PET bottle message, or how did I become the messenger of ESG?

Mehlhoffer Tamás

When I became the head of the school’s Green Club in the early nineties as a student at Karinthy high school, the team’s environmental activities consisted of putting out posters about how plastic soda bottles should be “trampled flat” by all students and teachers to better fit in the trash bins (I would use the word waste bin today). “We’re done with that,” we proudly declared, then moved on to the occupations that concerned teenagers much more at the time (as well), such as picking up girls/boys, illegal alcohol consumption, verbal world redemption, and so on. Nobody was talking about ESG back then.

Nearly thirty years have passed, and we all know by now that, with a few flat bottles, the Earth will not be saved from desertification, catastrophic floods, famine and pathogens, or from the frightening effects of climate change. With twenty-something years of media and PR experience behind me, I never imagined that school and environmental protection would be linked again in my life. 

However, this was the case when I received my Certified Sustainability Manager diploma as one of the first people in Hungary. 22 of us graduated, indicating that we are living in a new era when green professionals have serious responsibilities; when thinking about sustainability issues is not “nice to have” fun in the life of companies, startups or any organization that wants to appear trendy. Still, it’s a meaty issue that fundamentally defines the corporate culture, employer branding, customer base (i.e. revenue), and even financing.

Looking for real impact with ESG

While such training only lays the basics, it is suitable for showing the complexity of the topic, which, combined with your own previous communication experience, is worth passing on to companies, institutions, and even interested people.

For an IT company (or any other business), it is no longer enough to talk about sustainability in an environmental sense. The key abbreviation is ESG, i.e., environmental, social, and governance factors determining how sustainable a company is. In other words, it is not enough to trade carbon emissions, measure the ecological footprint, introduce the separate waste collection, or renovate the insulation of the office building. Customers, employees, suppliers, social media, and the whole world are curious about what good you do for those living in the environment, what civic initiatives you support (social impacts) or how you treat your employees, whether you choose your suppliers and raw materials according to ethics (corporate governance).

These must be reported regularly (at least annually) by a modern company in the form of a sustainability or ESG report, and become effectively “priced in” for the market: are we playing among the good guys, or are we growing the team of evil, nature- and people-exploiting capitalists/dictators/Skynet?

It will be essential for the company to present real commitments and results instead of greenwashing (environmental hoaxing). At the COP-26 World Climate Protection Summit in Glasgow six months ago, it was said that anyone who does not make a net-zero, i.e. zero-emission commitment in the foreseeable future would not be able to obtain funding. Citibank’s new head said in a press release on the day he entered a few months ago that they would only lend to customers willing to deal with ESG issues.

Welcome to circularity!

And fundamental changes in ESG can be achieved by going deeper instead of quick PR actions, which requires understanding the circular economy. And it’s mostly that there’s not a cycle. We’re not just talking about someone processing raw materials to make our PET bottle soft drink, delivering it, we buy it, drinking it, and then putting it into the recycling bin — that’s not much better than my high school naivety. There are many cycles, and keeping that circle as small as possible is best. For example, the product does not even reach the waste stage because it is used for a new purpose, incorporated or even if that product is not manufactured (reducing the use of materials). 

This realization depends not only on the individual but also on corporate responsibility and interest.