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Despite Political Polarization, Survey Shows Broad Bipartisan Support For Corporate ESG Efforts

The results of a new survey released today showed that despite increased political polarization in the U.S., there is broad bipartisan support for corporate efforts on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. While the findings could ease corporate reluctance about speaking out on these hot button issues, they underscore the importance of navigating political divides—and could reinforce or raise new concerns for business leaders.

Key Survey Findings

  • 79% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans feel companies should be responsible for bettering society.
  • A majority of respondents tended to prioritize environmental (66%) issues such as climate change and social (67%) issues core to traditional American values.
  • A majority of survey respondents (76%) feel that companies should be held accountable for making a positive impact on the communities in which they operate.

The 42-page survey report, Across the Aisle: Unlocking the Bipartisan Power of ESG was co-authored by Lindsay Singleton, managing director of public affairs firm ROKK Solutions; Tessa Recendes, an assistant professor of management and organization at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business; and Brett Christenson, an assistant clinical professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business.

The survey sample was composed of 1,240 registered voters who completed online surveys in August 2021. The margin of error is less than five percent.

Political Stereotypes Underestimate Consensus

“With the American political climate marked by increasing polarization between Democrats and Republicans, many might draw quick conclusions about the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ when it comes to support for ESG efforts, but this report suggests political stereotypes underestimate the consensus,” observed Recendes.

“The insights gained from analysis of this survey indicate that, although there are differences in terms of political affiliation and viewpoints on ESG issues, it is not nearly as polarized as popular narrative suggests,” she said.

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What’s At Stake

The survey found that a lot can be at stake on how and whether companies take stands on issues.

  • Democrats (58%) were much more likely to say they would purchase from a company who spoke out on issues they agree with when compared to Republicans (36%).
  • A majority of employees would choose to work for a company based on its endorsement of ESG issues (61% Democrats, 51% Republicans).

Red Flags

As broad as bipartisan support for ESG efforts appears to be, it is hardly unanimous on some hot button topics that are important to voters. So it’s not surprising when corporate executives—out of fear of alienating anyone—decide to stay on the sidelines on issues in which there is not 100% agreement. They include:

Merit

  • 67% of voters agree that hiring, promotion, and board appointments should be merit-based, blind to one’s race or how they identify themselves (71% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats).

Diversity And Inclusion

  • A majority of both Democrats (68%) and Republicans (52%) believe diversity and inclusion should be a priority for companies, and consistently (71% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats) believe that company hiring and promotion practices should be merit-based.

Safer Issues

“Based on the issues that both Democrats and Republicans care about, companies can safely highlight their commitment to and work on issues related to human rights, particularly as they relate to the American values of human liberty, the ability to earn a living and pursue the American dream,” Singleton advised.

Learn To Navigate The Divide

Singleton also said, “Because companies often serve multiple stakeholder groups which are unlikely to be composed of individuals who belong to a single political party, the reality is companies must learn how to navigate the political divide and identify what that means for a company’s ESG activities in order to effectively serve all stakeholders.” 

Be Proactive

She said, “Finding a surprising amount of consensus among voters on issues related to the environment, we strongly recommend companies proactively communicate their environmental work to local communities, especially for those under [age] 45.” 

“Voters across the political spectrum support efforts related to diversity and inclusion, but strongly support merit-based hiring and promotion within… This is an important finding to consider when communicating about diversity and inclusion with constituents and their elected officials. Companies should consider leading efforts to educate the public on governance issues, as it is the least understood of the three ESG pillars,” Singleton counseled.

Advice For Business Leaders

Recendes recommended that companies:

Provide Clear Connections

  • “It is important for companies to talk about their ESG initiatives and goals to provide their stakeholders with a clear connection between their brand, impact, and public policy goals. This is particularly true when it comes to public stances on ESG issues.”

Prioritize Issues

  • “Insights gained from this study… affirm the important role companies play in creating a better society. Doing so starts with first prioritizing the ‘right’ ESG issues such as those issues that the company has directly contributed to and those issues that resonate with the most stakeholders.” 

Commit

  • “Once issues have been prioritized, it’s important for the company to publicly make commitments, broadcast those commitments on relevant platforms and demonstrate progress toward those commitments.” 

Singleton concluded that, “With the rising expectations for companies to create a positive impact on society from a variety of stakeholders and brands increasingly taking public stands on critical societal issues, understanding ESG is more crucial now than it has ever been.”

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