By Frank Sherman
I was at a sustainability conference last week that was attended mostly by business and academia. After introducing myself and SGI at our table, I was asked “Do you consider yourself to be an activist?”
I hesitated for what felt like an eternity. What a loaded question! Was this a trap? Did he think I was going to the Milwaukee Art Museum after the conference to throw tomato soup on the paintings and glue my hands to the wall?
Given all the buzz about “anti-ESG,” “woke capitalism,” and “socialist political agenda” these days, I didn’t want to play into the culture war narrative. Republicans candidates for financial offices in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Minnesota have all taken anti-ESG positions. They and other Republicans say big financial firms are abusing their power to advance a liberal agenda on issues like diversity, social justice and, especially, climate change. One Senator even accused Blackrock of breaking antitrust laws by being a member of the Climate Action 100+ coalition (which includes SGI, by the way).
Most of the general public don’t understand what ESG means. The simplest description is a set of environmental, social, and governance considerations that investors use to try to understand risks and opportunities that aren’t accounted for in traditional financial models. For example, environmental risks like climate change present physical and transition risks that are not reflected in a company’s P&L or balance sheet. Another risk unaccounted for in the company’s financial statements are their impacts on human rights: to their employees, suppliers, customers and society at large. Although not recognized in financial reporting, these risks are very real…to individual companies and to the economy as a whole. They vary by region, industry, and individual company. Most investors and the public are blind to the magnitude of these risks. As society’s awareness of these risks increases, asset managers large and small are taking them into account in their portfolio management and corporate engagements.
Companies like Blackrock are pushing back on state laws which try to protect the fossil fuel industry (e.g. TX, WV) by explaining that ESG strategies are part of their fiduciary duty to manage material risks for their clients. But is that why SGI members use the ESG strategies? Is our sole incentive to manage long-term financial risks?
That’s part of it, no doubt. We are responsible for managing these funds as an obligation to our community members or clients. But SGI’s mission statement states that we also want to “to build a more just and sustainable world for those most vulnerable.” Our fiduciary duty goes beyond getting an adequate return on investment to also promote human dignity, act justly, enhance the common good, and provide care for the environment. The recently updated USCCB SRI guidelines speak to this double objective. The Guidelines are based on two principles: responsible financial stewardship and ethical & social stewardship based on Catholic moral principles. They espouse three strategies: Avoid Doing Harm, Actively Work for Change, and Promote the Common Good.
In addition to managing financial risks, SGI members view shareholder engagement with corporations as a powerful catalyst for social change. ICCR’s tag-line – “inspired by faith, committed to action” – sets forth our pledge to be active owners. Although I wouldn’t label SGI members as “activists,” we have been active owners for nearly 50 years. And I wouldn’t describe our capitalism as “woke” yet, but people are starting to wake up to the fact that the economy is supposed to serve society rather than the other way around.
Back to my conference table… I don’t think I answered the question posed to me very well at the time. With more time to reflect, I would respond that rather than an activist, I would describe SGI members as active owners inspired by faith!
Some helpful resources concerning the pushback on ESG investing:
- ICCR has developed this page of resources to respond to anti-ESG rhetoric.
- US SIF created the ESG Truths website.
- This is an interesting post on the The curious origins of the anti-ESG movement.
- Everything You Need to Know About ESG Investing And the Backlash to It. From the Washington Post (with a free link).
- ESG as Process Versus ESG as Product from John Hale of Morningstar
- Is ESG a product or a process?, a video commentary on the Morningstar article from the Francesco Collaborative.
- Bennett Freeman takes it up amid a conversation about conflicted-affected and high-risk areas at our conference here.