The ESG News Review: Is ESG in danger of becoming a $35 trillion "over-hyped corporate gravy train?”

When something spawns a $35 trillion global investment market, it’s more than a little discomforting for a major newspaper to label it an “over-hyped corporate gravy train.”

But that’s just how The Times referred to the ESG “ruse” in a leader piece by James Coney last weekend.

As football commentators often remark when a goal is scored after multiple waves of pressure, “It had been coming”.

In the past few weeks, we have seen a rising ride of negative articles in major media probing ESG measurement frameworks, investor metrics and even the very construct of ESG being flawed.

The Times piece went on: “All this box-ticking does not stop companies from doing wrong. Many — banks, for example — simply take regulatory fines as a business risk, a cost that you have to pay every now and again as part of operating.”

Many, if not all, of us whose work involves ESG-led reputation management would disagree, pointing to the mass of evidence supporting the case for the world of business shifting irreversibly from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism.

But as this state-of-the-nation piece in Climate and Capital Media, reprinted in GreenBiz, put it: “The rapid and widespread adoption of ESG-focused strategy throughout the investment industry has created a strange dilemma. Having generated a $35 trillion global market, ESG advocates are now in the ironic position of justifying its promise after the fact.

Again, you could argue that (OK, this in itself would be a marketing exercise) ESG would always have needed to gather momentum in order to prove its case, rather than setting out some kind of manifesto from the off. Yet it still leaves the million (well, 35 trillion) dollar question of now that we are where we are, what needs to be done to apply effective rigour so that the value of ESG-led change speaks for itself, rather than those of us working to communicate it having to post-justify its rationale?

Let’s face it, there is no magic switch that was ever going to see the commercial world flip from being driven largely by shareholder profits to being held to account by broad, standard-based and transparent ESG factors that enable a direct, tangible correlation between action and value to be formed. This was always going to be a protracted transition, and painful for many.

The InfluenceMap report referenced by the article above estimates that “55% of funds marketed as low-carbon, fossil-fuel-free and green energy exaggerated their environmental claims, and more than 70% of funds promising ESG goals fell short of their targets.”

That is clearly a huge gap between claims and reality. And as this and other recent articles have pointed out, this backlash against the growth of ESG investing and ESG-driven reputation enhancement was always going to happen, in the absence of clear standards and the appropriate means of holding companies to account.

Given the needs of society and the planet, and the level of investment and commercial fortunes involved, that rigour will fall into place. We are not going to go backwards. It does place an onus on businesses to hold themselves to account for want of standards and regulation, which surely only heightens the need for an interlock between business strategy and communications.

And a time when scepticism will likely continue to be rife, the need for effective reporting, transparent communication and demonstrable, genuine targets-driven action will remain.

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

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