Dear ESG Person,
It was bottled water that made me write this letter to you. I was ordering the food shopping for a family weekend away recently and was told that some adult relatives only drank bottled water.
"What's wrong with tap water?"
"They don't like the taste," I was told.
"Well, we're trying to keep costs down," I reasoned, "and it's also really polluting".
"Ugh, why does this always have to be a thing?", was the response.
As I clicked through to checkout, angry tears streamed down my face. It wasn't just the bottled water that was the problem: despite David Attenborough documenting his heart out about pollution, my 34-year-old cousin, a father of two little girls, just didn't care. And although I knew I was right in pointing it out, I had no more energy left to reason with him.
I’ve been asking inconvenient questions since the early days, when it was like hitting my head against a brick wall. Then everything changed. In the past few years, ESG professionals have gone from sitting in the basement of offices to being put front and centre of their organisations' strategies. This recognition is immense – and long may it continue – but having spoken to colleagues from across the industry, pressures are growing. Add to this an ongoing pandemic, growing social inequalities and ecological collapse, and ESG burnout is real. I know because I have it.
At first glance this doesn't add up. Compared to my friends, I'm lucky. My job is secure and well paid, it stimulates me mentally and I have a strong sense of purpose. However, I care about my job a lot and I think a lot of ESG people feel the same – why else would we decide to get up every day to push for positive societal and environmental change, in one of the most disliked industries, which incidentally feeds a system that supports exponential growth, and benefits from inequality? Yes, I know nobody is forcing me to do this job, but with greater media and social awareness, nowadays an ESG job is not just a 9-5. One flick of an Instagram feed and you’re back to work.
Find me investments supporting the SDGs that DNSH. Keep a check of the SEC, IIGCC, IGCC, Ceres, UNEPFI, NZAOA, NZAM, CDSB and any of the SIFs, as well as ASCOR, TEG, GTAG, GFANZ, TNFD, IFRS/ISSB, PCAF. Fall behind at your peril
The ESG industry is experiencing an extreme pace of change. News flow, regulatory intervention and ESG deniers who call themselves experts. Is what I do now SRI or RI, or is it ESG? I think I need more data, but do I use GRI, CDP, CRREM and/or BREEAM, UNGC, GIIN, TPI, WBA or SASB? We require ambitious NDCs to lower GHGs, along with corporates committing to SBTs. Find me investments supporting the SDGs that DNSH. Keep a check of the SEC, IIGCC, IGCC, Ceres, UNEPFI, NZAOA, NZAM, CDSB and any of the SIFs, as well as ASCOR, TEG, GTAG, GFANZ, TNFD, IFRS/ISSB, PCAF. Fall behind at your peril. Most importantly, write an award-winning report in line with TCFD, PAII, SFDR and NFRD, which can also be used for PRI. What have I missed?
In the mad rush to firefight, sell, buy, market and keep up, I’m not getting enough time to think deeply. I sometimes lie awake, worried I’ve missed an obvious investment risk. What if the conversations I've had with clients, issuers and policy makers exacerbate problems I'm trying to solve? Worse still, what if I'm feeding the ESG bullshit machine?
I've lost count of research I've saved to read for that ‘quiet period’. This period used to be summer, but now I think it’s those five strange days between Christmas and New Year, or on the toilet, hiding from the kids. Sorry, which piece is going to tell me something new, because it feels like everybody is writing ESG papers? This of course is unfair to those writing said work, because they are equally searching for solutions.
On that note, anybody noticed the increased mudslinging in our world? Put your head above the parapet to discuss a new ESG metric, ambitious goal or controversial thought, and bang. But don't think you can hide, because you'll get hit too. While we absolutely need debate and rigour to create the best solutions, this kind of elitism stifles innovation and undermines collaboration.
I try and walk the talk in my personal life, but even on that front it's tiring. If I don't have my reusable cup, I won't buy a coffee. This invariably means I'm left staring forlornly at those with takeaway flat whites, while simultaneously despising their (willful?) ignorance and unrecyclable cups. Summer family holidays are a negotiation – they want sun, but I don't want to fly short haul. I often give in because I too want to feel heat, but feel horribly guilty as I pay for the offsets. Let's not get into the kids' toys.
During COP26, I stopped reading the news. I wept a few times too and avoided getting dragged into conversations about the talks. I knew there wouldn’t be the outcomes we need and didn't want to produce an upbeat soundbite for a curious colleague.
As I've said, I'm burnt out; but that's why I'm sharing. If any of the above is chiming with you, dear reader, do me a favour and read on.
Take this holiday season to rest. Really rest. Tell your colleagues to do the same. You don't need to check your emails. Put down the research, data set, algorithm, article, and slide deck
Thank you for everything you're doing, everything you've done this year and for choosing to work in this sector. But take this holiday season to rest. Really rest. Tell your colleagues to do the same. You don't need to check your emails. Put down the research, data set, algorithm, article, and slide deck. Be with your family and friends, do fun things, sleep, eat good food and enjoy the outside. These big problems aren't going to get better any time soon, and protecting your health and wellbeing is the most important thing for us to succeed.
Later on that family holiday, I walked along the beach with my cousin's four-year-old daughter. Out of the blue, she pointed at some rubbish mixed up with seaweed and said: "I hate rubbish, it kills turtles". "You're right, it does", I said, "but you know what, we can try really hard to be cleaner and get our friends to help too".
"Yeah, we can", she nodded firmly.
Best and take care,