Sustainability (ESG) beyond Woke and Compliance

From Smart to Wise Decision Making

The International Week on Sustainability (or I-week), hosted by the Faculty of Business & Economics of the University of Antwerp, is a unique programme where students, academic and practitioners from all 5 continents come together to discuss the importance of sustainability in business and economics. Over the years, this intense, one week programme has been attended well over 160 Belgian and 180 international students. This year, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the I-week.

Students this year will attend hybrid plenum lectures by a number of national and international speakers from a variety of industries, academia and NGO’s, strengthened by a number of workshops and an inter-faculty debate on the hotly debated issue of PFAS environmental damage and its reputational and legal implications. The week concludes with a CEO debate, during which four international practitioners discuss how their respective organizations address sustainability challenges and answer questions collected by the students over the entire course.

A turn too far?

Omitting or ignoring ecological and ethical goals may not be “cool” anymore….Although it is “woke” to embrace sustainability goals and to commit to decarbonization or electrification of transportation, our argument goes beyond this presumed “political correctness” – that often also stifles creativity and innovation. Have social activists hijacked the sustainability debate a turn too far? Or is the environmental and ethical criticism on corporates fair and square? Not reporting your organizational goals with respect to climate change actions, or gender neutrality or diversity, or slightly deviating from the current geopolitical narrative correctness is interpreted as not-done, not “woke”.

As critical thinkers, we urge our participants during the iWeek to take a reflective stance to ascertain whether the notion of sustainability has been hijacked by both “activist wokists” who demand social and political “compliance” on the one hand, and PR advisors and Communication Experts who will undertake all endeavors to make sure that the organization “looks good” on the other hand. You can plainly call the latter greenwashing, pretending to do something which does not really reflect the complete [factual] truth or reality. The former may well be described as close to a rather rigid ideology where sincere Hegelian dialogue and Socratic debate have been banned.

More than a trend

This international week on sustainability aims to look at the facts and assess the possible venues and aspirations that companies around the globe may attempt to make, to find a way to serve on this new trend of sustainability (from a business and economic perspective). The speed with which this trend has spread into all kind of organisations indicates that it is more than a fashionable trend: it has become a strategic necessity as customers, employees and investors alike expect that organizations take their responsibility (in terms of ecological, socio-ethical and governance objectives-practices). It’s not just smart to embrace this trend, it is also wise to do so. And this wisdom to embrace sustainability goes beyond any political correctness.

Built-in sustainability strategies will generate opportunities for new products and services, reduce waste, excite investors looking for genuine responsible investment, it will increase the morale among employees, and it definitely will also placate government officials who require more climate change action regulations, diversity regulations, etc. In other words, there are sound business reasons to go beyond ad-hoc adapted sustainability initiatives to “look into more ecological & recyclable products and services”. 

Only when organizations see the business case to build-in such ecological and social-diversity goals into the strategy of organizations, sustainability has a chance to transcend trendy fluff and contingent political wokeness. Being ecologically savvy, reducing waste, pursuing objectives that make the economy more recyclable is good business acumen.

ESG revolution

The SDGs (sustainability development goals) – launched by the UN in 2015 – provide us with a definition of sustainability shared by 170 countries. While this global definition of a ‘common good’ is quite helpful, it remains at the same time quite generic and an effort to translate these goals into tangible, real objectives linked to clear parameters is a challenge for public as well as private organisations. 

For the financial sector, this translated itself into the ESG (environment, social, governance) revolution. It is now almost unavoidable for investors to consider ESG information when taking financial decisions. Yet at the same time the contested nature of what are proper ESG indicators results in regular criticism of the entire ESG movement, with complaints about wokeness on the one hand and pure greenwashing on the other hand rising fast. More stringent criteria, audited ESG reporting by a large number of companies is under way within the EU as well as in many other parts of the world opening the way to a more mature form of ecological and socio-ethical accountability and responsibility.

We strongly believe that, in essence, ESG should be considered a strategic and [reputation] risk challenge and opportunity beyond mere compliance and “woke” (political correctness). Only responsible leadership will be in the position to make smart but above all wise decisions. Wisdom – an old salient notion – requires more from humans than being smart. It requires business and political leaders to take a broader eco-systemic perspective, focusing on resolving challenges and minimizing ecological harm. In other words, it will require leaders to focus on creative and innovative solutions beyond fashionable ‘wokeness’ and ‘looking good’; it will demand wisdom, integrity and courage to take the necessary hard decisions to veer towards real solutions.

The global challenges ahead demand that we teach our students and professors to communicate on a global scale. Intercultural understanding, dialogue and cooperation is a central element in this special course. Throughout the week, students work in groups on specific sustainability topics inside one organisation and are judged by professors from 5 different continents. 

They challenge each other’s understanding of sustainability, as well as learning to lead a multicultural group. They are confronted with the potential red or orange flags with respect to corporate social responsibility and the notion of ESG in running and governing a business. They are also challenged to answer the question of what this notion means for them as an individuals and learn to understand the diversity of sustainability challenges depending on the region you come from. In the end, we hope this intense experience brings them the wisdom needed to steer the organisations where they will work into a direction that preserves and creates value, not destroy value or harm a broader environment.

Co-authored by Prof. Dr Peter Verhezen & Prof. Dr. Luc Van Liedekerke

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