The ESG Review: Are we witnessing the break-up of ESG?

ESG has long aspired to be cohesive.

But with pressure building to tighten definitions and clamp down on misleading or unrealistic claims, the case to put more distance between environmental, social and governance factors seems to be growing too.

It’s a direction of travel covered comprehensively by the Financial Times this week. It opens with the stark perspective that “The term ESG is less than two decades old, but it may already be coming to the end of its useful life”.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the FT is ‘on one’ about the need for ESG reform at the moment, given the frequency of its articles on the topic compared to most other media.

The ‘How ESG investing came to a reckoning’ piece sets out the big factors causing such tension for corporations wanting to demonstrate long-term ESG progress to please investors, but wrestling with immediate commercial realities. Besides the headlines over severe greenwashing concerns, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing companies, investors and governments to juggle priorities that can set E, S and G factors against each other - a need to look to alternative fossil fuel sources to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas being just one of them.

It’s a reality-check piece that covers some old ground around the need for investing frameworks, but lands the point that ESG and ethical business - or ethical investing - should be parallel undertakings. And it points to a need for ESG to evolve not only through clearer definition and standards, but for E, S and G factors to be divorced from each other when it comes to business stewardship.

But it wasn’t the FT’s only analysis this week.

In ‘The holes in holistic ESG indices’, more cold water was poured in reaching the conclusion that “Choices over inclusion in benchmarks of goodness are dubious in nature”.

In ‘Blowing the whistle on ESG’, the former sustainability officer at DWS delved into the background behind those alleged greenwashing claims.

And in another long read, ‘ESG exposed in a world of changing priorities’, Gillian Tett shared the view that responsible investing will survive the wall of criticism that has been brought to ESG’s door, though it will need to evolve and adapt in an era when “energy security and poverty reduction have suddenly become as important as the green transition”. And “The idea of just focusing on shareholder interests, as the 20th century economist Milton Friedman urged company boards to do, looks increasingly risky — even for those shareholders.”

The FT isn’t the only publication sharing the case for a revamp and reapplication of ESG though. The Wall Street Journal’s piece about ‘Taking the E out of ESG investing’ was a similar critique to the pink paper’s Big Read piece.

Meanwhile Bloomberg covered ESG doyenne BlackRock’s efforts to give itself a makeover in Washington by setting ESG in a different context, and separately that ‘ESG insiders say it’s time for a course-correction’.

Much of the ESG ‘agenda’ is currently in question then. But one thing that does look certain is a period of broad reform from which ESG will emerge looking quite different. Then again, the same can be said for many aspects of business, politics and investment.

Communicating ESG priorities and progress, and navigating reputational challenges while doing so, may well look quite different too. If anything, the need to ‘get real’ beyond the current reality-check should make corporate affairs functions even more integral to long-term transformation in future, regardless of whether it leads on the E, the S and the G or not.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT

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