Tesla, philanthropy and the need for better definition

Like many people, I tend to pour greater scrutiny over Elon Musk’s pronouncements than many other business leaders. But the decision to drop Bitcoin as a payment method for Tesla cars highlighted an ESG issue that sits in the shadows.

The Tesla story led to a rush of media assessing how much carbon output stems from the bitcoin ecosystem – it drains half as much power the UK’s energy consumption, the BBC said – and analysed Mr Musk’s stance on an apparent fork in the ESG road.

Yet soon after, the Financial Times highlighted that some entrepreneurs, oligarchs and ‘old families’ may have made much of their money from carbon-intensive industries, and so have quite a different view from “ESG obsessed” institutional investors on “changing the world with their money”.

It pointed out, quite fairly, that private investors – in this case, those that tended to deposit their proceeds in Swiss banks – may view ESG investing as a form of philanthropy.

It’s worth reflecting on the philanthropic roots and histories of many of today’s giant companies and brands, and their intentions to do good through business, though the corporate landscape has changed much since their early days. Big business wasn’t always anchored on squarely shareholder capitalism: Unilever, with its Port Sunlight community on The Wirral, is a case in point, as is the Cadbury Foundation.

Where to draw the line on ESG investing versus corporate or individual philanthropy is a difficult question, and frankly a bit of a futile one given that the business is under such pressure to get on with taking positive action.

But that issue does, in the FT’s words, spotlight a challenge that the ESG corporate agenda has faced as it has continued to gather pace. “ESG is in many ways a bank’s marketing dream, precisely because it is so loosely defined. Even done badly, it can be sold easily.”

Those definitions can, and will have to, tighten. The increasing acceptance of the SASB 77 industry standards, for example, point to greater clarity and alignment ahead. And the carbon focus on earnings calls today indicate that the need for that clarity will only increase. A day or so later, the FT ran this piece about the need for common ESG metrics, and why final standards are still to be “thrashed out”.

Those metrics are rapidly taking shape, with SASB probably the most comprehensive and widely-accepted. With definitive ESG frameworks in place, those of use working to manage corporate reputation can begin to get to grips with where a business’s many different investors really stand on the many different ESG issues, rather than blanket-labelling companies and individuals as wholly ethical investors, philanthropists or at odds with the entire ESG agenda.

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

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