You’ve got to fight for your right to ESG jargon

• 2 minute read

The Times’ The Brief legal newsletter is essential reading for us in the industry but, on 7 October, its Blue Bag column particularly piqued our interest.

The piece (“Little green book”) welcomed law firms jumping on the “green bandwagon” but lamented their sustainability comms, stating that “it’s a pity that noble intentions get lost in a welter of jargon.” It further commented that the chairman of the Chancery Lane Project, a legal industry initiative supporting the drive to net-zero, had “cracked open the little green book of jargon.”

Perhaps the criticism is fair – after all, jargon has long presented a dilemma for PR professionals, and not just those working in the legal industry. Indeed, while lawyers are particularly renowned for jargon (so much so that they have long had their own dictionary-recognised legalese language) they are far from alone, with plenty of other industries plagued by technical terms, from financial services to life sciences and tech to marketing. In the case of financial services, complex language can directly fuel financial illiteracy and result in people falling into debt traps. Clear communication is vital.

Sustainability terminology adds a new, and highly complex, layer of jargon to the mix. There is little doubt that, at first glance at least, it acts as a barrier to communication. After all, organisations that talk about “net-zero toolkits” and “sustainable procurement,” let alone “carbon accounting” and “ISO 14001”, have to accept they are communicating to a niche and specialist audience and that such terms will be, for wider audiences, at best somewhat of a turn-off and at worst completely incomprehensible.

Businesses do not incorporate such language without reason though. Indeed, the use of such jargon is usually tied to highly specific, concrete actions they are taking to reduce their carbon emissions and wider environmental impact – they are both an indicator of, and prerequisite for, serious thought and action. “Carbon accounting,” for example, may be an odd and technical term but it translates into the scientific process of quantifying the physical amounts of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere – a key activity for any organisation which is truly committed to sustainability.

While not all stakeholders are sustainability experts, many consumers, employees and, in particular, investors have a growing understanding of these issues, and a lack of scientifically credible language could be a red flag for them. With the climate emergency now established as a critical political and social issue, organisations that only discuss the environment in loose terms not only lack credibility but risk looking like they are actively greenwashing. After all, the journey to achieving net-zero carbon emissions is a highly scientific one.

The debate over ESG jargon, and whether it’s helpful or not, ultimately comes down to audience. B2C organisations may well need to temper their sustainability comms to accommodate a broad consumer audience.

However, in the professional and B2B world, technical language can, counter-intuitively, be of benefit. Communications on ESG are often targeted towards specific stakeholders – whether they be clients, investors, suppliers, staff or policy makers – with a basic understanding of the subject-matter at the very least. Such audiences may expect and in some cases demand substantive, detailed and scientific communications which reinforce credibility and the seriousness with which these issues are being tackled.

It’s not often that you will find PR professionals advocating for jargon, but there is an argument to be made that in cases like this it can actually be mission-critical. This is obviously not to say that all businesses must always be technical in their sustainability comms but it certainly has its place. As ever, understanding what really matters to target audiences and what they expect of communications is key.

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