Posted by Sophie Gould, head of learning and development at Legal Futures Associate Flex Legal
We’ve come a long way from the days when companies could get away with having little care for their environmental and social impact. But how can you tell if a company is truly environmentally and socially responsible from the outside?
We addressed this, and other key issues, in our latest Junior Lawyer’s Virtual Lunch. Held in collaboration with our friends at Crafty Counsel and LexisNexis, we invited along two experts from the ESG space: Victoria Ferguson, general counsel at MMC Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in early stage, transformative tech companies; and Sung-Hyui Park, senior associate at Bates Wells – the UK’s first B Corp law firm, to help us answer these questions.
What is ESG?
Short for environmental, social and corporate governance, ESG is an evaluation of a company’s conscientiousness with regards to social, environmental and governance factors. In other words, ESG is about how a company’s products and services contribute to sustainable development, and how they manage their operations to minimise any negative impact.
This can then be broken down further into a huge range of areas, such as: diversity and inclusion, sustainability, positive social impact, environmental impact, stakeholder relationships, good governance, social enterprise, impact investment, and B Corps.
As opposed to CSR (corporate social responsibility) which is a business model used by individual companies, ESG is a criteria that investors use to assess whether another company is worth investing in.
Outside of investment, ESG is a great way for you to judge the environmental and social responsibility of a company that you’re looking to work for or with, which by extension is a good way to judge how they treat their employees.
How can you judge a company’s approach to ESG from the outside?
Most organisations in the current age have some level of ESG, but how can you tell which companies have a genuine interest and impact in this space, as opposed to those that are just interested in ticking the right boxes?
Well, the answer is that it’s quite tricky but there is some quick research you can undertake to help you decide.
Looking for accreditations is always a good start. For example, if the company is a B Corp (short for certified B Corporation), it means that they have been certified by the non-profit B Lab as voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability and performance.
B Corps are a new kind of business which balance purpose and profit, and are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.
So, if the company you’re looking into is a B Corp, you can be pretty sure that they’re an environmentally and socially responsible organisation to work for.
Other credible accreditations/awards to look out for are: UNSDG (the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals), UNPRI (the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment), Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Stonewall and Investors in People.
It’s also worth looking into whether a company has their own charity. Many larger organisations choose to set up their own charity as a way of formalising their existing social strategy and to help them create unity behind a single good cause. Some good examples are the Manchester United Foundation and the Co-op Foundation.
Although this won’t clarify whether a company is 100% truly responsible, those organisations which place more focus on ESG will have a dedicated area for the work they do on their website, such as Bates Wells and Linklaters.
On top of this, make sure to check out if they publish an impact report in relation to their commitment and any progress made with regards to their environmental and social impact.
In the same way that you’ll head to Tripadvisor to see why a hotel is only £15 a night, the best way to get the real scoop on an organisation’s ESG in practice is to read employee and client reviews.
A company can have all the accreditations and dedicated web pages they want, but if the people who work for and with them don’t believe they’re truly environmentally or socially responsible, then they’re probably not.
How can you ask a potential employer about their ESG strategy?
If environmental and social issues are important to you, then you may want to ask a potential employer about their strategy during your interview. Here are some questions you can ask to gauge whether their company is truly responsible:
If the company has a mission statement, ask how this plays out. It’s all well and good having a mission statement, but it’s not worth much if it doesn’t practice these values in its day-to-day business activity.
Ask if the company has made any public commitments in the ESG space and has it sought to publish its performance/progress against these commitments? For example, a declaration of climate emergency, gender pay gap reporting, a transition to zero carbon, the Race at Work Charter or the Halo Code.
Who are the company’s clients? Are they also committed to ESG goals? Importantly, on the flipside, who aren’t the company’s clients and other stakeholders? Does the company have internal policies in place to ensure that it works primarily with clients, suppliers and other stakeholders who are aligned with its values?
Are the company’s ESG values embedded into its internal recruitment, retention, career development processes for its own people? Does the company make sure that evidence of commitment to ESG is part of its recruitment process for new team members? Does it take evidence of involvement in ESG initiatives seriously as part of a team member’s career progression evaluation?
These are all questions to think about, and even ask, when considering working for a certain employer. Whether you’re passionate about ESG or not, an organisation’s commitment to environmental and social responsibility is a key indicator of its true values and how its treat its own employees.
How can you contribute to your company’s ESG efforts?
Looking for ways to get involved and make a difference in your own company? Here are a few simple ways to get started.
If it already exists – join in. Volunteer for pro bono events, turn off your monitor and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to make suggestions, as long as they’re backed by research.
Where it doesn’t – act as if it does. Do your own reading and, as said by the fairly successful lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world”.
There are so many resources on ESG, such as events, books and podcasts – absorb as much as you can and share your key learnings with your colleagues.
Facilitating change at your organisation is going to be tricky but start with your own team and make sure to provide examples – people like to know what other companies are doing and don’t like to be left behind. You can’t change the company’s flexible working policy in one conversation, but as a team you may start to take small steps to improve your work/life balance.
Alternatively, does your company have clients that are interested in doing more ESG-related work? If so, you could spend time gathering market intelligence about ESG and its growth/development in the market, volunteer to write client briefings and articles on ESG topics or share updates on ESG events with your team and clients. Or you could even invite clients who are immersed in ESG to give talks to share their experiences.
The Chancery Lane Project
If you’re interested in climate action/zero carbon initiatives, take a look at legal initiatives like the Chancery Lane Project, made up of lawyers across the UK who are passionate about aligning contractual drafting to net zero goals, and see whether any of these might be relevant to the legal documents that you and your organisation are working on.
Most importantly, when it comes to internal initiatives, consider what you feel strongly about, whether it’s diversity and inclusion groups, social mobility, or community initiatives, and find ways to get involved as much as possible.
Attend a Flex Legal Virtual Lunch – each one touches on a fresh and interesting topic, meaning each one is different. Click this link to go to our Eventbrite page and register for upcoming events ahead of time.
Building Back Better – keen to see how legal teams can create a better future for the legal industry? Crafty Counsel and Linklaters brought four leading general counsel from across the world together to reflect on the current industry, as well as look forward to the future, in their Building Back Better series.
LexisPSL Sustainable Business Toolkit – from the ESG criteria affecting investment decisions to supply chain sustainability issues, the toolkit provides comprehensive guidance, checklists, ‘how to’ guides and latest news.
Martin Bunch, the managing partner of Bates Wells, will be speaking on a panel entitled ‘Doing business, Doing good’ at next week’s Legal Futures Innovation Conference.