There is no doubt that the role of the corporation has been under intense scrutiny in recent years, as executives and investors are being held to a higher standard when it comes to the role that corporations play in the global commercial system, and also the communities in which they operate. The global events that have unfolded over the past 12 months underscore this point.

However, the recent yet not-so-surprising removal of Danone’s CEO and Chairman Emmanuel Faber should serve as a wake-up call to supporters of sustainable finance and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) messaging. Balancing people, purpose, and profit is possible. It is also difficult. While this balance can, and should be, incorporated into the fundamental foundation and mission of corporations, executing against defined objectives can prove tricky, especially if people and purpose come at the expense of profits. Investors, in the end, want to see returns.

Faber’s ouster could be a bellwether for a more meaningful, and profitable, approach to ESG. His well-intentioned attempts to balance the “3Ps” was, in my opinion, one of the brighter spots in the sea of multinational corporate responsibility confusion. Danone’s roots in both the food/beverage and consumer-goods sectors provides the opportunity for effective and direct ESG positioning with both suppliers and consumers. Many companies in this space talk, but Danone’s longer-term focus — coupled with a more balanced integration of measurable sustainable financial and environmental goals with upstream suppliers (partly triggered as a response to COVID disruption) — carries a legitimacy that tends to be lacking among many of the initiatives being developed at many companies situated in similar operating consumer-goods environments. This is where the importance of competence-based ESG measures is critical, and where the pitfalls associated with greenwashing have been taking their toll.

“Those involved in setting the roadmap of balancing the 3Ps — people, purpose, and profits — need to use this opportunity to demonstrate relevance, efficacy, and favorable financial potential.”

ESG objectives need to be securely tied to a platform that is built upon equal parts science, engineering, analytics, and finance. It does no good to build a profitable resource efficiency or supply-chain waste-reduction strategy if there is no true quantifiable measure of environmental resource improvement, grounded in metrics and analysis. Likewise, if the retooling of technical components embedded within global supply chains does not start to provide a financial benefit to suppliers and investors, the window of opportunity will close, and ESG as both an operating principle and an investor-screening factor will fade into obscurity. (Remember CleanTech 1.0?)

Corporate marketing brochures and public statements centered on improving corporate governance and accountability with respect to ESG factors are certainly not in short supply; however, the results that capture both environmental and financial returns are still vague. Those involved in setting the roadmap of balancing the 3Ps need to use this opportunity to demonstrate relevance, efficacy, and favorable financial potential. When ESG goals are established, they need to not only be well defined and actionable, but also meaningful. They also need to be fluid, as sustainability should be viewed as a journey, not a goal in and of itself.

 

Michael Ferrari is a senior fellow at Wharton Customer Analytics and managing partner at Atlas Research Innovations.