U.S. President Joe Biden used the first veto of his presidency last week. The reason? ESG investing. On March 27, President Biden moved to reject a bill, approved by the House and Senate, that sought to overturn a new Department of Labor rule allowing U.S. retirement fund managers to take environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into account in their investment decisions.
The latest chapter in an ongoing political battle over ESG in the U.S., Biden’s veto came just a few days after more than 270 companies and investors signed an open letter pushing back against anti-ESG policies.
In the letter, investors and companies emphasized the need to consider all financial risks and opportunities — including those associated with the climate crisis — in order to make smart investments. Calling their movement Freedom to Invest, these capital market leaders urged federal and state policymakers to protect their freedom to invest responsibly, noting they must be free to consider all material financial risks and opportunities in order to plan for the long-term.
“Managing risk and opportunities is our job as investors,” said Anne Simpson, global head of sustainability for Franklin Templeton, one of the letter’s signatories, in a statement. “Our duty and our loyalty are with the people who entrust us with their money. If we don’t pay attention to the accelerating frequency of severe weather disasters and the hundreds of billions of dollars they cause, nor to scientists’ forecasts for severe risk of more of that, and to entrepreneurial companies’ innovations for solving the resulting market needs, then we are not fulfilling our fiduciary duty." The leaders noted that ESG considerations are not political nor ideological, but rather prudent risk management and investment considerations.
Anti-ESG legislation in a number of states is poised to cost taxpayers and retirees billions. State legislatures have been forced to roll back bills that sought to limit ESG investing practices, citing financial harm to state pension funds. Texas and Florida are continuing to push for anti-ESG legislation, even as Texas' anti-ESG policies have already cost the state millions. Pension funds in the state are warning the legislature that the most recent round of anti-ESG proposals could cost retirees in Texas $6 billion over the next 10 years.
Climate change, social injustices, and environmental catastrophes all threaten workforces, supply chains, global markets and long-term economic growth. At the same time, “strong climate action will bring tens of trillions of dollars in additional value to the global economy along with millions of new jobs in the coming decades," the financial leaders wrote in their letter.
Their claims are backed up by strong evidence. One recent study, for example, showed that companies with robust ESG programs saw a 9.7 percent revenue boost between 2019 and 2022, compared with a 4.5 percent boost for companies without ESG programs. The same study showed that 84 percent of companies that embrace ESG principles find it easier to attract investors and raise funds.
The group of Freedom to Invest signatories highlighted the business case for ESG in their letter, writing: “Our consideration of material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors is not political or ideological. Incorporating these issues into financial decision-making represents good corporate governance, prudent risk management, and smart investment practice consistent with fiduciary duty. We factor financially material considerations, including the impacts of climate change, into our standard investment and risk management decisions, in order to protect our operations and our investments.”
Even as ESG investing is facing backlash among some policymakers, ESG investing principles are growing in popularity. Almost $8.5 trillion in assets are currently managed by ESG-friendly investors, which is about an eighth of all total assets under management globally, and demand for sustainable funds is higher than for those that do not include ESG considerations.
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Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship.