including climate change, the rampant increase in dehumanizing hateful discourse, and global threats to democracy and freedom. As a business leader, I feel a responsibility and urgency to ensure that I am doing my small part to try to build a better future through my work.

When it comes to harnessing free market forces to improve our world, I’m all for it. In 1989, I stumbled upon an idea in my college thesis for using business to bring neighbors in conflict regions together. In 1993, I launched PeaceWorks, which produced food products, like tapenades and spreads, using raw ingredients procured through trading across so-called enemy borders. Turks, Jordanians, Egyptians, Palestinians, and Israelis shared in the profits of their collaborative efforts, incentivizing them to cooperate, and through that process, to discover one another’s shared humanity.

Despite all this, I have concerns about any corporate social impact that isn’t built upon a foundation of connected principles. The biggest pitfall when it comes to social impact commitments is that while they may imply alignment with a certain set of values, they don’t guarantee it. In other words, while bold proclamations about a company’s mission can appear to be convincing statements of values, they can have the unfortunate effect of distracting from those principles instead. In no way do they give us a free pass on doing the deeper work needed to execute those commitments by using the fundamental building blocks on which all social impact is predicated. I have never seen a brand’s mission advance successfully without an underlying framework of values driving it.

I recently experienced a humbling moment that reminded me of this lesson. A team member had the courage to bring to my attention an instance in which my communication with another colleague had come off as overly harsh and unforgiving. This critical feedback gave me pause, not only because I was not proud of my actions in that moment, but also because those actions stood in direct contrast with the impact I am trying to advance through my work.

Reflecting on my teammate’s feedback, I realized that my passion to create a positive impact and my anxiety surrounding the highly consequential stakes had pushed me to be unrelentingly demanding to the point of being insensitive to others. I had allowed an overarching goal (to build bridges and transcend polarization) to justify the means (my rash feedback). In reality, my actions had undermined my mission.

Ultimately, what we achieve as corporate leaders, even in the form of social impact, must work hand in hand with how we go about achieving it. How we act along our journeys is at least as important as–if not more so than–the destination. For example, if we are donating a portion of profits to at-need communities, but not being open-minded, respectful, and honest in how we lead in the workplace, we risk undermining our larger goals by contributing to a disrespectful, intolerant, or unethical culture. In fact, a company with no stated social mission that is modeling positive values like integrity and respect may be doing more good for our world than one with a big ESG commitment failing at the basics of kindness.

All of this is more relevant in the context of the debate today about whether big social impact commitments like the UN Principles for Responsible Investment or the $200 billion that 1,000 organizations pledged to racial justice initiatives are driving the impact they profess to strive for. Employees and consumers have questioned whether the intent behind corporate ESG and DEI efforts is superficial and performative or whether the motivations behind these proclamations are in fact substantive.

While these commitments are laudable in principle, we should be careful not to treat them as stand-ins for values. Particularly because social impact efforts like ESG have become politicized, hollow statements that are not tied to lived values are likely to face backlash and ultimately fail. On the other hand, addressing social issues through a framework of brand values gives us the fortitude to persevere in enacting change that can win the trust of stakeholders, withstand future challenges, and drive long-term impact.

We are more likely to achieve concrete social impact if we are clear about our company values. That means mapping our enterprise’s guiding principles, regularly reviewing them with our teams, and integrating them into our operations through activities like our hiring processes and performance reviews. It means recognizing and celebrating team members who demonstrate our organization’s values. And it means articulating our values to our consumers and filtering decisions through the lens of those principles.

It also means building work environments in which trust, assumption of positive intent, and orientation toward a shared goal provide team members space in which to share feedback on brand values and hold even the most senior team leaders accountable (just as my team member did for me). While we shouldn’t judge another harshly (humility and forgiveness are among the highest principles we can strive for), values are best fostered in an environment that encourages open communication at all levels.

In our current free market economy rife with short-termism, crony capitalism, greed, and dishonest marketing, values should occupy concerted space in our social impact agendas. While not as headline-grabbing as big social impact commitments, these principles are the essential starting point and enduring driving force behind all meaningful corporate social good.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

esg          kindness          social impact          values

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