WTW leader on ESG: "You have to always start with the 'why'"

Chief innovation and acceleration officer talks about purpose

WTW leader on ESG: "You have to always start with the 'why'"


By Terry Gangcuangco

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) has certainly evolved over the years from a ‘nice to have’ into a necessary area of focus for organisations – but one which should be pursued, a WTW leader argues, for the right reasons.

Purpose behind ESG

For WTW chief innovation and acceleration officer John Bremen, to deliver true impact and value, ESG has to start with a company’s purpose.

Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by Economist Impact, Bremen declared: “I think so many organisations entered ESG almost with somebody else’s purpose in mind, and never really looked at their motivation.

“Are we doing it for compliance reasons? Are we doing it for pure social responsibility purposes? Are we doing it because it’s part of our business strategy and we think that our future is nested in sweeping changes that have to be brought on by ESG factors? And there’s the opportunity.

“Why are we doing this? You have to always start with the ‘why’. And I think so many organisations ran into ESG very well intended but never really focussed on the why. But once you clear the why, you then start listening to what some of the pushback on ESG has been all about.”

Greenwashing and greenwishing

In terms of ESG pushback, Bremen believes both greenwashing and greenwishing have been significant sources.

Explaining the two concepts, the chief innovation and acceleration officer said: “Greenwashing [is] where organisations are putting a good facade on but not necessarily taking the true steps in the background to do what is necessary to make progress.

“And then greenwishing, which I am so intrigued by, because that is well-intended leaders just hoping that certain things turn out to be true, even though they’re not, and getting themselves into problems.”

To avoid falling into either “trap,” Bremen cited three strategies for companies – the first of which is asking the tough questions.

“What we find is the investors, the boards, the stakeholders who are not afraid to ask those tough questions – if they don’t understand something, if something doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t compute, chances are, if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s not making sense to someone else,” he asserted.

“And we actually make ESG stronger by not being afraid to ask those tough questions. I think some people have been reluctant. But I think the ones who really ask the tough questions, first and foremost, are really getting there.”

The other two tactics, said Bremen, are having defined and codified metrics in place and knowing who should be responsible.

He argued: “If we can’t assign metrics and measurement to what we’re trying to achieve, we will go around in circles forever, talking a good game but not achieving it.

“And then, third, we have to hold people accountable, but we have to be clear who… and what for. I think so often it’s so easy to put these broad objectives out there without really talking about the clear path to who’s responsible for implementing them.”

Holistic approach

For ESG initiatives to succeed, meanwhile, Bremen is of the view that organisations must also look beyond the purpose, the people, and the planet.

“So many great discussions of ESG stop immediately short of talking about what the impact on performance is,” he lamented. “You can’t have a conversation about ESG, and metrics, and outcomes, and inputs without really understanding the net long-term impact to the organisation.”

The WTW leader added: “I think that integrated holistic approach to stewardship, where we’re taking the ESG factors – relating to purpose, to people, and to planet – we add the performance element and the risk protection element, and we, I think, have a very robust and long-term oriented discussion that would be tough for too many people in the business world to argue the validity of.”

Hosted by Economist Impact senior manager for sustainability, climate change, and natural resources Martin Koehring, the video discussion was part of WTW’s “ESG In Sight” Spotlight Series. Bremen was joined by WTW senior director and sustainability solutions head Monique Mathys-Graaff and Johnson Controls vice president and chief sustainability officer Katie McGinty.  

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