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Marketing and Comms
Anti-ESG Rhetoric in US Unaligned with Public’s Views on Business Imperative for Action

Two-thirds of US adults surveyed want companies to continue environmental, social, governance action; more than half have positive view of the term.

New research released today from the Allison+Partners/Headstand Purpose Center of Excellence reveals more than half of US adults surveyed (56 percent) have positive views of the term “ESG” (environmental, social, governance); and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) want companies to continue their environmental, social and governance action. This mandate rings especially true for US Millennials, among whom 71 percent have positive viewpoints on ESG and 75 percent want companies to continue making progress.

Reconciling ESG: Rhetoric vs. Reality examines US sentiment toward ESG as the term and its application continue to come under fire. The study confirms that US consumers overwhelmingly want companies to continue working to create positive impacts around environmental, social and governance topics; and found that companies that authentically do so can expect myriad business and brand benefits.

Allison+Partners surveyed 1,001 US consumers aged 18 or older in April 2023. Further proving the consumer mandate, when respondents were asked if companies should continue progress against environmental, social and governance initiatives — and whether they wanted to hear what companies were doing in these areas — they were resolved in their response: An overwhelming majority of those surveyed want companies to communicate their action related to the environment (86 percent), society (85 percent) and governance (87 percent).

“In the many years I have been leading research and reporting on environmental, social and governance topics, the mandate from US stakeholders to address these areas has only grown,” says Whitney Dailey, EVP and co-lead of the Purpose Center of Excellence at Allison+Partners, who unveiled the research on Monday at Sustainable Brands®' Brand-Led Culture Change event. “While some may want to continue the debate to advance certain agendas, it’s clear that consumers want to continue seeing authentic action to protect their planet and communities.”

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An anti-ESG movement has emerged in response to what political conservatives perceive as anti-business and anti-growth ideas, as well as ‘woke’ policies and ideas that they find troubling from a societal standpoint; but the Biden Administration is taking a longer-term view in these areas and has vetoed proposed ‘anti-ESG’ legislation.

“The term ‘ESG’ has been intentionally conflated in certain conversations with all brand action related to minimizing negative impacts on society and the planet,” said Aaron Pickering, EVP and co-lead of the Purpose Center of Excellence at Headstand. “ESG has traditionally been used as a framework for investors to understand the financial risks associated with action or inaction on material business issues. The term was never intended to be a catch-all for corporate action and therefore, we need to do a better job as communicators.”

Despite respondents’ positive sentiment and conviction around ESG, the research points to continued confusion around the use and definition itself (which is also true of critics): Only 13 percent of respondents felt “extremely confident” they could define the term. Yet, confusing acronyms aside — when asked the specific issues they wanted to address, they prioritized the following top three issues: clean and safe drinking water (61 percent), reducing pollution/creating clean air (54 percent) and addressing human rights (52 percent).

Among US adults who believe companies should address these issues, when asked how important they think it is for companies to act in certain areas, they were near-unanimous:

  • 99 percent — Clean and safe drinking water
  • 98 percent — Reducing pollution/creating clean air
  • 98 percent — Supporting communities
  • 98 percent — Human rights
  • 98 percent — Running an ethical company
  • 97 percent — Anti-corruption

Further, many respondents believe companies should be steadfast in their commitments, even in the face of potential backlash (which companies including Bud Light and Disney are currently experiencing): More than half (53 percent) of US adults said they would stop buying from a brand if it stopped ESG action due to political pressure.

Clear and compelling communications even more critical in the face of greenwashing

The public mandate for companies to continue addressing these areas aligns with consumer considerations and shopping behaviors, as well. Around environment, 58 percent of US adults say they are more concerned about company’s environmental impact than they were in the past; and only a quarter (24 percent) said they do not actively look for information on a company’s sustainability initiatives when making a purchase.

Companies should be aware that this growing segment of US consumers is also increasingly skeptical of unsubstantiated environmental claims. In fact, only a quarter (25 percent) of respondents say they have not spotted greenwashing in their everyday shopping; and even more US consumers are likely to say the influx of greenwashing has made them question environmental claims (56 percent).

“The rise in greenwashing and confusion around terms and messages means that companies must be more specific and exacting in their communications,” Pickering says. “Companies should tailor messages about their environmental and social impact efforts to individual stakeholder audiences — and when possible, talk about what has been changed in the short term as opposed to your plans far into the future.”

Understanding brand benefits and pitfalls

Strong ESG communications continue to be paramount — and the benefits (and pitfalls of not pursuing it) are clear: Two-thirds (66 percent) of US consumers feel better about companies that are addressing social and environmental issues; while on the flipside, nearly half (46 percent) said if they learned of a company addressing sustainability topics but not talking about it publicly, they would question that company’s authenticity.

“Smart communications around how environmental, social and governance topics help enhance the bottom line while benefiting stakeholders is how companies will ultimately win the anti-ESG debate,” Dailey asserts. “There is absolute certainty about growing stakeholder demands and the fact companies must continue protecting, rather than harming, people and the planet. We recommend avoiding distractions and staying laser-focused on the critical role companies play in building a sustainable future.”