Unnerving India Inc: The Challenge of Embracing ESG Norms


In the bustling heart of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, a quiet but seismic shift was taking place in the world of business. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) norms were slowly but surely encroaching upon the corporate landscape, leaving India Inc. both intrigued and unnerved.

For years, Indian businesses had thrived on the traditional approach of maximizing profits, often at the expense of environmental concerns and social issues. However, the winds of change were blowing, and companies were being pushed to adopt ESG norms, a framework that measured their performance in three critical areas: environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and corporate governance.

As these norms began to make their presence felt, the corporate world in India found itself at a crossroads, grappling with the challenge of reconciling their profit-oriented strategies with a world that demanded more ethical and sustainable practices. This story delves into the various factors that made ESG norms so unnerving for India Inc.

The Profit-First Mentality

India Inc. had long been guided by the principle of “profits at any cost.” Many companies had pursued aggressive growth strategies, often ignoring the environmental consequences of their actions. The ruthless pursuit of profit had led to air and water pollution, deforestation, and the degradation of natural resources. ESG norms demanded that businesses change their approach, putting sustainability on an equal footing with profitability. For many, this shift in focus was disconcerting, as it required reevaluating and potentially restructuring their entire business models.

Complex Regulatory Framework

India Inc. had been accustomed to navigating a complex regulatory landscape. However, ESG norms added another layer of complexity to an already intricate system. The government had introduced various ESG regulations, making compliance a daunting task. Companies were required to disclose extensive data on their environmental impact, labor practices, and corporate governance. The stringent and often ambiguous regulations left many businesses perplexed and unsure about how to proceed.

Resource Constraints

Implementing ESG norms required substantial resources, both financial and human. Many Indian companies, especially small and mid-sized enterprises, found it challenging to allocate the necessary resources for ESG compliance. Developing the infrastructure, investing in clean technologies, and hiring skilled personnel to meet ESG requirements strained their budgets and posed a formidable challenge.

Resistance to Change

Change, even when necessary, is often met with resistance. Traditional business leaders who had built their empires on the profit-first mindset were hesitant to embrace the ESG revolution. It required not only a change in practices but also a transformation in mindset. To many, the shift towards sustainability seemed unsettling, as it questioned the very foundations of their success.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Gains

ESG norms focused on long-term sustainability and stability rather than short-term gains. Indian businesses had been accustomed to quick returns on their investments and growth strategies. The idea of sacrificing immediate profits for the sake of long-term sustainability appeared as an unnerving proposition. Many questioned whether the benefits of ESG compliance would outweigh the sacrifices they had to make in the short run.

Public and Investor Pressure

The global push for ESG compliance was exerting immense pressure on Indian companies. International investors and stakeholders were increasingly demanding that businesses demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. These external pressures created a sense of unease among Indian corporations, as they grappled with the need to align their operations with global ESG standards.

Lack of ESG Expertise

ESG compliance required specialized knowledge and expertise. Many Indian companies lacked the in-house talent and experience needed to navigate the complexities of ESG reporting and implementation. This knowledge gap often led to confusion, missteps, and inefficiencies in the transition to ESG-compliant practices.

Cost of Transition

Transitioning to ESG-compliant practices often came at a significant cost. Whether it was retrofitting factories to reduce emissions, implementing inclusive hiring practices, or restructuring corporate governance, these changes required substantial investments. The financial burden of these transitions weighed heavily on many Indian businesses, especially those in sectors that were historically less concerned with ESG issues.

Fear of Greenwashing

Another unsettling aspect of ESG compliance was the fear of being labeled a “greenwasher.” Greenwashing referred to the practice of misleading the public by appearing more environmentally friendly or socially responsible than a company actually was. Companies were apprehensive that any missteps or inaccuracies in their ESG reporting could lead to accusations of greenwashing, tarnishing their reputation and potentially inviting legal repercussions.

Strain on Supply Chains

As companies began to emphasize ESG norms, they extended their expectations to their suppliers and partners. This ripple effect had a cascading impact throughout the supply chain, forcing smaller companies to adapt quickly. The pressure from their larger clients to meet ESG criteria created anxiety among these smaller businesses, as they feared losing critical contracts.

The Need for Transparent Communication

The adoption of ESG norms also called for transparent communication with stakeholders. Businesses had to not only implement sustainable practices but also effectively communicate their ESG efforts to consumers, investors, and the general public. This requirement of openness and transparency was often perceived as a challenge, as companies were concerned about revealing their weaknesses and potential areas for improvement.

The Fear of Falling Behind

In an increasingly globalized world, Indian companies were apprehensive about falling behind their international counterparts in ESG compliance. They understood that ESG norms were not merely a trend but a fundamental shift in how businesses operated worldwide. The fear of being left behind or excluded from international markets was a looming concern for many.

The Cultural Challenge

India’s business culture had been deeply rooted in traditional values and hierarchical structures. ESG norms required a cultural shift, promoting diversity and inclusion, responsible decision-making, and transparency. This cultural challenge was especially unnerving for companies that had long operated with a more hierarchical and centralized decision-making process.

As ESG norms continued to gain prominence, India Inc. found itself standing at the precipice of transformation. While the journey toward ESG compliance was daunting and unsettling, many businesses recognized the importance of this shift. They understood that embracing ESG norms was not just a necessity but a vital step in building a sustainable and resilient future.

The unnerving transition to ESG norms was a test of resilience for India Inc. It demanded a reevaluation of priorities, a commitment to sustainability, and a willingness to adapt to the evolving global business landscape. While the challenges were formidable, they also presented an opportunity for Indian businesses to redefine their role in the world and contribute to a more sustainable and responsible future.

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities represented and we recommend referring to more recent and reliable sources for up-to-date information.