"Anti-ESG" rhetoric on political campaign trails and cable news breeds misinformation and creates misunderstanding about the use of environmental, social and governance factors in business. This week we're breaking down some of the most common myths we see out there about ESG and what it means for businesses and investors, with insight from Andrew Behar, CEO of the shareholder advocacy organization As You Sow.
Back in 2019, the CEO-led Business Roundtable — which represents executives at some of the largest U.S. companies — issued a statement revising the “purpose of a corporation.” After decades of saying companies should make all of their decisions based on maximizing short-term shareholder profit, the executive group proclaimed the private sector has a duty to all of its stakeholders, including employees, customers and communities. That means considering things like environmental sustainability and social equity alongside profit — in other words, adopting ESG principles.
Those are big words from a lobbyist group that includes executives from major financial companies like BlackRock and JPMorgan Chase, and many onlookers weren't convinced. Environmental and social advocates said businesses weren't living up to what they put on paper, and — particularly as the anti-ESG narrative took hold — politicians, pundits and social media warriors took aim at companies for the mere mention of considerations beyond the bottom line. The result? Companies got quieter about their work in ESG, a trend known in sustainability circles as "greenhushing."
"Five years ago, companies were doing nothing and taking a victory lap," Behar said. "Right now we have companies doing stuff — and I can tell you, it's with greater intensity, with greater depth — but they do not want to take the victory lap. It’s a better situation, because they're actually changing their policies and practices, but it's the greenhushing. They want to be quiet, because there are too many trolls out there."
Behind the scenes, companies are spending more on new programming tied to sustainability and social impact. They've also agreed to gather more information about things like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their workforces and the ways climate change impacts their supply chains — and disclose that information to investors and shareholder groups like As You Sow.
"When the declarations were made in 2019 about the new purpose of a corporation, that was really the moment where all of the companies said, 'Okay, if we want to outperform, if we want to succeed, we're going to be shifting our fundamental philosophy,'" Behar told us.
In this sense, anti-ESG critics are about four years "late to the party," he said. "There's no question in my mind that we are well along this implementation phase of a new purpose of a corporation and this transformation to a regenerative economy based on justice and sustainability. The extractive economy is winding down. And it's just a question of how fast and how much pain they're going to cause everybody else in the process."
Many far-right critics characterize ESG as something brand new, a symptom of the "wokeness" and "cancel culture" they say grip modern society. But ESG isn't new. The term was coined back in 2005. And even before the Business Roundtable's 2019 statement, thousands of professionals were working as "ESG analysts" across the mainstream financial sector.
For investors, ESG is primarily a risk management and long-term growth mechanism. By understanding how companies manage their supply chains, source their ingredients and treat their workers, investors can better understand which companies are prepared for the future. Likewise, companies leverage ESG principles to manage and mitigate the risks they face.
"Overall, what we're seeing here is just basic good business practices being demonized for political ends and people spending a lot of money to do it. And a lot of that is trying to stop what we see as market forces that have already happened — this is way over," Behar said. "The companies that have adopted justice and sustainability are the ones that people want to put their money in, because they know those companies are going to succeed over the next five, 10, 20 years."
Many individual products that are marketed as "sustainable" do come at higher prices. Critics often use this point to argue that the more companies consider ESG principles, the more expensive goods and services will become across the board.
But this misses critical context around the state of modern global supply chains. Social inequality and environmental crises already make it more difficult — and more expensive — to do business. ESG principles offer a way to manage and reduce that risk, which stabilizes prices over the long term.
Take climate change as an example and what Behar refers to as "climate inflation." His team at As You Sow aggregates news articles that cover increasing commodity prices tied to climate change. They've noted a clear upward pattern over recent years, with the spring heatwaves in Europe that all but decimated Spain's olive industry among recent examples.
"They had no olives, so olives are more expensive," Behar explained. "Coffee's more expensive, chocolate's more expensive, cotton's more expensive. Cereal's more expensive. The boiling of the planet is really having some impacts on global commodity prices."
Indeed, institutional investors like asset managers, endowments and foundations increasingly use ESG factors to decide where to invest their money. ESG-focused institutional investment is projected to increase by 84 percent by 2026, making up around a fifth of all assets under management.
But you don't have to be rich to invest sustainably, or to leverage your voting power as a shareholder in support of ESG. Last month, we outlined some simple ways for any and everyone to get involved with sustainable investing if they have the interest — from voting their proxies on individual stocks, to voicing their support for ESG in their 401(k) plans.
"We know we've got this vast majority of folks who actually want to vote to get corporations to provide a livable planet," Behar said. "It's a matter now of just getting people to talk about it."
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.