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ESG: how to turn the burden into a competitive advantage?

ESG will be an integral part of business in 2024. From banks and insurers to listed companies, almost all European businesses are affected by strict sustainability reporting requirements. In 2023, Robert Walters organised two events dedicated to ESG, including a roundtable discussion. This roundtable brought together senior executives working in finance, compliance, risk, legal and brand new ESG roles to discuss their issues around this complex topic. Daniel Herf, who specialises in recruitment for banks and financial institutions, talks about the experiences and challenges that were discussed.

Financial sector feels the pressure

‘’The urgency to embrace sustainability and report transparently on environmental impact is felt by all the professionals we speak to in the financial sector," says Herf. However, the extent to which organisations are implementing ESG measures varies. While large banks and insurers will have to produce ESG reports in line with the new European reporting standards (CSRD) as early as the 2024 financial year, organisations that will have to comply in a later stage are far from ready. What all market participants have in common is a sense of uncertainty surrounding ESG. ‘’Even the big players are wondering how ESG should be shaped and by whom; everyone is still searching,'' notes Herf. ‘’The only thing we know for sure is that ESG is becoming an increasingly important part of business. Not just in the portfolio of the finance professional, but in the organisation as a whole.''

ESG as part of business strategy 

During the roundtable, everyone agreed that betting on ESG is a way for companies to positively differentiate themselves from competitors. But how does one distinguish actions that actually make a positive impact from "greenwashing"? For example, many companies plant trees to offset their CO2 emissions. But how useful is that if the local entrepreneurs involved are using deforestation to support their business model? ‘’These are the kinds of considerations that companies are currently making,'' says Herf. ‘’Do they use such initiatives to raise their profile with stakeholders, or are they driven by an intrinsic motivation to contribute to a more sustainable world?’’

‘’In the future, we are likely to see a distinction between organisations that focus on ESG out of conviction, as part of their purpose and strategy, and those that do so 'because they have to'. After all, changing the DNA of an organisation is quite a task.’’

Positioning ESG within the organisation 

Another issue many companies are grappling with is where and how to position ESG within the organisation. ‘’At the moment, ESG in the broad sense, and CSRD compliance in particular, is the responsibility of finance, legal or risk & compliance in smaller organisations,'' says Herf. ‘’These departments often work closely together to interpret new legislation and then implement it within existing processes. In larger organisations, we see dedicated, interdisciplinary ESG teams being set up.’’

Intrinsic motivation is key

Whether you are large or small, as an employer you face stiff competition to attract ESG professionals. For this reason, Herf advises not to focus too much on a candidate's experience, but rather on their affinity for sustainability. As this is a new field, there are few true ESG specialists. It is therefore better and easier to look for professionals with a high intrinsic motivation to master the field, for example someone who has studied Climate Studies or Environmental Sciences. ‘’In this way, you build a team that will evolve together and take the company forward in the ESG field.’’

How to turn the burden into an opportunity?

Financial market participants face a significant challenge. To turn ESG into a competitive advantage, they need to know how to turn the 'burden' of increasing ESG regulation into an opportunity. They must be able to reconcile their sustainable promises to the world with the promise of financial growth to shareholders, investors and employees. Only then will they achieve the ultimate goal: a healthy, fair and, above all, sustainable future in which companies take responsibility and 'earn' their right to exist. Robert Walters supports organisations in this quest. Our network is the connecting link. Not just by connecting organisations with talented, innovative professionals. But also by bringing people together and letting them share their stories.


In 2024, we will be organising several ESG-focused events. Would you like to attend? Please contact Daniel Herf at daniel.herf@robertwalters.com or +31638685022.

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