Five barriers to Sustainability/ESG integration and how to overcome them
23 April 2023

The big push to integrate Sustainability/ESG into the core business is well underway. While it’s possible to pursue integration using approaches that bridge to next era thinking (more about that here), many companies are already finding it tough to get traction with their current toolset. Working as a thinking partner across every sector makes it fairly easy to see patterns in what holds this process back.

Here are five barriers to Sustainability/ESG integration. Each interferes in its own way with your company’s ability to embrace its potential to create positive social or environmental impact, at scale. Prompted by Andreas Richter on LinkedIn, I’ve added my general strategies for overcoming them.

  1. Pigeon-holing: “Sustainability is a compliance or marketing function.” At its most pernicious, this is familiarity bias: we assume Sustainability is part of something we know to make it less overwhelming.
    Strategy: Wait it out. Trying to overcome this barrier can lead to additional problems. Integration can start anywhere; get ready for the long haul.
  2. Trade-off mentality: “Investments in Sustainability/ESG will require trade-offs on margin or profitability.”
    Strategy: Evidence. Use case study data to show that, while trade-offs are inevitable in some cases, this is not true in all cases. Knowing the difference will impact the success of your strategy and can turn detractors into champions overnight.
  3. Expedience: “Investor ratings scorecards make a good strategic framework for Sustainability.” This is less easy to overcome. The current investor awakening means that any Sustainability framing other than E-S-G must navigate a steep incline.
    Strategy: Scheduling. Get the ESG ratings up first. When that stress drops down the agenda, people see the obvious more easily.
  4. Complacency: “Sustainability/ESG has been core to our business from the start.” This is usually paired with pigeon-holing in the marketing function. It is beyond boring to work with because proponents agree with whatever you say without changing their line.
    Strategy: Courage. You risk a career limiting move, but just get real.
  5. Hubris: Sustainability/ESG is for suckers who don’t see the bigger picture. Proponents are often contrarians who have seen their ‘bigger picture’ view emerge victorious on a previous occasion. This is possibly the most difficult barrier to sort out because clever egos are invested in keeping it in place.
    Strategy: Trickster. Agree with them. Then laugh and shake your head. Make them nervous you know something they don’t.

The question is not “Do these barriers apply in my company?”. It is “Where do I see these barriers applying and how am I responding?”. My strategies are not a recipe for success, but may help keep you sane in the meantime.


Banner image cropped from a photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

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