The ESG News Review: Avoiding distractions

We’re nearing the end of what’s traditionally the silly season in the British press. Sharks spotted off the Cornish coast, old scandals rebooted, new science about dunking biscuits in tea and that sort of thing.

Yet you wouldn’t know it from reading about ESG investing this week, in what was an intense period for news stories.

Perhaps some of the points were made in slightly silly ways, but over the course of three days the Financial Times alone served up a vitriolic set of cases for and against aspects of ESG investing, off the back of Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson’s opinion piece about a backlash now beginning in earnest, which made a case for honesty in “a movement blighted by hype and woolliness”.

The blue (well, pink) touchpaper was lit by the latest of Robert Armstrong’s opinion pieces the next day, The ESG investing industry is dangerous. It outlined the views of Tariq Fancy, former chief investment officer for sustainable investing at ESG flagbearer BlackRock, that ESG investing was “intellectually bankrupt and is damaging to the most important causes it purports to support” and concluded that “From what I understand, it’s clear we need, for example, a whopping big carbon tax, and soon, or we’re cooked. But we have some of the smartest, most powerful people in the corporate world rattling on about this sustainable investing drivel instead.”

A day later, Armstrong – who had clearly had a not insignificant mailbag to deal with over the previous 24 hours – responded with Team ESG fights back.

A cynic might see all of this as classic silly season journalism – running deliberately provocative viewpoint stories one day knowing you can then fill pages with the contrary position the next day. What colleagues in local journalism in the 90s used to call the ‘for and against the new bypass technique’.

The ‘Team ESG’ piece is a long one, and comprehensive. Its central point, at least how I read it, was that while companies were invariably doing net-good and adding value to their business by pursuing structured ESG agendas, that should be firmly decoupled from ESG investing and all it entails.

Which brings me to what I think is the important thing here for people in corporate communications: don’t get distracted by all this noise about ESG investing.

Instead, focus on ESG above and beyond investing – though considering current and prospective investors will always be crucial - and what aspects of it really matter to your business, and its multitude of stakeholders as it changes.

And to Edgecliffe-Johnson’s point, pursue transparency in the action you take and the way you communicate it. But in doing so be rigorous wherever you can so you’re not applying subjective measures or insights, or getting carried along by the crowd.

For the time being, see the ESG investing debate for the practically inevitable period of public scrutiny that it is.

Anything else would be silly.

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

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