In an industry often associated with risk and controversy, the narrative around ethical and sustainable practices is gradually gaining prominence. The concept of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles is reshaping the landscape of the gambling industry, prompting stakeholders to reassess their values and priorities. SBC sat down with Floris Assies, the person at the helm of Better World Casinos, to delve into the intricate intersection of ESG and the gambling sector. With a commitment to sustainability and ethics, Assies offers a refreshing perspective on how businesses can drive positive change while thriving in a competitive market. Assies will appear on the ‘ESG – just a tickbox?’ panel during the upcoming SBC Summit in Lisbon.

Better World Casinos CEO on the Unsustainability of Unlimited Growth

In an industry often associated with risk and controversy, the narrative around ethical and sustainable practices is gradually gaining prominence. The concept of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles is reshaping the landscape of the gambling industry, prompting stakeholders to reassess their values and priorities.

SBC sat down with Floris Assies, the person at the helm of Better World Casinos, to delve into the intricate intersection of ESG and the gambling sector. With a commitment to sustainability and ethics, Assies offers a refreshing perspective on how businesses can drive positive change while thriving in a competitive market.

Assies will appear on the ‘ESG – just a tickbox?’ panel during the upcoming SBC Summit in Lisbon.

SBC: First things first; how do you define ESG within the context of the gambling industry? 

Floris Assies: I think the definition of ESG doesn’t change per industry. ESG stands for Environment, Social, and Governance, and these are the three pillars along which sustainability can be analysed. For those not very familiar with ESG, it originally started as a risk assessment tool for investors, but I define it more as a mindset and a framework to plan the journey towards sustainability. 

What changes per industry is what is considered ‘material’, or in other words, ‘most relevant’. 

This is a rather complex topic, about which I wrote a detailed article that explains and compares materiality analysis. In it, I compare the materiality assessment of the Maltese Gaming Authority (MGA) ESG code of conduct with that of several operators. I mention this because it illustrates well that what is deemed most material can differ per stakeholder group and even among parties within the same stakeholder group. 

What most agree on is that in the gambling industry, responsible gambling, which belongs to the social pillar, is given the highest priority. Other important topics are data security, privacy and anti-money laundering (AML). But there are many more topics; for example, the MGA defined 49 topics.

Topics are assigned to either social, environmental or governance pillars, but it’s important to mention that every topic has a governance aspect. It’s the governance of a company that determines how decisions are made, shapes company culture and values, and how many concessions are made when it comes to the bottom line.

SBC: Better World Casinos has a strong focus on ESG. Was this focus present from the company’s founding? How did the idea of embedding ESG into your business come to life, and what were the reasons behind it?

FA: Having seen quite a bit of the world and witnessed firsthand the mess that we humans have made, I have a strong desire to contribute to making the world better. Sustainability and ethics have been passions of mine since my early 20s. 

Therefore, ESG and sustainability are at the core of what I do and the business I’m building. It was a logical next step in my career, providing purpose while filling a gap in the affiliate space.

There’s a trend where players want to choose sustainable brands that aim to have a positive impact. Currently, this information isn’t available. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense as well. Most affiliates have the same content. Having an original story gives an edge in this highly competitive space.

So, embedding ESG into Better World Casinos wasn’t just an afterthought but a foundational element that aligns with both my personal values and the evolving demands of the market.

SBC: What social responsibility measures are critical for the gambling industry to implement and how can gambling companies contribute positively to the communities they operate in?

FA: Let’s first address the elephant in the room, namely the topic of responsibility when dealing with gambling as a product. 

The challenge in this industry is that we are dealing with human psychology. We offer a product which can be addictive and cause harm, but there is a business incentive to make players play as much as possible. 

I often think back to an article I read in The Guardian in which the question was asked: “Is it ethical to exploit our psychology to benefit an economic system destroying the planet?” Now while gambling doesn’t directly destroy the planet, it can definitely destroy lives. So is it ethical?

It’s a fine line. On one hand, if there’s a demand, there needs to be a regulated supply with strict rules. On the other hand, we have a responsibility towards people to help them manage their dopamine addictions. I believe everybody is free to make their own choices and needs to in order to learn and grow as a human being. Gambling, or any other potentially addictive and harmful product or behaviour, has a role in life. 

But then, from a capitalistic point of view, getting the consumer addicted to your product is ideal. But ethically, it’s the worst-case scenario. Balancing these opposing forces is the challenge.

So, it starts with focusing on what is the core of our product: entertainment, which can be sustainable. If the focus is profit maximisation, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be sustainable. 

That said, I believe doing business and creating a financially sustainable business model can be, and needs to be, supplemented with a genuine purpose and a desire to do good. When money is invested in the right way, it can trickle down and have many positive effects, including employment, awareness, education, and philanthropy. One often overlooked aspect, for example, is procurement. Gambling companies have the financial capacity to be the most sustainable companies in their community. If they decide to build and furnish their offices 100% fair, sustainable, circular, etc., they enable businesses that provide these products and services to thrive, making them available to others. This approach can drive significant positive change in local communities.

So, while responsible gambling is crucial, the broader impact on the community and sustainability through thoughtful investment and ethical practices is equally important. And here I see a big opportunity for the industry. Lead by example. First, make sure you don’t do harm and have a positive impact, and then that your profits are justified and ethical.

SBC: As the gambling industry evolves its approach to ESG, what future trends do you anticipate? What role do you believe affiliate companies will play in connecting directly with players in this context?

FA: The problem I see is that the rate at which companies adopt ESG is too slow, and I think there are several reasons for this. Primarily, it affects the bottom line because costs have to be incurred. There’s also uncertainty about the long-term benefits. While many ideas, such as anticipating regulation, improving brand image and reputation, enhancing employee satisfaction, and fostering customer loyalty, sound promising, we don’t yet have the numbers to back up these claims. They seem logical on paper, but most businesses take a ‘wait and see’ approach and aren’t keen on being the first movers.

People, especially investors, are addicted to profit and have a fixed mindset focused on growth. Unlimited growth is unsustainable. I haven’t seen any real pioneers or brave souls trying to set a precedent. That’s what myself as the founder, and my colleagues who believe in the vision, are trying to do with Better World Casinos. 

Another point: there are no standards yet, but we need standards for analysing, auditing, and reporting, and we need benchmarks to measure progress. Especially from the point of view of what BWC does, namely comparing the ESG performance of different companies and holding them accountable for progress. 

So, the trend that I see in our industry is slow and cautious adaptation. Understandingly, but the clock on environmental degradation and social unrest is ticking. I’d like to see an increased sense of urgency and action. Better World Casinos anticipates this by pushing the agenda, taking the lead in establishing an industry-wide standard, and using the new data to hold companies accountable and urge them to do better. 

The role of affiliates is aimed at the consumer. Raising awareness is crucial. Making the consumer aware that there is a choice between brands that lead and those that lag behind is essential. But this presents its own challenges, especially with ethics and the type of business people want to run. If the goal is to maximise profit, there’s no incentive to promote the better brands; affiliates will keep promoting the brands that pay more. This also encourages greenwashing, which is a whole topic on its own. 

The revenue share model is also prone to ethical dilemmas. When you get a revenue share, there’s an incentive not to encourage responsible gambling. You’ll want to market aggressively because more signups and more deposits mean more income.

Here, the conversation always shifts to a topic that I feel many are uncomfortable with because it’s against ‘business as usual.’ You have to self-reflect and start asking the question, ‘How much is enough?’ Only then can you mature, set limits, define where to put the bar, and focus on creating the best user experience and value. What problem are you solving, and how can you do that best? Profit is the reward for solving the problem, not the goal in itself.

The fact that most companies have made profit their primary goal is the reason we have big inequality, pollution, and all the social and environmental problems we are facing.

So, to sum it up and come back to the question “What roles do affiliates play? I think we have to help make the consumer aware of the challenges and the impact their choice of brand has. And lead by example.

This is why we aim to become a B-Corp and already have a number of principles in place to ensure we are not looking at growth at any cost or have profit be our sole driver.

SBC: Considering the latest Google updates that influence how affiliates acquire traffic, do you feel the need to diversify your traffic acquisition efforts? How are you responding to these changes in the SEO landscape?

FA: I run an SEO and content marketing agency, and we’ve always focused on quality content and white-hat SEO. Most of the sites I’ve worked on over the years have been steadily improving. I didn’t see any negative effects with the core updates this year, nor did they improve significantly. The trend is still going up, which reassures me that our approach has been the right one for me and my clients.

