Beyond compliance: Consumers and employees want business to do more on ESG

How business can close the expectations gap

Look around you. Evidence that businesses are responding to heightened interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues is everywhere. Whether that’s eco-packaging, diversity commitments or the expanding number of companies targeting net-zero emissions. Is it enough? Is it too much all at once to be credible? No. Consumers want to see business play an even bigger role in accelerating progress on ESG concerns. Indeed, more than three quarters say they’ll reward companies for doing so, according to our 2021 Consumer Intelligence Series survey on ESG. We polled consumers, employees and executives in March and April 2021 and found that consumers and employees want business to proactively shape ESG best practices, not just react and adjust. 

We designed this survey to give you and your company a finer understanding of evolving consumer expectations around ESG. Our findings indicate that consumers have different perceptions than business leaders about where ESG investments are flowing, and they’re looking for information about ESG in different places than where businesses are currently reporting. For additional insight, we segmented executives by their responses and found that only 28% of executives stood out as “ESG Trendsetters.” These executives are advocates for businesses advancing ESG agendas with a strong consumer-focused mindset, and they’re closing the gap with consumer expectations. These are our top findings.

Defining characteristics of ESG Trendsetter executives
  • Very aware of and interested in ESG issues; ESG has a strong impact on personal career choices
  • Believe companies are having a strong impact on social issues today—and want them to be doing even more
  • Think commitment to a better future is the top motivator of corporate ESG action and believe companies’ ESG stance strongly impacts consumers

Consumers and employees are rewarding business for ESG performance

Consumers and employees want businesses to invest in making sustainable improvements to the environment and society, not just comply with regulation, and they’re prepared to reward (or penalize) brands accordingly. Overwhelming majorities of both consumers and employees said they’re more likely to buy from or work for companies that share their values across the various elements of ESG. While consumers have long said that they value sustainability, the COVID-19 crisis perceptibly shifted consumer behavior and enlarged the pool of conscientious consumers willing to pay more for healthier, safer, more environmentally and socially conscious products and brands. 

By the same token, businesses that are perceived to be falling short risk losing consumers right when post-pandemic economic recovery is taking shape. Seventy-six percent of consumers told us they will discontinue relations with companies that treat employees, communities and the environment poorly. For their part, companies are highly attuned to the high standards consumers are holding them to. We asked executives who their most important stakeholders are and consumers came out ahead of others (such as employees, investors, regulators and media). ESG Trendsetters consider consumers an even higher priority (64% versus 53% on average).

Consumers to companies: Spend more time and resources on all of the components of ESG and accelerate diversity and inclusion progress

Climate change is high on everyone’s ESG investment wishlist, with consumers and employees standing firmly behind the corporate race to net zero. For companies, only privacy and data security is a bigger investment priority. Our findings show that access to healthcare, safety in the workplace and compliance with regulations also rank as high priorities for consumers and companies. 

There is, however, a glaring disconnect between consumer and management perception. Many more executives than consumers believe that companies are increasing investments across ESG issues. Consumers make it clear that corporate actions matter more to them than words. Where they see progress, they give companies credit. Almost three-quarters (74%) said companies care much more about the environment than they did ten years ago. But almost as many (73%) told us they feel let down by what they view as slow progress on diversity and inclusion (D&I). In fact, 64% of the business leaders themselves expressed disappointment that D&I commitments are not yet showing desired results.

“I will discontinue my relationship with companies that treat the environment, employees, or the community in which they operate poorly”

76% Consumers. PwC Consumer Intelligence Series June 2, 2021

Consumers say financial incentives motivate companies to do good

What would it take to move the needle on ESG? Executives say their ESG agendas are motivated by the prospect of a better future for people and the planet, but consumers remain skeptical. They believe that pressure from them, brand image and regulatory standards are driving companies toward ESG action. More than half of consumers (57%) say that companies should be doing more to advance environmental issues (e.g., climate change and water stress), 48% want companies to show more progress on social issues (e.g., D&I and data security and privacy) and 54% expect more from companies on governance issues (e.g., complying with laws and regulation and addressing widening pay gap).  

There’s more than one way to gain ground on ESG. Consumers believe it’s financial incentives tied to social good — more than anything else. Executives say that having corporate social responsibility roles report directly to the CEO is a way to influence greater ESG progress, while employees think progress comes from integrating ESG into the corporate strategy.

Executives admit that pursuing growth and ESG remains a balancing act, even as they see long-term ESG advantages

Investors poured $51 billion dollars into ESG-impact funds in 2020, more than doubling such investments within a year. Investors increasingly believe businesses can do well by doing good. The long-term advantages of advancing ESG are apparent to companies too, with 92% of business respondents agreeing that companies with commitments to ESG policies will outlast competitors without. 

