Apr 20, 2023 - Economy

Companies are laying low on ESG as backlash intensifies

Data: Sustainable Investments Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Companies don't want to talk about their environmental, social and governance goals anymore, experts in ESG and communications tell Axios.

Why it matters: Promoting ESG policies was once an easy layup to score good press — and theoretically move toward bettering society — but now it's a way to court controversy, the ire of politicians, and attention from well-funded anti-ESG groups.

  • A dozen financial companies, including BlackRock, Blackstone and KKR, now list anti-ESG efforts as a risk in their annual reports, the Financial Times recently reported.

State of play: Anti-ESG forces are in full swing this proxy season — the time of year when public companies host their annual meetings, and shareholders vote on a slate of investor proposals.

  • Investors have filed 68 anti-ESG proposals this year to date — compared to 45 in all of 2022, per data from the Sustainable Investments Institute, a nonprofit.
  • About one-third of the anti-ESG proposals this year are focused on diversity — asking companies, including Apple, JPMorgan, Coca-Cola and McDonald's, to report on the "risks" that their anti-discrimination or racial justice efforts pose to their business.
  • Two proposals ask companies to avoid public policy positions unless there's a business justification. And a handful are asking public companies to report the risks posed by attempting to achieve net zero or decarbonization goals.

What they're saying: "Companies should be prepared to deal with ESG backlash," the Conference Board warned in its recent proxy season preview.

The big picture: Historically, anti-ESG proposals like these have failed. "There's a lot of attention and noise but nobody supports this stuff," said Heidi Welsh, executive director of the Sustainable Investments Institute.

Zoom in: Financial services companies, in particular, are in retreat. "I think all of them are a lot more careful since the Republicans are so vocal about this," a source who is close to the financial industry tells Axios.

  • "Whenever there is a possible conflict coming, the shutters go down," the source said.
  • For example, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink didn't mention the term ESG anywhere in his most recent investor letter, a departure from those of the past several years, as Axios' Andrew Freedman reported.
  • Vanguard dropped out of a global climate initiative at the end of 2022.
  • BP earlier this year backed off some of its more ambitious climate goals, the Washington Post reported.

Between the lines: Companies are soldiering on with diversity or climate initiatives they think are important — or good for business — but they're just less willing to talk about it.

  • Worth noting: The retreat isn't simply about anti-ESG efforts. Businesses are also more inclined to stay mum as regulators like the SEC start paying more attention to companies' ESG-related claims.

The bottom line: ESG efforts aren't going away, but you might see fewer press releases and puff pieces about the issue.

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