In a recent Gallup poll, the vast majority of Americans surveyed said they were not even “somewhat familiar” with the term “ESG.” But on Capitol Hill, Republicans have developed a fixation on the issue, holding not one but two intensely partisan hearings on the topic.
“Republicans Are Losing Their Minds Over ESG” read one headline.
“Anti-ESG talk leads to partisan fireworks” read another.
Now you may be wondering, what the heck is ESG? What’s anti-ESG? What the heck is “woke” capitalism? And why should I care?
What Is ESG?
ESG stands for “Environmental, Social, and Governance,” which are categories of metrics that businesses use to assess performance and risk on a range of issues. To reduce risk and create value over the long term, businesses may seek to reduce carbon emissions (Environmental), improve working conditions for workers through racial equity and other measures (Social), or take steps to bring executive compensation closer in line with the company’s median salary (Governance).
Companies’ practices on ESG metrics can have an impact on future performance, so there is tremendous value in understanding long-term risks associated with environmental, social, and governance factors.
The simple concept that businesses should care about their communities and their workers and govern themselves accordingly is not new. In the 1980s, some companies and banks stopped doing business in South Africa to protest racial Apartheid. In the 1990s, a number of institutional investors divested from the tobacco industry as a way to take a stand against the harmful and deceptive practices of companies like Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. And in the 2000s and 2010s, support for environmental shareholder proposals grew substantially in response to the worsening climate crisis.
Who’s Against It?
This leads us to the current backlash. “Anti-ESG” efforts, promulgated by long-time conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and newly prominent groups like the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, Consumers’ Research, and the State Financial Officers Foundation all have one things in common—connections to conservative big money donors in the oil and gas industry.
“The anti-‘woke investing’ movement was not created by financial experts,” observed environmental reporter Emily Aktin, “It was created by two of the fossil fuel industry’s most notorious climate disinformers.”
The anti-ESG movement is a well-funded and well-organized campaign led by top conservative political operatives.
Big Oil wants to end ESG investing and ESG business practices because they’re at odds with the continued growth of the fossil fuel industry. Big Oil would rather let our planet burn and increase short-term profits than adjust its business practices to stave off the worst of the climate crisis and invest in long-term profits.
Big Oil also wants you to think that this “anti-ESG” movement is organic, that it emerged from the conservative grassroots, but that could not be further from the truth. The anti-ESG movement is a well-funded and well-organized campaign led by top conservative political operatives. I recently corresponded with Meaghan Winter, author of All Politics Is Local, who explained that:
“Ideological donors and their foundations and think tanks have deliberately chosen to push their agendas through obscure-seeming front groups that work incrementally on the state level because they don’t want to call attention to the profound (and very unpopular) changes they are initiating. This strategy is decades-old, it has worked against unions and abortion and more, and the anti-ESG effort is just one of the latest incarnations.”
One shining example of this is the recent House Oversight Subcommittee hearing on ESG, where the majority witnesses (those called by the GOP, because Republicans control the House of Representatives right now) were Mandy Gunasekara from the Independent Women’s Forum, Jason Isaac from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Stephen Moore from the Heritage Foundation. These organizations have a long history of receiving financial support and carrying water for the oil and gas industry, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and Chevron.
Watch Congresswoman Summer Lee lay it out for us, plain and simple.
Why Does This Matter?
While the right wing foments a culture war crusade and attempts to make ESG the next critical race theory (“CRT”), the fear mongering campaign has real-world impacts on investors and companies who are scared of being caught in the backlash. For example, some private companies are now backpedaling on their climate commitments.
To be clear, this is what the funders of this movement want.
In December, Vanguard, the world’s second largest asset management firm, pulled out of the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, which was a voluntary industry-led effort to reach net-zero emission targets by 2050. This was a major setback for anyone who cares about the health and shape of our environment, because Vanguard manages roughly $7 trillion in assets. In order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—less than 1.5°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels—global markets must shift capital away from the fossil fuel industry and toward renewable energy systems.
But this goes beyond the climate crisis. In recent years, workers and shareholders have been demanding more corporate accountability on workplace safety, workers’ freedom of association, data privacy, racial equity, and executive compensation, among other issues that fall into the Social and Governance categories of ESG. The right-wing campaign against ESG is a campaign to roll back these victories.
How Do We Fight Back?
My organization, Take on Wall Street, is organizing with unions, public interest groups, and grassroots groups to fight back against this regressive movement. But it’s not just about playing defense. We also need a forward-looking vision for worker power, climate justice, and racial equity. Watch this space.
An earlier version of this piece was published by Take on Wall Street.