The near-term remains the challenge. Balancing investment needs for growth with investment needs for ESG goals is the top challenge, executives say. The second greatest barrier? Thirty-seven percent cited lack of reporting standards and regulatory complexity as a bigger obstacle to advancing ESG issues than a lack of attention by senior management, time or resources. Many are not sure about which reporting standard to follow, or how far they should go beyond standards to meet higher consumer and employee expectations. It is clear that the pendulum is swinging toward more regulatory action on ESG disclosures, and businesses can take proactive steps now to be better positioned for success as data and reporting get more regulated and standardized.

What businesses can do to act on ESG

Tell a cohesive and balanced narrative

Proactively communicate the complexity of interrelated ESG issues—for example, how jobs and skills can be impacted by plant closures required to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy—with an inclusive communications strategy. ESG Trendsetters are also using more channels of communication to tell their ESG story (5.6% compared to an average of 4.3%) to consumers who rely heavily on news and social media sources. These leaders are equally using social media (62%) and corporate websites (61%).

Leverage ESG reporting to tell your story

Keeping data at the center of ESG reporting and linking your strategy to effective stakeholder communications can narrow the gap between corporate ESG agendas and consumer expectations. Develop a clear point of view on what to report. Define key metrics, document data and reporting processes, and use technology solutions to enable internal controls and efficient reporting. Apply the same rigor to non-financial ESG that you do for financial reporting.

Prioritize the right ESG actions

To balance ESG with growth, assess how impactful potential ESG investments can be across a number of criteria, like company ambition, stakeholder trust, brand and reputation and the importance to strategy and risk management. Ask yourself, is it enough to comply with regulation or is this an opportunity to exceed those requirements and align with a long-term consumer trend? Solving big problems can yield outsized returns, but you should be aware that traditional ways of measuring ROI may not capture the full potential of ESG initiatives.

Lead on climate change

The expectation that companies should take the lead on climate change will continue to transform the way companies source materials, operate factories, design products and deliver them to consumers. Many companies that have made net zero commitments are at early stages of applying them in their operations and supply chains. As consumer pressure mounts, it’s important to have an understanding of the total emissions impact across the value chain and identify the largest emissions sources. These include downstream (scope 3) emissions that are the largest sources of emissions for most companies. Then you can prioritize greenhouse gas emission reduction levers based on their costs and return on investment, feasibility, risks and opportunities.

Tackle D&I as a business issue

It may be that consumers and employees perceive D&I pledges as reactive to the recent societal unrest. Companies must demonstrate that they are tackling D&I like any other business problem with a defined strategy rooted in corporate values. Build your D&I narrative, informed by data and analysis, and make sure the message is embedded in everything you do as an organization. With both consumers and executives expressing disappointment on progress to date, consider how to direct people to actions you’re taking, whether it’s applying a more inclusive lens to product development, sourcing from a more diverse network of suppliers and/or increasing board diversity.

Maintain focus on privacy

With consumer protection largely driving privacy regulation and enhanced enforcement, privacy comes out as the top area of business investment. But it’s not regulation alone that’s motivating companies to strengthen their data practices. Our past surveys indicate that consumers view sharing information as a necessary evil  and that they will increasingly demand more control over their data. Companies that declare privacy and security a core ESG value and build trust with their customers will be in a stronger position to realize financial benefits of data monetization.


We polled 5,005 consumers, 2,510 employees, and 1,257 business leaders in the US, Brazil, the UK, Germany and India from March 29 to April 23, 2021, and we asked them about their expectations from business surrounding several key ESG issues.

  • Environmental: Climate change, water stress, decreasing biodiversity, raw materials extraction, toxic emissions and pollution, and wasteful packaging.

  • Social: Improving racial and gender D&I, confirming worker health and safety, access to healthcare, providing worker education and upskilling, confirming product safety and quality, providing data security and privacy, and access to careers/employment.

  • Governance: Widening pay gap between executives and workers, engaging in political lobbying and donations, increasing board diversity, avoiding corporate taxes, adhering to ethical business practices, complying with laws and regulations, transparency of business practices and results, and taking a public stance on issues.

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Ron Kinghorn

Ron Kinghorn

Consulting Solutions Sustainability Leader, PwC US

Niloufar Molavi

Niloufar Molavi

Global Oil & Gas Leader, US Sustainability Tax Leader, PwC US

Kevin O’Connell

Kevin O’Connell

Trust Solutions Sustainability Leader, PwC US

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