What is ESG?

what is esg

In modern business, the concept of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) has risen to prominence, not just as a metric of sustainability but as a crucial component of corporate strategy. ESG represents a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments.

There are three main criteria: the Environmental aspect considers how a company performs as a steward of nature; the Social which examines the relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates; and the Governance which deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls, and shareholder rights.

Understanding ESG is essential for businesses aiming to attract investment, manage risks, and foster long-term growth. But in order to better understand it let’s head onto a more thorough analysis of each of these three pillars and break down all the aspects that are key to their existence.

Environmental criteria

The environmental pillar of ESG focuses on the company’s energy use, waste, pollution, natural resource conservation, and treatment of animals. The practices in this area indicate a company’s effort to mitigate environmental risks that might affect its financial condition or operational capacity. For instance, a company reducing its carbon footprint through improved efficiencies and energy sourcing can not only decrease costs but also enhance its market image and investor appeal.

Key initiatives include:

  • Carbon Footprint Reduction: Implementing technologies and practices that reduce energy usage and emissions in production and logistics.
  • Waste Management: Developing recycling programs, using environmentally friendly materials, and reducing waste production overall.
  • Sustainable Resource Use: Ensuring that the raw materials sourced are renewable or sustainably managed, often verified by third-party certifications.

Companies are increasingly held accountable for their environmental impact, driven by regulatory pressures and a growing public interest in sustainable products. A notable example is the transition in the automotive industry towards electric vehicles, propelled by environmental concerns and consumer demand, showcasing how adherence to ESG criteria not only supports sustainability but also opens new market opportunities.

Social criteria

The social dimension of ESG assesses a company’s capacity to generate trust and loyalty with its workforce, customers, and the communities in which it operates. It includes employee relations and diversity, working conditions, local community engagements, and the company’s impact on society. An enterprise with robust social practices typically enjoys enhanced employee morale and retention, a stronger brand reputation, and improved customer loyalty.

Key aspects include:

  • Employee Relations and Diversity: Emphasising fair wages, safe working conditions, and fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.
  • Community Engagement: Initiatives like community development projects, donations, and employee volunteer programs that contribute positively to societal welfare.
  • Customer Satisfaction: Committing to customer privacy and fair practices ensures long-term business sustainability.

A practical example of effective social criteria implementation can be seen in companies offering advanced health benefits and flexible work environments, leading to high employee satisfaction and lower turnover rates. This practice improves the company’s operational efficiency and enhances its public image, attracting more skilled workers and loyal customers.

Governance criteria

Governance involves the system of rules, practices, and processes by which a firm is directed and controlled. Strong governance seeks to align the interests of individuals, corporations, and society, with an emphasis on corporate transparency, accountability, and board diversity. Investors particularly scrutinise this pillar because it reflects a company’s leadership structure, financial practices, and how it handles shareholder rights.

Important elements include:

  • Board Diversity and Structure: Promoting diversity at the executive level to avoid groupthink and foster wider perspectives in decision-making.
  • Audit and Risk Management: Robust internal systems to manage risks and ensure accurate financial reporting.
  • Executive Compensation: Aligning incentives with business goals and shareholder interests to foster long-term value creation.

For instance, a technology firm that establishes clear policies and practices for data protection and executive accountability will likely gain investor confidence and sustain its competitive advantage. Transparent practices in governance help mitigate risks and assure stakeholders of the company’s commitment to ethical operations.

By adhering to stringent governance standards, businesses not only comply with regulations but also build trust with investors, customers, and employees, ensuring sustainability and profitability in the long run.

ESG reporting and metrics

Effective ESG integration into business practices requires robust reporting and the use of standardised metrics to measure performance. These frameworks work as a guide for companies in the process of documenting efforts and outcomes while enhancing transparency for investors and stakeholders.

