Stakeholder Capitalism

What start-ups think about ESG and why it matters

What does ESG mean to start-ups?

What does ESG mean to start-ups? Image: Pexels.

Saemoon Yoon
Lead, Innovator Communities, World Economic Forum
Michelle Mormont
Lead, Innovator Communities, World Economic Forum
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Stakeholder Capitalism?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how ESG is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Listen to the article

  • Up until now start-ups have largely been left out the conservation when it comes to ESG.
  • As future giants of industry their views on planet, people and society matter more than ever.
  • A new study by the World Economic Forum asked start-ups to share their view on ESG – here are the key insights.

Even though start-ups are viewed as giants of the future, they have largely been left out of the conversation when it comes to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics. Most of the current discourse is led by venture capital (VC) firms. On the one hand, we do have a top-down view of the markets and historical data about a number of start-ups, but on the other hand, we don’t have a clear bottom-up global view, across regions and funds, about the perspectives of startups when it comes to ESG.

What then, does ESG practically mean for start-ups? Should start-ups be following the rigorous ESG market metrics when they are still on constant survival mode? Would it be OK for them to ignore ESG until they have enough resources to think about ESG? What is the role of different stakeholders supporting start-ups on their journey?

Have you read?

To answer these questions, the World Economic Forum conducted a survey and interviewed start-ups from the Forum’s Global Innovators and Technology Pioneers communities. Respondents were asked to share their views about ESG and their expectations of VC funds when it comes to ESG and the findings have been published in the report ESG Pulse Check: Getting the Basics Right for Startups and Venture Capital Firms.

Here are three key takeaways from the startups:

1. ESG should not be approached as a stand-alone topic

Instead they should be embedded into key corporate strategies and decision-making, ideally from the beginning so that it scales with a company.

The overwhelming majority of start-ups that were surveyed (68%) integrated ESG into their business strategy from the beginning, before most even had a viable product, complete C-suite, or office space. While the companies surveyed likely skew towards being purpose driven, which aligns to the Forum’s mission to improve the state of the world, nonetheless a significant number of companies had these considerations in mind from the start.

Timing of ESG strategy integration. Source: The World Economic Forum.
Timing of ESG strategy integration. Image: The World Economic Forum

Companies are the catalyst to perform ESG and to create positive impacts beyond the immediate boundaries of corporations and industry verticals.

Fanyu Lin, Chief Executive Officer, Fluxus

How is the World Economic Forum helping companies track their positive contributions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

2. ESG metrics must be friendly towards start-ups and scale-ups

When it comes to concretely measuring ESG performance, there is still a lack of methodologies as to how start-ups could practically approach ESG. The current standards in the market (such as SASB, GRI, etc.) are mainly focused on corporates that can dedicate resources into thoroughly tracking all required metrics.

Start-ups positively viewed standard ESG frameworks that were tailored for venture-backed companies, currently being developed by certain industry communities, such as VentureESG, ESG_VC and UN-PRI. Many of the startups expressed that such metrics should not be difficult for them to follow, measure and implement, but should be practical in nature.

Usefulness of standard ESG frameworks for start-ups. Source: The World Economic Forum.
Usefulness of standard ESG frameworks for start-ups. Image: The World Economic Forum

3. Customers and employees are the key stakeholders demanding ESG advancement

The majority of start-ups in the survey expressed the increasing importance of two key stakeholder groups when implementing their ESG strategies: customers (32%) and employees (27%). In addition, pressure from investors (23%) seems to be a forthcoming driver, with possibilities to closely collaborate on crafting the direction.

These days, customers not only require technology companies to provide products and services at competitive prices and quality, but are increasingly expecting them to improve their ESG performance.

Yinglian Xie, Chief Executive Officer, Datavisor
Key stakeholders for ESG implementation. Source: The World Economic Forum.
Key stakeholders for ESG implementation. Image: The World Economic Forum

Young workforce recruitment is high and these individuals are more keen on ESG than investors.

David Garfield, Chief Executive Officer, Garrison

A number of start-ups stated that venture capital funds are important partners for them to deepen their understanding of ESG, especially as the pressure to improve ESG in the venture capital asset class is mounting.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Stakeholder CapitalismForum Institutional
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

'It's now cheaper to save the world than destroy it': author Akshat Rathi on Climate Capitalism 

Robin Pomeroy and Sophia Akram

April 10, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum