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ESG post COVID-19: as important as ever, or crowded out?

In February 2020, Governance Institute of Australia convened a Discussion Group for listed public companies. The purpose? To discuss the priority issues for board agendas in the coming year.

The clear consensus was that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) would be the number one priority for boards, among others such as shareholder activism and the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, which had just been named COVID-19.

That was then, this is now.

COVID-19 has changed how we work and live. The impacts have been pervasive and are likely to be enduring. In this new context, what does ESG look like now? Will that focus remain, or could it be crowded out by the pandemic crisis and its significant social, economic and geopolitical impacts?

There are very different views on the centrality of ESG at this point in time.

Some argue that ESG is as important as ever:

A great many large companies talk about having a social purpose and set of values, or about how much they care for their employees and other stakeholders. Now is the time for them to make good on that commitment.(1)

To which a recent counterpoint is that ESG should take a back seat:

The pre-pandemic business drift to environmental, social and corporate governance issues might need to take a back seat to the core responsibility of business. ESG is important but not immediately critical to business survival. The risk for business is talking about social responsibility instead of the significant business challenges they will face. (2)

These differing perspectives raise two important issues for all businesses to consider and define for themselves:

  • To what extent do we genuinely consider that responsible governance, in the best interests of stakeholders, contributes to performance and value creation? Or is it an optional extra, to be parked until a return to more settled times?
  • To what extent are our actions, as we navigate a different course, consistent with our proclaimed purpose and values? Do deeds and words align?

For governance and risk professionals, there has arguably never been a more important time to be across the issues and be able to bring an informed view to our boards and leadership teams.

Many industries will emerge from the crisis in a very different shape, through circumstances or by design. Over the coming weeks and months, we can expect to see renewed focus on issues including:

  • Supply chains
    Having experienced significant upheaval, and with nation states seeking greater autonomy, how will supply chains change and what are the operational implications?
  • Modern slavery
    The Australian Government expects that businesses should already be considering how the impacts of COVID-19 may increase the vulnerability of workers in their global operations and supply chains to modern slavery.
  • Business resilience
    Conventional business continuity planning has been often found wanting in an environment where a return to BAU is neither desirable nor possible. As we move through the eye of the storm, how can we better support the transformation and adaptation of our businesses?
  • Climate change
    With COVD-19 resulting in significant impacts on energy demand and a resulting decline in emissions, what will this mean for the management and disclosure of climate change risks?

The author will be the chair of the ESG: Thought Leadership panel at the upcoming Virtual Governance and Risk Management Forum 2020. Click here for more information and to register.

CEO May update

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