Suzanne Shelton and Christopher Haasen
Published 2 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels
While ESG frameworks such as MSCI and Sustainalytics help investors spot and manage risks, the Brand Transformation Roadmap also helps companies account for social or environmental value and brand leadership — all are needed for a holistic sustainability strategy.
So, what is a sustainable brand, exactly? For many years, the answer would have
varied, depending on who you asked.
That’s exactly why the Sustainable Brands (“SB”) team created the Brand
which gives companies a guide for the journey from conventional business to
sustainable brand, complete with a self-assessment tool that enables any company
to see where they stand today and then chart the course forward. The tool
creates a framework and definition for what a sustainable brand is, and
companies can use it to see whether or not they’re a sustainable brand today
(most aren’t) and compare themselves against each other. They can also simply
use it as an internal tool for continuous improvement.
About the same time SB was perfecting that approach, the ESG ratings and
rankings arena really heated up — so much so that I started fielding an
increasing number of calls at my firm with the same request: “Help us improve
our ESG scores.” And, indeed, an increasing number of companies were and are
actively working to improve their ESG scores, and align their actions and
disclosures with the ESG
their investors are looking to — all as a way of improving their outcomes with
As a marketing practitioner supporting clients who are dealing with an overload
of sustainability survey fatigue, I wondered, “Does a company need both? If
they’re doing OK at the ESG ratings game, do they really need the SB Brand
Transformation Roadmap? And do I need to go to my clients with one more tool to
‘deal with,’ when they’re barely keeping their heads above water completing all
the other questionnaires for Wall Street, customers, etc?”
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The answer is yes. And there are several reasons for that. This is also where my
co-author and long-standing partner at S&Z North
America, Christopher Haasen, comes in:
Chris and the S&Z team took a look at the dimensions covered by the SB Roadmap
vs the dimensions covered by flagship ESG frameworks – namely the MSCI ESG
and Sustainalytics ESG Risk ratings. The idea was to see how similar the
scoring criteria were … so, if a company could score well on the SB Roadmap,
would that be a leading indicator for earning a strong ESG rating? Could the SB
Roadmap assessment tool be a proxy for good ESG ratings and create a shortcut
S&Z dug into scoring in the consumer goods sector. What they found is that, even
though the way certain topics are addressed varies a bit, there is alignment
between the SB Roadmap and ESG ratings on the importance of:
Integrating sustainability into products and services
Impacts of operations and supply
Compliance and good governance
But in the consumer goods sector, MSCI and Sustainalytics appear to focus less
Brand values and influence
to drive systemic, sustainable change
So, the conclusion here is that ESG ratings (mostly) help investors spot and
manage ESG risk, not social or environmental value and brand leadership, which
is what the SB Brand Transformation Roadmap is about. In other words, ESG
ratings can help a company build robust ESG management practices and drive
investor outcomes; but the SB Roadmap can help a company with decision-making
around brand purpose and marketing influence to create industry-wide change and
drive brand favorability and sales. Companies really need to pursue both for a
holistic sustainability strategy.
So, how should a company use both frameworks? We see four steps:
Find out which scores matter to your investors and your board.
Use the relevant ESG scores/assessments to inform, but not mechanically
determine, your company’s ESG roadmap and reporting.
Hold a workshop with a cross-functional team, take the SB Roadmap assessment
and challenge each other on what’s really true and ways to improve. Leverage
this session as a way to begin setting vision and purpose. Defining a clear
purpose and building the right culture will make team members allies and
accelerate your sustainability transformation.
Use the outcomes of that vision and purpose setting-work as a basis for
internal alignment and brand influence going forward. While ESG frameworks
lend themselves to reporting to investors and other expert audiences, the SB
Roadmap lends itself to driving brand-led change with consumers and
While the feedback you get through your company’s ESG scores helps improve your
ESG management, this alone is not sufficient to fully leverage your
environmental and social commitments and actions, especially for consumer-driven
companies. The SB Brand Transformation Roadmap fleshes out the approach,
ensuring the building blocks are in place to drive real change while also
driving brand favorability.
Published Sep 29, 2021 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors.
Christopher Haasen is Principal and Head of the New York office of S&Z North
America, a global ESG management consultancy.