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The ESG Review: Beware one-dimensional ESG surveys

A survey about investors’ attitudes towards ESG and whether it’s a priority for them has got tongues wagging in the communications field this week.

It’s hardly surprising: covered exclusively in City AM, the poll had all the hallmarks of a PR exercise where the desired headline was fairly clear in advance. While it was doubtless carried out with all normal rigour rather than attempting to ‘lead the witness’ in any areas, it does end up packaged as a flame-fanning set of results.

You might say that’s the case with the vast majority of surveys undertaken to drive media coverage. And you might say that investors not being as convinced by the current priorities of ESG as they might let on is hardly a surprise.

Which, for me, is the point here. As has been outlined in this column many times, until ESG standards are not just defined but established, and part of the ongoing practice of valuing a business and making financial decisions, ESG will always be a construct needing to defend itself from cynics and suffering from hazy priorities.

The survey of 900 UK investors certainly seems at odds with the level of money invested in ESG funds, the growth of ESG investing generally and the focus that corporate communications functions have on nurturing purposeful reptuations. Had the survey dug deeper into those investors’ beliefs around specific social and governance drives, for example, and how corporate action in those areas may impact their returns, and the mood music may have been less bleak than a cohort who “couldn’t care less”.

Thankfully, there was a major step forward towards ESG standards this week with news from IOSCO, covered by Reuters, of a global framework to “police” ESG investment ratings that will help to tackle greenwashing through much-improved transparency.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg covered the Bank of England’s enforcement of environmental - and social, and governance - criteria in corporate bond purchases, while Fortune again laid out the case for ESG standards to help tackle fraud and greenwashing.

The Wall Street Journal set out the long view, exploring where ESG would be in five years time through the eyes of 10 experts who (they have to in piece like this though, of course) had varying opinions about the degree of standardisation, the extent to which ESG would be baked into investment analysis and the general level of priorities that would be attached to broad sustainability credentials in assessing corporate stakeholder value. Mixed views maybe, but still pointing to a clearer road ahead with definitions helping all parties involved to better understand direct value. And that should include the communicators who help to earn and protect requisite reputations.

In a week of further significant announcements and analysis on the standards front, and given the scale of change the world is aiming to take on in coming decades, the picture of the vast majority of investors roundly denouncing ESG as something they wouldn’t get out of bed for doesn’t appear quite so convincing.

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

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