Polarization. It’s a word we’ve heard far too often lately and a condition we’ve come to expect. And yet, research shows that, when it comes to companies taking action on environmental, social and governance issues, most of us agree.
Environment, social and governance, or ESG, broke into America’s lexicon after the 2005 publication of a study called “Who Cares Wins.” The idea is that a company’s bottom line is affected by factors other than the products or services it offers and that socially conscious practices are good business.
As Forbes put it, “This might include how corporations respond to climate change, how good they are with water management, how effective their health and safety policies are in the protection against accidents, how they manage their supply chains, how they treat their workers and whether they have a corporate culture that builds trust and fosters innovation.”
Some lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have seen ESG as something to oppose, but in fact, there is broad bipartisan support for companies caring about more than profits.
Let’s break it down. In late 2021, ROKK Solutions, in partnership with Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and Center for the Business of Sustainability, examined public opinion on ESG issues and business’ role in addressing them across 1,240 registered voters. Here’s what we found: Republicans (71%) and Democrats (79%) said companies should be responsible for making a positive impact in society. Bipartisan support was even higher among Americans younger than 45.
This across-the-aisle consensus on holding companies responsible for societal betterment invariably means that companies should be doing more good, not less. But it also means that, just maybe, a core set of beliefs can still unite us as Americans. And business has a role to play.
Regardless of political affiliation, 72% of respondents agreed that companies should address the ESG issues to which they contribute. The research also identified clear areas that resonate across the aisle, providing an opportunity for brands to unite us. Specifically, efforts to advance human rights, especially as they relate to the American values of human liberty and pursuing the American dream, are ones that voters of all stripes tend to support.
Old Navy’s efforts to hire underserved youth is an example of a company’s commitment to making the American dream a reality for everyone. Their program focuses on hiring youth based on their potential — not their credentials. Addressing social issues such as these are key concerns for both Democrats and Republicans (67% overall support), and rallying around them can help heal our communities’ deeply partisan wounds.
Another area that emerged as a priority for a majority of voters surprised us. The environment, which received 66% of respondents’ support — climate change in particular — stands out as a good example of an issue that resonates with consumers, employees and investors across party lines, defying the popular narrative.
Considering how much Republicans and Democrats alike enjoy and rely on the great outdoors, this makes perfect sense; just look at Utah: a Republican stronghold with an economy that benefits greatly from the state’s natural beauty.
Climate change is widely seen as one of the polarizing issues in the country, but the research doesn’t support this. We found that 79% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans rank climate change in the top five issues of importance, and like our findings on social impact more broadly, these numbers rise significantly with Republican voters under 45 (66%).
In addition to concern for climate change, a majority of voters believe energy, waste and water management are important, which gives companies, activists and policymakers alike another way to address environmental issues if the “c” word feels too fraught. This strategy has been part and parcel of Utah’s climate change proposal, which saw activists frame the issue as “environmental and economic stewardship,” deliberately avoiding more charged language.
Our research also showed bipartisan support for companies that speak up about external issues that matter. For many brands, the question is, “matter to whom?” The answer is less complicated than we may think, and the findings help break it down.
To explore stakeholder preferences on brands speaking out, we looked at consumers, employees and investors. We saw that a majority of voters under the age of 45 (62% Democrats and 51% Republicans) would choose to buy from a company that endorsed ESG issues they agree with, and a similar majority would choose to work for a company based on its endorsement of ESG issues (61% Democrats and 51% Republicans). We also found the majority of people under the age of 45 (58%) wanted the companies they invest in to take a stand on ESG issues, with Democrats leading this cohort over Republicans.
As younger generations increasingly dominate the workforce and investor profiles, these statistics mean that companies will need to speak out, lest they risk losing sales, talent and market share. What is important for them to do is connect the issues to their core business, remove emotion from the decision-making process and determine the best messenger. (According to our study, it’s the CEO.) Bank of America is an example of successfully threading this needle, deploying CEO Brian Moynihan to take a public stand on social inequality in a way that aligned with the company’s ESG initiatives.
In a time of heightened partisanship, our study illustrates the common values of American voters and how businesses effectively communicate their commitment to them. Not only does this research highlight huge opportunities for corporate action on ESG, it also shows corporate America has an important role to play in knitting our polarized communities back together. Doing so can be the difference between just being a company that has ESG initiatives and being one that inspires stakeholders to reunite.
Lindsay Singleton is managing director of the D.C.-based bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions, where she leads the Social Impact Communications practice. Tessa Recendes is an assistant professor of management and organization at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business, where she focuses on leadership, corporate activism and corporate social responsibility. They are co-authors of the recent study Across The Aisle: Unlocking the Bipartisan Power of ESG.