However, with Better World Casinos, it’s a different story. We’ve been building the site in the background, and it’s still very young. Growing the content and organic keywords hasn’t been the priority yet. The priority has been building the strategy, the review framework, and reviewing operators on ESG, which takes a lot of time. This year, we’re planning a marketing mix where SEO is only a small portion and the least priority. Of course, we are building a solid foundation for SEO, but we’re first focusing on brand awareness, brand identity, and becoming an authority on ESG in the field. That’s why events and interviews like these are very important for us. Once we have a certain level of authority and start building up our content, we will shift more towards content marketing and growing organic keywords.

That said, I’ve always seen SEO as the sauce you pour on all different departments in a company. Content, PR, social, product, design, and tech—all have SEO elements that need to work together. With my agency, I have always presented three options to my clients: turnkey (where we handle everything), consulting (where we assist as needed and the client can outsource or involve others), and training (where I train employees on SEO and teach them their roles). The training option has always been my preferred and offers the most long-term value for the client, I think. Most problems can be prevented if you follow a set of rules to ensure content can be indexed, is linked properly, and is aligned with business objectives. Once every department knows what part of the tune they need to play, it’s not that hard to start making music together and have success with SEO. 

So, how do I react to the changes? I try to stay informed about what’s happening and evolve with the times. But fundamentally, I have always focused on what creates the best user experience and connecting that with what the search engine needs to understand what you’re doing. For me, SEO has always been more about Search Experience Optimisation than Search Engine Optimisation.

SBC: Can you share some of the frequent challenges you face as an affiliate, and how events such as the SBC Summit Lisbon can provide solutions?

FA: The main challenge as an affiliate is finding a niche and an edge to be competitive. There are so many talented and smart people with far more resources, making it difficult to stand out. You have to find something that gives you unique value and then double down on it.

For Better World Casinos, the challenge is building trust and producing content. Reviewing operators and their brands on sustainability is hard work, and we are a very small team still learning and growing. This takes time.

Events like the SBC Summit are invaluable for networking and gaining exposure. Getting on stage and participating in panels helps build our brand and establish our authority, which is crucial for our long-term strategy. It’s all about relationships. Things get easier with the right connections, and establishing those relationships takes time. Face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable. Video conferences can accomplish a lot, but if you want to truly assess whether you can trust someone and if your values align, being in the same room is much more effective.

Overall, these events provide an excellent platform for networking, learning, and growing, all of which are essential for overcoming the challenges we face as affiliatesin the gambling industry.

SBC: Can you walk us through the geographic markets you’re targeting? How challenging is it for a small team like yours to keep up with the various regulatory updates and restrictions?”

FA: We chose to focus first on the UK because it’s a well-established, highly-regulated market with a lot of competition. If we can make it in the UK, we believe we can succeed in other countries too. After the UK, our next targets are other English-speaking markets. We’re also planning to launch a Spanish site and aim for Spain and Latin America. This roadmap will keep us busy for at least the next two years.

With regard to regulations, we’re currently holding off on the USA until we have the right knowledge and resources to tackle dealing with licences for affiliates. Keeping up with various regulatory updates and restrictions is indeed challenging for a small team like ours. However, we try to stay ahead by applying the highest standards to ourselves when it comes to transparency, reporting, responsible gambling, and ethical marketing.

We believe that by adhering to these high standards, we can navigate the complex regulatory landscape more effectively. This proactive approach not only ensures compliance but also builds trust with our audience and partners. So, while it’s challenging, it’s a necessary part of our strategy to establish ourselves in the markets we’re targeting.

SBC: What key areas do you think the industry should focus more on that are currently being neglected?

FA: ESG, obviously, in the broadest sense. And the problem we are solving, not the money we are making. I am happy when more people start asking themselves, “Why do I do what I do?”. If the answer is only money and profit-related, I think you need to start wondering if you are going to be proud of yourself when at old age you look back at your life. There is plenty of scientific research done about what makes people happy and leads to a satisfied life, and money only has a small part in it. 

Once you get up to the 100k annually, more money generally doesn’t make people happier. What makes us happy is taking care of each other and giving, rather than taking. So give by building businesses that have reduced their negative environmental impact to zero, and become a net positive company. Treat each other with respect and share the gains with the people who actually do the job, not only with shareholders, and give through paying your fair share of taxes, charity and philanthropy so we build a society where everybody gets the opportunity to thrive. 

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