Arianna Bottome, Alan Kao

December 11, 2023

Unpacking Stakeholder Engagement in ESG Materiality

There can't be a successful ESG strategy without a materiality assessment, and there can't be an effective assessment without engaging the proper stakeholders. In this article, our experts unpack stakeholder engagement and share tips on how to make the best out of it.

In the ever-evolving business landscape, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors have become pivotal in shaping the actions of forward-thinking organizations. As organizations strive to align their operations with sustainability goals and respond to the expectations of investors, regulators, and society, ESG materiality assessments have taken center stage. Amidst this, one critical aspect stands out: the identification and engagement of the right stakeholders.
At the core of ESG materiality, lie the stakeholders who inform the assessment and ultimate ESG strategy. This approach ensures that the company’s ESG strategy aligns with the most relevant and pertinent issues, while minimizing risk and maximizing opportunities for sustainable, long-term growth.
This article dives into why stakeholder engagement is indispensable to a successful ESG strategy and offers best practice solutions to ensure engagement efforts drive meaningful contributions from the right stakeholders.
The role of stakeholders in ESG materiality
Any successful ESG strategy begins with a materiality assessment – a process that can take many forms, including surveys, interviews, and ongoing dialogues – with previously identified stakeholders. The involvement of stakeholders is key in the process, as it is through their input, perspectives, and concerns that material ESG topics are identified and prioritized. These topics are often reflective of issues that are most relevant to a company’s operations and where they have the ability to generate the most impact.
Stakeholders can include investors, employees, customers, suppliers, the local community, and essentially any individual who has a vested interest and understanding of the organization's activities and their impact. While it is expected that the interests of diverse stakeholders may diverge, their collective perspective is vital for a robust ESG assessment. For example, investors may focus on governance issues and financial performance, while employees might prioritize job security and career advancement opportunities, and local communities might place higher value on environmental impact.
Beyond supporting the development of a focused and inclusive ESG strategy, involving a wide range of stakeholders in the materiality process can help the company better identify and address operational issues that directly affect them or their stakeholder’s community. Oftentimes, organizations lack awareness and comprehension of these issues, as well as the severity of the impacts, and gathering insights from those who are most affected can help direct efforts to where they are most needed.
By leveraging stakeholder knowledge, companies can not only save time and resources, but also ensure their ESG strategies and underlying actions are aligned with the most material issues for the company and its stakeholders. The real challenge lies in identifying the right stakeholders among a wide pool.
Identifying the right stakeholders
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to stakeholder identification. Each organization is unique, and the materiality assessment process should be tailored to its specific needs, objectives, resources, and ambitions regarding sustainability.
As a first step, companies should have well-defined objectives and conduct a preliminary impact screening. This can help guide the initial stakeholder mapping process and selection. For example, Company A may identify a need to focus on regulatory compliance, in which case they would want to engage regulatory authorities, legal teams, and industry associations; while Company B may want to safeguard itself against future climate-related risks, in which case they would want to tap into the expertise of its employees, supply chain partners, investors and even external climate experts.
Although a prescriptive guide or standard to stakeholder selection would be difficult to establish, there are a few best practices that companies can integrate into their stakeholder identification process to ensure their strategic objectives are met:
  1. Preliminary mapping: Creating a comprehensive list of stakeholders to filter from can ensure that unanticipated knowledge gaps in the materiality assessment are covered. Companies should identify and categorize various internal and external stakeholder groups who are (or may be) affected by and have an interest in the company’s operations – while considering their level of influence, relevance, importance, and anticipated engagement level. Utilizing tools such as matrices or power-interest grids can facilitate the refinement process to better target later engagement efforts.
  2. Diversity is key: To ensure robust, unbiased, and transparent results, companies must engage a diverse range of stakeholders spanning the entire value chain, and representative of differences such as gender, ethnicity, etc. This is especially important in the selection of external stakeholders for companies with multiple products and/or services that reach diverse customer groups. The quality of the assessment will also hinge on incorporating a wide array of viewpoints, beyond the most evident or influential stakeholders. For example, internal stakeholders should include decision makers as well as implementers, so that results can include people with knowledge of the overall strategy of the company, as well as those who understand the logistical and practical challenges involved in implementing future initiatives.
  3. Finding balance: Balancing the number and types of stakeholders is crucial to the success of a materiality assessment. Choosing too few stakeholders limits the assessment's scope, harms reputation and relationships, and results in a limited and likely inaccurate view of the organization’s ESG issues. On the other hand, an excessive number of stakeholders can make the process complex, time-consuming, and costly. There may be cases where an individual falls under multiple stakeholder groups. If so, they should be appropriately categorized and accounted for, and offer isolated perspectives based on the unique role they are serving.
It is important to recognize that as businesses evolve, the relevance of certain stakeholders will evolve in parallel. Organizations should expect to regularly review and adapt their approach to stakeholder identification, as well as stakeholder selection to reflect these changes.
Maximizing the value of stakeholder engagement
Engaging stakeholders effectively is a multifaceted process. Educating, cultivating trust and stewardship, providing adequate time, and identifying and mitigating engagement risks are all vital aspects of maximizing the value of engagement activities.
Before the materiality process begins, companies can improve the likelihood of receiving insightful input by providing ample information to their stakeholders regarding ESG – including terms, frameworks, and topic definitions – to ensure a common understanding. While some companies impart ongoing communications or training on sustainability, it is critical to level-set prior to any engagement effort. This ensures that all participants have a solid understanding of the request and the ability to provide informed input, ultimately leading to high-value results.
Stakeholders may sometimes feel hesitant about sharing their viewpoints, especially when they believe they lack the power to make an impact. To facilitate open dialogue and ensure stakeholders are comfortable and encouraged to express their honest views, trust and stewardship need to be cultivated. Adequate time should be provided, and the purpose of the exercise as well as the value of their contributions should be clearly articulated and understood.
Lastly, proactive anticipation and preparation for potential challenges are crucial for ensuring they do not come in the way of obtaining valuable information. Considering that stakeholder perspectives may vary due to regional or industry nuances, organizations can take deliberate actions to bridge language and knowledge gaps that may arise. Also, it is important to address the possibility of encountering a lack of motivation or commitment among stakeholders. In this case, companies can implement measures like an incentive system, or provide updates on the outcomes of the engagement.
The compass guiding organizations
ESG materiality assessment and stakeholder engagement are intertwined, dynamic, and constantly evolving processes that are increasingly becoming integral to a company’s long-term success. ESG materiality assessments serve as the compass, guiding organizations as they navigate the complex landscape of sustainability and align their operations with evolving expectations. Engaging the right stakeholders not only helps identify and prioritize material ESG topics but also fosters a sense of inclusivity and transparency, strengthening the credibility of a company's ESG efforts.
Stakeholder engagement must evolve in tandem with changing market and regulatory conditions, business landscapes, stakeholder expectations, and more. By tapping onto best practices, companies can tailor their approach to meet their specific objectives and adapt to shifting priorities. The key is to be purposeful about the engagement – to clearly convey the importance of contributions, provide education and bridge knowledge gaps, have diverse participants, and proactively address barriers.
By implementing robust, stakeholder-informed ESG strategies, companies can ensure they are driving focused, relevant and targeted efforts that foster meaningful change.

Want to know more?

  • Arianna Bottome

    Senior Consultant

  • Alan Kao


    +1 617-946-6113

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