I recently watched my favorite Sunday morning show, “Meet the Press,” and I was deeply offended by a guest’s use of the phrase “man up” in talking about Republican Senators who should stand up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and get a hearing for President Obama’s nomination for SCOTUS.
That phrase implies that only men can be tough, and women should “grow a pair” if they’d like to govern in a powerful way…
Language. It can be engaging and embracing, or divisive and undermining. Like the word “sustainable.” There has been a huge uptick in the broad use of that word, which can have beautiful connotations such as enduring, self-perpetuating and resilient. I however, would argue that the word “sustainable”–the “S” word–can be used even more constructively as we try to address the world’s multiple unresolved crises. As we struggle (still) through the echoes of the financial crisis, the repercussions of climate change, and a crisis of confidence in our system of capitalism, the language we use to discuss the issues matters a lot. The language we use can be divisive and alienating as we try to encourage collective action. Or, the language can engage and ignite a call to productive action and the “mainstreaming” of sustainable business practices. The latter use of the “S” word can serve to unleash the power of capitalism to support greater long-term prosperity for all.
What worries me these days, is that some of the language used in discussions around the critical factors of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance at the world’s private corporations could even undermine the speed with which we can re-establish confidence in capitalism. I say this because instead of objectively addressing the evidence and data which supports optimal long-run private sector profitability and shareholder value creation, people seem to inject a “value judgment” into the dialogue. By definition, this might put some groups in opposition to each other. No one likes to be told what to think or what to believe. Rather, people prefer to be allowed to learn, do their own analyses and prioritization, and act (and invest) in ways consistent with their own values.
In the broad field of “Sustainable Investing,” there is a proliferation of labels used in a multitude of ways. People use terms including “ESG Analysis,” “Impact Investing,” “Double (and Triple) Bottom-Line Investing,” and “Values-Based Investing.” Does that last moniker assume that some types of investing are of little value to some constituencies? Other excellent frameworks exist including “Creating Shared Value,” “Social Entrepreneurship,” and “Socially Responsible Investing (SRI).” But does that latter term really imply that other types of investing are actually socially irresponsible? Of course not. But in a world fraught with conflict and uncertainty, a world where polarization seems to be the order of the day, it could actually be perceived that way. It could actually “turn off” a large swath of investors who are also truly striving for the collective societal good but perhaps using different words to express themselves and their priorities. Language is powerful. Language can be inclusive or divisive. My proposal is simply that we elevate the level of consciousness regarding how and when we use the various terminologies in the field.
In stewarding each type of capital (financial, human, and natural), who would argue against avoiding irreparable depletion or exploitation if they are holding a long-term perspective? And can that discussion be held in more objective, constructive terms without gridlock and antipathy? Yes it can. If we are more careful with language, if we establish some standards for comparison of corporate effectiveness in managing environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, we can. If we have discussions based upon facts and historical analyses in the context of individual actions, we can indeed move forward. We can engage everyone in a constructive dialogue without blaming, damning or judging. We can, in fact, move capitalism and society forward at the same time. As participants of the world’s capital markets, watching our language can help.
Erika Karp is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Cornerstone Capital Inc.