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The ESG News Review: The multiple dimensions of ESG truth

I can’t remember when I first heard the term ESG.

But I remember the context. It was rising shareholder influence, with prominent institutional investors beginning to lead the call for – and lean upon – large listed companies to commit to positive change, and have their success measured beyond monetary gains.

At that time, it felt like a groundswell that would ultimately see all shareholders unite and ultimately insist that, to varying degrees, companies would have to make ESG commitments central to their performance. And they would have to demonstrate continually that they were on track.

Now, and particularly after reading this week’s headlines, that picture seems far more complicated.

Here's this week's ESG News Review:

Just looking at what the Financial Times has covered on ESG investor issues recently illustrates that blanket ESG pressure by shareholders is not the sole driving force and is a distortion of what’s going on anyway!

The newspaper summed up one underlying challenge well in this piece: ESG benchmark divergence no barrier to investor demand.

It cites explosive demand for indices that chart progress, alongside criticism of how some of them are compiled. As with understanding the impact of ESG drivers on corporate reputation, the challenge is gaining a single version of the truth and a clear, objective view of what matters most, and why.

The FT also had a story about a bank being warned it faced shareholder action over fossil fuel investments: Standard Chartered accused of hypocrisy over climate change.

According to the newspaper’s Patrick Jenkins, large institutional shareholders need to hold their nerve and not be distracted by short-term shortcomings in a company’s pursuit of its ESG agenda - Long-term greedy: why investors should block out the noise. The piece outlines why a new report may be seen as “60 pages of PR guff”.

Brazil was in a special report spotlight as some of its companies face reputation challenges in chasing ESG-minded investment.

But then in Forbes, covered in a more ‘Wall Street snub risk’ vein by other media outlets, Warren Buffett struck a different tone over whether shareholders were leading the charge on ESG-driven pressure. He told the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting that most ESG questions came from third-party organisations – NGOs chief amongst them – rather than shareholders, and the business responded first and foremost to shareholder needs.

So who is holding sway, big investors or influential third parties? Can it be both? What else influences a company’s ESG agenda these days, and what does that mean for reputation management?

What we’re seeing, particularly in these much-disrupted times, is that there is no single, simple answer. Getting a real read on shareholders’ ESG agendas, which third parties influence what, and why it’s happening is hard. It’s a multi-dimensional challenge that calls for multi-dimensional understanding, including intelligence at specific stakeholder level.

Reading the news on ESG investment only underlines that all agendas are not made equal.

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

This is a new weekly ESG column on PRmoment. The column will review the biggest ESG stories of the week, from a communications perspective.

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