Take a Stand or Take a Seat

A look at Imperative #4 for Rethinking Retail

The term “ESG”, or Environmental Social and Governance factors, refers to a vast landscape of issues. The corporate responsibility and governance topics encompassed by ESG have always been part of conversations about businesses’ role in society, and awareness of the moral and strategic imperatives for companies to find their voices had been building for years. Yet the trials of COVID-19 accelerated a convergence of these already growing areas with an even greater sense of urgency.

The events of the past year may have slowed down daily life for many but they but also sharpened our focus as we collectively witnessed or experienced loss, racial injustice, polarization and uncertainty. With the world’s challenges laid bare, customers and employees have found renewed purpose and empowerment in holding society accountable for how they will help shape a better world. More are speaking out on social media, forcing transparency, voting with their dollars and demanding accountability.

But while businesses like retailers play a key role in our everyday experiences, many corporate leaders questioned the appropriate role for companies or felt poorly equipped to weigh in on complicated or diverging topics. However, silence can also be loud, and increasingly companies may find if they do not speak up around issues in moments of urgency, others may take the liberty of filling in the blanks and assuming the worst.

Conversations with leading retailers who have found their voice around key ESG issues reveal they often do so by having hard conversations, using their company purpose to guide them to where they can be most impactful. These companies know that in a world where silence is a statement, setting goals and taking a stand speaks volumes to customers, employees and investors choosing where to shop, work and invest.
And that communication goes both ways. Inputs like customer and employee surveys and materiality analyses paired with a guiding company purpose can take a lot of the guess work out of identifying new risks and opportunities in large organizations. Genuine leadership on an ESG topic means doing so thoughtfully and transparently rather than trying to claim perfection in every space, so stakeholder engagement exercises provide a well-rounded framework to inform prioritization and learn from experts.

As the dust begins to settle after a year scarred by uncertainty, customers, employees and investors will continue to push for action, but even among many and competing expectations, retailers who stay grounded in purpose will be able to find or build their path.

We explore this imperative for retailers to take a stand, informed by insights from leading retail CEOs, in our recent research report developed with knowledge partner McKinsey & Company, Retail Speaks. To learn more, download a copy of the report here.

For more information about the retail industry’s approach to ESG and RILA’s executive communities exploring these topics, please reach out to RILA Vice President of CSR Erin Hiatt.
  • Climate and Sustainability
  • Diversity
  • Ensuring a Safe, Sustainable Future
  • Retail Sustainability
  • Retail Works for All of Us
  • Sustainability & Environment

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