Sustainability is not a new business concept, but the seriousness with which companies, regulators, and the public at large treat it has undergrown tremendous growth in recent years across just about every sector in recent years, and there is no sign of that slowing down any time soon.

One of the engines driving that change is ESG Reporting. The importance and impact of gathering the relevant data to document and report your organization’s Environmental, Social, and Governance performance cannot be overstated. Strong ESG Reporting generates and maintains detailed, factual, and verifiable answers to important questions asked by internal stakeholders, current and potential investors, regulators, partners, policymakers, the public —anyone, really.

Far from just an exercise in compliance, many companies think of their ESG metrics as among the most powerful tool in their toolbox to identify what is working and what still needs work, tracking progress over time, and communicating that information to all relevant parties in a way that is understandable and reliable.

So with that said, who owns ESG? Who is responsible for it, and who gets to leverage it? There is no one right answer to that question. Every organization is different, and many of the positions that do ESG reporting today had that added to their portfolio of responsibilities years ago before the power and heavy responsibility attached to it became so evident.

As one example, Executive Platforms organizes a long-running and successful gathering of senior supply chain executives who have often said ESG is a huge part of what they do, and they argue that makes sense because the performance of their supply chain organization and their partners up and down the value stream is one of the most important contributors to a company’s overall ESG reporting and performance.

Just as valid is the opinion of the many senior finance executives who we bring together annually to discuss the rapidly evolving role they perform for their organizations. As ESG Reporting has become one of the key tools a CFO uses to communicate performance, and as ESG Reporting is so often directly connected to quantifiable data collected from all points inside and outside an organization, it makes perfect sense that for many organizations, ESG is predominately a Finance function.

I write today’s column from a small room in an Austin hotel where I am conducting interviews at the North American Sustainability & Reliability Summit. In many of the conversations I have had so far, someone is making the case with real warmth and enthusiasm that ESG for many companies has been given or should be given to the existing EHS professionals as a new responsibility, while also serving as a new source of authority to bring about positive change. I think the ‘Why’ of that is worth expanding upon here for others to read and enjoy.

Why EHS?

Let’s start with the obvious that several people have said variations of to me, to the point I suspect this is a common joke among professionals working in this space. “Why are EHS leaders taking on the ESG function? Well, it’s the same E…”

I said at the beginning that Sustainability is not new, but certainly how businesses think about it and implement it has changed dramatically over the years. Not a lot of companies had a Chief Sustainability Officer twenty years ago. Just about every company had someone responsible for Environmental Health & Safety, though. These people have not often traditionally risen to the C-Suite leadership team of their organizations, but they know the people in that C-Suite. They also know the frontline workers and the people in middle management, and everyone else too for that matter. They know the Supply Chain people and they know the Finance people. A huge part of an EHS professional’s job is knowing what people are doing, where they are doing it, and how they are doing it. How else could you possibly work to ensure health and safety?

As for “It’s the same E…” So much of Health and Safety is connected to Environmental Performance that many EHS professionals have been monitoring and documenting environmental performance metrics as part of their jobs from the very beginnings of their careers long before anyone ever explained to them that ESG Reporting was a thing, let alone a thing that can steer the future success of their whole enterprise.

While Supply Chain executives can and often do make a persuasive argument that ESG is their responsibility because their actions populate the majority of its metrics, and while Finance executives can and often do make a persuasive argument that ESG is their responsibility because gathering numbers and then communicating them to relative parties is what they do best, neither group can say they have always been working on these issues across silos and departments and through all levels of their organization. They certainly partner with other divisions that can speak to their own decisions and metrics, but their job functions have kept them focused on their primary role to the company, whereas EHS professionals have from time immemorial been the people who come into different sections of the company keeping people safe and trying to improve things for Environmental Health and Safety reasons that are not tied to supply chain process optimization or financial performance reporting or any other job function.

What Can EHS Do With ESG?

EHS professionals by their very nature are all about change management. Their role in any organization is to identify what is wrong and fix it. That might be an unsafe piece of equipment or a facility with poor ventilation or chemicals stored incorrectly or workers behaving in a way that puts themselves and others at risk. The list of what might be wrong is almost infinite, but EHS professionals are trained to identify and mitigate Environmental, Health and Safety issues.

Imagine how much more powerful an EHS professional can be as a force for positive change when the ESG Reporting function has been brought into their portfolio of responsibilities? The resources and prioritization to gather this information, document it, process it, understand it, act upon it, and communicate it change the way EHS can guide their organizations both at the day-to-day tactical level, and also at the big picture long-term strategic level.

Environmental Health and Safety leaders are already used to working at a granular level and taking input and ideas from throughout the workforce. When we talk about Safety Culture as being everyone’s responsibility, that’s where most organizations want their Sustainability Culture to be too. EHS executives with the mandate to gather and act upon ESG Data can engage and educate the same people on Sustainability that they already connect with on EHS matters, issues, and behaviors. Real grassroots cultural transformation driven from the EHS perspective can become an enormous contributor to any company’s Sustainability journey.

No Matter Who ‘Owns’ It, It’s About Partnership

At the end of the day, not only does the question of who ‘owns’ ESG have no one right answer, but it is also built upon a flawed premise. Even though ESG Reporting does need to have someone in charge, the job itself is so collaborative in nature —so dependent on sharing information and working across departments and silos to coordinate activities— that the who matters much less than the how.

Whether it’s EHS or Supply Chain or Finance or some other leadership position in a company, how they choose to bring different elements of the business together to pool their data, make accurate reports, and then communicate what they have learned to others is the most important part of the job.

Here, too, EHS’s reputation for clarity in communication and open collaboration make them a great fit for a first-among-equals companywide ESG Reporting program and Sustainability Culture.

We are going to have more ideas and insights from NASRS23 to share in the coming weeks, but how EHS is often being asked to perform ESG Reporting and why that seems to be a natural fit and a launching off point for great things is what we wanted to share first. Stay tuned for more!

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.