Iconising ESG: How to simplify transparency and understanding with consumers

We have reached that blizzard point with ESG. But rather than throw the whole thing out, we need universal regulation that drives it forward - not one that stifles its potential. 

Iconising ESG: How to simplify transparency and understanding with consumers

Last July, I wrote about the potential for ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) to be applied within brand communications. Since then, it has become one of the biggest issues for financial institutions, where the lack of universal standards has caused it to become too complex and subjective to work with. And whilst scrutiny may follow it, it is still a great idea. Since its conception, it has flourished and gained huge momentum – which great ideas need. But with that, it went out of control and now it needs to be brought in line. 

Such chaos reminds me of the electrification of New York in the 1880s. What started as a brilliant idea for a brighter, safer and cleaner future led to lower Manhattan being dangerously festooned with poles and electricity. Too many entrepreneurial companies jumped on the bandwagon, and it all came crashing down in a blizzard in ’88. After this, the government took control and put all the wires underground and we have the twinkling cityscape we know and love today. 

We have reached that blizzard point with ESG. But rather than throw the whole thing out, we need universal regulation that drives it forward – not one that stifles its potential. 

All 17 UN sustainability goals are important, but clearly too much for the average investor – or, for that matter, the consumer on their supermarket shop – to digest. Like the power lines in Manhattan, we need to decide what should work quietly away ‘underground’ and what should get aired for all to see. 

Transparency is key to trust and trust should be at the heart of any brand. Nowadays, we trust that all our electrical appliances are safe because they comply to regulations and standards. But do we need to communicate this compliance? Back-of-packs are cramped with tiny regulatory symbols and statements that are too small to see. Nobody knows what they are and, quite frankly, does anyone care? They should go underground – on the website, or at the end of a QR code where they can be easily found if needed. This would give space for the information the consumers want to see, what’s important to the product attributes and the brand values. 

For example, I’m gluten sensitive, as are 1% of the population. Do I need a pack to say its gluten free? Well, yes. For me that’s important, but it’s not for the other 99% of the population – they are more interested in what it’s going to taste like. Is it healthy, is it sustainable, is it ethically made? My special requirement has just made all that other information harder to find and more difficult to decipher. Would I be happy to use my phone to check a QR code for my needs? Of course. It will be quicker, easier and more reliable. 

So having got rid of the mandatories and specialisms from the pack, and before we deal with ESG, we next need to tackle recycling instructions which are starting to crowd our packaging. This is a complex communication, especially when we try and deal with it as a set of symbols on pack. Complex mixes of materials and varied local recycling facilities means a convoluted set of icons. 

The best in class is the ‘Harmonised Waste System’. Used in the Nordics, it has nearly 80 different symbols – way too many for any normal person in a hurry to figure out. Likewise to my gluten-issue, we need to let technology help us out. One flash of a QR code, with a bit of help from the phone’s location services, and we can see simply what to do with the packaging in the exact place we are located. 

So back to ESG. The power of ESG is that it embraces the journeys businesses take. It can communicate achievements, actions and goals in sustainability and ethical production in a trusted and open manner. Whilst some people want to know the numbers, most just want to know they are making the right choices. Done right, ESG gives them that reassurance. It needs to be standardised, independently assessed and 100% transparent. However, it doesn’t all need to be slapped on the packaging. The brand should prioritise those aspects that are important to its values, purpose and customer needs and translate these as part of the core brand idea on pack, brought to life through design. The rest can sit on the website, alongside the many other business achievements. 

These other aspects of ESG, that are 2nd tier if you like, are still business priorities and so need to be expressed rather than sought. They need to be on view, but organised in a way that they can be easily found, recognised and understood. Their universality and independent valuation demand a common design approach across every business and every piece of packaging and communication. More than just a recognisable symbol like the CE mark it needs an identifiable area on pack dedicated to ESG where several ratings can be expressed. In doing so, the universal mark can simplify the convoluted world of ESG so consumers to make considered purchases across the globe.  

Nick Dormon
Nick Dormon

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