Who should look after ESG in my start-up?

Scaling, Talent


Like for any strategic programme, without clear ownership, accountability, and backing from the top, ESG efforts are likely to stall or never truly get going.

Early-stage companies won’t have the resources to hire a dedicated ESG role. That’s perfectly fine, and even creates a safeguard to ensure that ESG is not progressed as a siloed project but is fully integrated in business needs and commercial strategy.

The most important thing is to clearly designate an owner, and ideally the right one. ESG is a team sport, but every team needs a captain. 

So how should you go about selecting your ESG champions? 

A Start-up Guide to ESG

Discover expert insights and best practice for implementing ESG in your start-up journey


Finding the right owner(s): the captain

There is no right or wrong answer, simply considerations. Across the Balderton portfolio alone, we have a wide variety of role titles also looking after the ESG agenda, including: Founder, Chief of Staff, COO, Head of Strategy, Head of People, Finance Director, Operations Director, Marketing Manager, Head of Legal, Strategic Project Manager.

Who you choose to own the ESG agenda should ultimately be a factor of:

  • Individual experience, passion and bandwidth. Ultimately you need someone who will have the capacity and confidence to take on this agenda.
  • Main driver for ESG implementation. Different individuals will likely end up at the helm depending on whether the inception of an ESG programme was demanded by the Board, prompted by regulatory change, inspired by customer feedback, or instigated by staff.
  • Priority ESG themes. Should you decide to start on the D&I front, the People function is well placed to advance social ESG topics as part of their day-to-day role, while Operations or Finance are closest to the data needed to calculate carbon footprint. As transversal functions, Strategy or Marketing can also be great homes for ESG.

Ultimately, the role of owner is one of orchestration, coordination and communication. This remains true as the company grows and appoints a full- or part-time head of sustainability. We like the definition of chief sustainability officers as “sensemakers in chief” - because there is a lot of noise and distraction, of hype and jargon. But at the end of the day, ESG is just common sense.

ESG is a team sport. But every team needs a captain.

Convening and coordinating a working group: the team

Sustainability is a topic that resonates with many of us at a personal level, and many will be looking to find ways in which they can contribute to this agenda, let alone welcome the opportunity when they are presented with one. A working group can therefore be a great idea to tap into staff passion, discretionary time and effort, and sometimes even uncover relevant experience and expertise from previous roles to leverage. A working group is a great vehicle to ramp up capacity around the agenda while also cascading ESG down the different functions and across the whole business.

Clear leadership commitment: the sponsor

To be successful, your captain and team need to have reassurance that this is an important initiative, and a reliable sponsor. In early-stage businesses, the sponsor should be no other than the founder and/or CEO. They should express early on the importance – and their personal commitment – to addressing ESG themes material to their organisation and value proposition, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it is intrinsically linked to long-term value creation.

Aligning ESG visions and principles within a company contributes to developing a purposeful culture, which itself will be instrumental to implementing a seamless and successful ESG integration.

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