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Measuring the impact of ESG programs and initiatives

Corporate sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts fall under a general umbrella of environmental and social governance (ESG) initiatives. Over the past decade, attention on these corporate practices has become more pronounced, for a variety of reasons—some financial, some political.

Because reporting on these efforts frequently has a regulatory component attached to it, companies—particularly those that are publicly held—do track and monitor internal results. And, although they might monitor for news coverage of corporate efforts, it can be challenging to figure out how to tie these types of programs to common business goals, and trickier still to gain deep insights.


Building, protecting, and maintaining corporate reputation is one of the top reasons for designing and implementing non-brand initiatives. Sometimes, programs are part of an organization’s natural growth and development, or part of a brand’s character or brand promise.

Certified B-Corporations are an example. Companies that decide to go through the rigorous process of securing B-Corp certification have made a commitment to social and environmental benchmarks, and agree to performance checks that require a high level of transparency. They are also voluntarily agreeing to implement a corporate governance structure that responds to all stakeholders, not just those with a direct financial interest.

Or, a company may decide to implement nonbrand initiatives after experiencing a crisis that highlighted a particular issue or vulnerability. An environmental crisis could lead to a corporation’s decision to invest in more green initiatives, for instance. Proper execution of a program, along with a commitment to transparency and making a real investment of time, money, or both, will be necessary to convey that the commitment is a real one, and not “just a PR effort” following a crisis.

In each case, corporate reputation is the key business goal—the first to maintain and protect, the second to build and improve.

Internal comms, recruitment, retention

Many employees, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, are looking for more than a job that provides a steady paycheck; they want to feel good about where they work. For this reason, implementing sustainability and diversity efforts can be thought of as a way to support recruitment and bolster retention.

However, it needs to be done correctly. Businesses that choose to go this route should understand that in order for these programs to be effective, the commitment needs to be real, leadership needs to show support, and that efforts must show commitment for the long term. Anything less will be dismissed as lip service, and you run the risk of making employees cynical about your efforts.

If recruiting and retaining employees is a business goal and implementing non-brand initiatives is how you hope to achieve that goal, authenticity, financial support, and putting real energy behind these programs is essential. The objective of a DEI program designed to improve recruitment and retention numbers will need to have components that measure employee engagement and retention, along with tracking hiring initiatives for similar factors.

This is where your internal communications team is essential to success because getting employee buy-in is critical to making sure they truly feel that their voices and contributions matter to the overall success of the organization.

You may also wish to consider monitoring competitors’ sustainability and DEI efforts, especially if you are competing for talent. Having a benchmark to compare to can be helpful.

Monitoring considerations

Establishing business goals around DEI and sustainability efforts can be straightforward, but monitoring and measurement can be complex.

Reputation alone can be challenging to incorporate into a measurement program, because so much will rely on subjective factors—particularly assessing sentiment not just of an overall article, but how the article positions sentiment relative to the nonbrand program. For example, a product review can be good, or bad, or list some positive attributes and some negative. An article about a company’s sustainability efforts is less likely to be so straightforward.

An additional challenge is that DEI and sustainability efforts are hot-button issues politically. This means that a positive article can lead directly to a negative reaction, or even a boycott effort. If an article with a positive tone is the precipitating factor to calls for a corporate boycott, should the article be toned positive? Or, should there be additional framing provided in reporting?

Because of all of these additional considerations, you may want to supplement automated monitoring with additional human review and reporting. Human review and analysis is how reporting goes beyond surface factors and gets to the real issues that impact your business.

The ability to see beyond “surface negativity” and determine if your employees or customers are sticking with you despite a boycott effort is important information, which can get lost if you’re solely looking at sentiment volume.

Having that additional context could prevent you from making a costly mistake, like abandoning corporate sustainability efforts. Doing so could cause direct, important audiences—ones that matter more to your long-term success—to feel like your initiatives were not grounded with a commitment.

Human analysis can also provide data that can be used to refine DEI and sustainability efforts, so that they adjust to your strategies and goals over time.

A strong DEI and sustainability program can yield dividends for a business—and not just the financial kind. Bolstering reputation through the appropriate deployment of nonbrand initiatives can build stronger connections with employees, stakeholders, and customers, who will see your progress on these projects as evidence of your commitment.

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