Your 2023 ESG and Corporate Responsibility Reading List

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 5 years since I started this annual reading list, and I’m so honored to have had many of you reach out to me with “when is it coming?” messages already and we’re only 10 days into 2023. Every year, I compile a list of books that have helped me in my life, business, and sustainability journey over the last year. This year, I’m going to share with you a little about each book as well as my favorite passage or quote from the book to whet your appetite on its value.

So let’s dive into our 2023 list…

Making Numbers Count from Chip Health and Karla Starr

Data matters – in every job function and industry around the world. Leaders in ESG need data to prove our worth, to build our case with leaders and consumers and the naysayers whose voices are sometimes louder than ours in the world. Throughout the book, Chip and Karla use concrete, clear examples for how we usually communicate information and data and how we should communicate information and data. Consider this example:

“In 2020, Apple was at one point valued at over $2 trillion. Imagine Apple as a country, with its shareholders as citizens and its citizens’ sole source of wealth their Apple stock. The total wealth of apple would still be ahead of 150/171 countries, including Norway, South Africa, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. If you ever had a doubt that corporations are major economic players who might be tricky for governments to handle, that single statistic about Apple is good to chew on.”

Future Good: How to Use Futurism to Save the World from Trista Harris

I had the great pleasure to meet Trista Harris when she facilitated a Board retreat for Girls on the Run Minnesota last year, and was introduced to her book in that process. While Trista’s book is heavily focused on the social sector, it has must read status for anyone in ESG because it really focuses on the idea of futurism, and how we can all harness futurism to make change, guide scenario planning, and build processes and initiatives that work now and in the future.

Trista says, “Society moves in arcs, and a the top of that arc, almost everybody believes in the same things (for example, that our home values will always increase). As that idea dies down, another idea rises (taking on debt form our homes is unsustainable, and we need to live a much simpler lifestyle). You can hold on to the old idea until it runs into the ground, or you can jump onto the next arc and be a forerunner.”

Ethics at Work: Dilemmas of the Near Future and How Your Organization Can Solve Them from Kris Østergaard, Sheila Jasanoff and others

As I’ve built my consulting practices over the last 4+ years, I’ve struggled with the term “ethics.” Frankly, I wish we used it more. It annoys me endlessly that “ethics” has been relegated in the corporate sector to a legal and compliance word instead of one deeply associated with sustainability, ESG and corporate responsibility. But these authors note early in the book that “Ethics is complicated. Ethical dilemmas are complicated. Future ethical dilemmas even more so. So, exploring solutions takes time, effort and a lot of heavy thinking, debating and acting.” Is it just me or does that sound like the job description of an ESG professional?

The book is a series of essays from incredible thinkers and leaders on key topics we should all be pondering in ethics in our work. One of my favorite pieces in the book is from Nille Skalts about corporate activism. He says, “The tide of history is with the proactive. With a seemingly endless round of social and environmental problems that urgently needs addressing, this type of activism is much needed. Never has the world to such an extend needed businesses to help solve the most pressing challenges.”

On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World from Danya Ruttenberg

Every corporation in the world has caused harm. Seriously, that’s not a controversial opinion. It’s just the truth. Perhaps its industries with centuries of environmental abuses now trying to clean up their act, or a small company who had a major dust-up with a single employee. Companies have all caused harm, and as ESG professionals often our job is to mitigate that harm and deal with the consequences. This book takes addresses harm and trauma by applying traditional Jewish concepts to challenge us all to create a country and culture that addresses harm and takes responsibility for its mistakes.

“Whether the suffering is the result of a private domestic misunderstanding, a corporate decision, or even genocide, there are ways to face what’s happened and to move forward along the path of repentance. As the early-nineteeth-century Hasidic teacher Rebbe Nahman of Breslov put it, ‘If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, believe that you can heal.’”

Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect from Will Guidara

At first glance, this might seem like a book about the hospitality industry. But stay with me. It’s written by Will Guidara, the incredible leader at the helm of Eleven Madison Park, which Guidara took from a struggling two-star brasserie to being name the best restaurant in the world in 11 years. With this book, he opens by saying “welcome to the hospitality economy,” and it resonated with me as bigger than the hospitality industry. We talk about being servant leaders or compassionate leaders, but we should all also be hospitality leaders. From concepts like the nobility in service, to the power of intentions in everything you do, to choosing language carefully and clearly, Guidara outlines a set of principles that should guide everyone who has ever served a customer – replacing “customer” with “stakeholder” for anyone working in ESG and the like.

“When you create a hospitality-first culture, everything about your business improves – whether that means finding and retaining great talent, turning customers into raving fans, or increasing your profitability. […] What I’d really like to do is let you in on a little secret, one that the truly great professionals in my business know: hospitality is a selfish pleasure. It feels great to make other people feel good.”

Small Things Like These from Claire Keegan

Alright, I threw this one in and it’s a little bit of a wild card. But I truly believe everyone should read this. The author wrote it as a novella, which reads in probably an hour or so if you go straight through. It takes place in an Irish town in 1985 at the time when Irish Magdalene Laundries were still running. These institutions were run to house “fallen women” – unwed mothers whose treatment in these asylums was horrific in many cases. The story follows a man who, on Christmas, makes a decision we all might ask ourselves whether we would be willing to make. It begs the question, what do you do when you see injustice in front of you? What responsibility do you have? What should you consider the consequences? Will you face the evil and work against it, or ignore it and move through? Keegan’s prose is haunting and it will be a “shelf sitter” for me for many years.