skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

The knowledge blindspot impacting the S of ESG

Updated 23 April 2024 - Business intelligence that seeks to promote the social dimension of ESG needs to engage with the diversity and wealth of knowledge that emerges from the human behind the data.

The recent culture wars on business self-regulation through ESG have once again highlighted the tension between business profitability and social responsibility. However, at Davos this year business leaders clearly recognized that as the impact of climate change increasingly threatens bottom lines, new economic models that are more conscious of their social and environmental impacts are fundamental to business survival. The knowledge and learning to drive this transformation may well emerge from business schools. 

Business schools, in exploring their purpose in society, have continued to shift their stance from morals and ethics-led to the Friedman doctrine of shareholder primacy and more recently to a tradition of purpose over profit. Yet, businesses have not engaged substantially with aspects of social justice, a topic reserved for philanthropy and classes in sociology and politics. A recent New York Times article based on a documentation of the goings on in a Harvard Business School session and a Wharton lecture, however, argues that things might be changing and a classroom discussion that describes scarcity and inequality as necessary conditions for capitalism may not raise eyebrows anymore. As Auden Schendler, author of Getting Green done points out, business and academia need to work together so knowledge that promotes the idea of business’s embeddedness in society is not confined to complex academic papers but made accessible and applicable as business know-how.

It is important to talk about business education in a conversation on business and social justice because, for many, their foundational knowledge for a professional life in the world of business is acquired here.  It is also significant that often other aspects of knowledge accumulated through culture or lived experience are overshadowed by this professional consciousness which dominates workplace behaviour.

One of the most striking findings of the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership’s recently launched 8-week online course on Business and Social Justice is the surprised reactions of experienced business professionals when they begin to unpack the knowledge paradigms and systems that inform their professional choices and decisions, including those that impact on society and the environment. The domination of Western knowledge systems in the sphere of business and business education strikes them as something that they had not often thought about in any detail. As they engage with the material, the extent of this absence of diversity of knowledge begins to dawn on them.

In almost all spheres of business activity, including IT, manufacturing, mining, fashion, and healthcare, participants in the course observed that there was a dominance of data-led research in their organisation which came at the cost of ignoring the diversity of humans behind the data. Even multinationals with a worldwide presence tend to overlook local knowledge in their research and business operations, focusing on data for market research, financial analysis, product design, etc. The growth in artificial intelligence (AI) and the inherent risks of further aggravating this lack of intellectual diversity through algorithmic injustice cannot be overemphasised.

The latest IPCC summary report highlights the value of indigenous knowledge in tackling the climate crisis and the alarming loss of biodiversity. But, as powerful drivers of change, are business leaders equipped with this knowledge and does this inform their solutions or even their problem definitions?

Indigenous communities are believed to preserve over 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity including 40 percent of ecologically pristine areas while only representing 5 percent of the global population. Their knowledge of biodiversity protection is critical for business such as those in the agriculture and pharma sectors for instance. While not available in neat frameworks and compelling statistics, it is often accessible philosophies and refined knowledge passed down generations through storytelling and other art forms that have helped steward delicate ecological balance for millennia thereby promoting biodiversity and intergenerational justice.

Businesses are becoming more aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with standards such as ESG introducing rigour to the process. However, while the representational front and the systemic or institutional aspects of the problem remain on the radar, the epistemic which refers to aspects of knowledge production, is almost always overlooked perhaps because it does not lend itself easily to quantitative analysis. A tendency to homogenise talent and competencies based on dominant understandings often stymies avenues for creative innovation that are energised by cultural and social diversity.

Significantly, while dealing with the reality of climate change, the knowledge born out of the struggles and lived experiences of marginalised groups could be critical for businesses and government to make key policy decisions.

These are important considerations that have informed the design of the Business and Social Justice course that begins a conversation between diverse ways of knowing and encourages participants to collaboratively evolve solutions that catalyse the shift from incremental change to radical and transformative action.

Find out more about CISL's Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change online course 

About the author

Priya has had a career of 25 years, working in business, journalism and academia in Ireland, India and the United Kingdom. Priya’s interdisciplinary research expertise straddles cultural studies, politics, environmental and social justice – themes that she has also covered as a journalist and columnist. She is a programme manager at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Co-Convenor of the Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change online short course.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

Email | +44 (0) 7845652839