Key reporting frameworks:

  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI): Provides a comprehensive set of standards widely used globally for reporting on environmental, social, and corporate governance impacts. The GRI sustainability reporting framework assists businesses in locating, compiling, and presenting this data in an understandable and consistent way. Because of their modular design, the GRI Standards are simpler to maintain and modify. The Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), an independent organization established by GRI, reviews the GRI Standards and reporting requirements every three years. The updated Universal Standards, which were released in October 2021 and went into force for reporting in January 2023, are the most recent reporting frameworks offered by GRI.
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB): Helps businesses identify, manage, and report on sustainability topics that matter most to financial performance. Environmentalists, standard-setters, reporting businesses, and the financial industry have realized the necessity for a unique framework for sustainability-related disclosures due to the increased awareness of sustainability concerns, particularly climate change. Companies throughout the world apply SASB standards in a range of disclosure channels, such as their websites, sustainability reports, annual reports, financial filings, and more.

Companies adopt these frameworks to ensure that they meet the expectations of a growing socially conscious investment community. Through detailed reporting, businesses can showcase their commitment to ESG values, making them more attractive to potential investors who prioritise sustainability alongside financial returns.

Metrics and measurement:

  • Environmental metrics: Include carbon emissions levels, waste management efficacy, and water usage statistics.
  • Social metrics: Employee turnover rates, gender and diversity scores, and community investment impacts.
  • Governance metrics: Compliance rates, board diversity percentages, and incidences of ethical breaches.

By standardising ESG reporting, companies enable investors and other stakeholders to make more informed decisions, comparing performance against peers, and benchmarking improvements over time.

ESG and business performance

The integration of ESG criteria into business strategies is not just about compliance or public relations; it fundamentally enhances long-term business performance.

Financial impact:

  • Risk management: Companies with strong ESG records demonstrate lower volatility and fewer instances of regulatory or legal interventions, reducing costs.
  • Investment attraction: Increasingly, investors are channeling funds into companies with strong ESG metrics, viewing them as lower risk and more sustainable over the long term.

Strategic benefits:

  • Brand enhancement: Companies known for strong ESG commitments often enjoy enhanced customer loyalty and brand value.
  • Operational efficiencies: ESG-focused companies tend to innovate in their processes to reduce waste and energy use, leading to cost savings.

For example, a retail company that adopts fair labour practices may incur higher short-term costs but can achieve lower employee turnover and higher productivity, which translate into better financial performance and investor attractiveness.

Through ESG, businesses are slowly gearing up for the current compliance all while future-proofing themselves against upcoming regulations and market shifts driven by global sustainability and social accountability trends.

Supply chain finance and ESG

Supply chain finance (SCF) is a set of solutions that optimise cash flow by allowing businesses to lengthen their payment terms to their suppliers while providing the option for their suppliers to get paid earlier. This financial technology is essential for enhancing efficiency and reducing costs across the supply chain, but it also plays a crucial role in ESG efforts.

Integrating ESG into supply chain finance:

  • Sustainable supplier selection: Companies prioritise suppliers who demonstrate strong ESG practices, thus promoting environmental stewardship and social responsibility throughout the supply chain.
  • Incentivising ESG practices: Financial incentives like favourable financing rates can be offered to suppliers who meet specific ESG criteria, encouraging widespread adoption of sustainable practices.

By embedding ESG criteria into supply chain finance strategies, companies not only ensure the ethical sourcing of goods and services but also drive ESG compliance across their supply chains. This approach is used to mitigate risks like regulatory penalties and reputational damage. Additionally, it aligns with global pushes towards sustainability, such as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Benefits of ESG-focused supply chain finance:

  • Risk reduction: Managing ESG risks in the supply chain reduces potential disruptions and legal issues, thereby stabilising operations.
  • Market expansion: Companies that are seen as responsible are more likely to win contracts from governments and multinational corporations that require compliance with high ESG standards.

For instance, a multinational corporation might implement SCF solutions that offer better rates to suppliers who use renewable energy or maintain exceptional labour practices, fostering a greener and more equitable supply chain.


Understanding and implementing ESG in business is no longer optional but a critical determinant of success in the contemporary market landscape. Companies that embrace ESG principles not only contribute positively to the world but also position themselves to thrive economically. As seen through the integration of ESG in areas like supply chain finance, these practices offer extensive benefits including enhanced compliance, operational efficiencies, and improved stakeholder relationships.

As the business environment continues to evolve with increasing environmental, social, and governance challenges, adopting ESG frameworks is imperative. For businesses looking to remain competitive and sustainable, now is the time to explore how ESG can be fully integrated into every facet of their operations, from boardroom decisions to day-to-day management and beyond.