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After year of culture wars, bosses are talking less about ESG

Dasha Afanasieva, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

ESG was near the top of just about every top executive’s talking points just a few years ago.

Now, tired of drawing flak from activists on either side of the political spectrum, many CEOs have decided to bottle it up — particularly in the U.S.

Bloomberg scrutinized transcripts of financial presentations by the 100 biggest European and American traded companies during the latest results season, and found a sharp drop in references to environmental, social and governance issues.

Climate change and related terms generated 269 mentions in the U.S. so far this quarter — more than 60% fewer than a year earlier. In one specific example, a year ago at JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s annual meeting, Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon cited “climate complexity” as an issue facing his bank, speaking of “the inextricable links between economic growth, energy security, and climate change.” In this year’s address Dimon focused on wars, geopolitics, technology and artificial intelligence, with climate change only mentioned during the question and answer session.

For European companies, climate change has been mentioned 671 times so far in the current results season, around a tenth less than a year ago.

Human rights and its synonyms have received 71 mentions so far this quarter in the U.S., compared with 129 a year ago. The term is growing in popularity in Europe, however, rising from 58 mentions in the second quarter of last year to 104 this time around.

“Companies are worried about getting sued and heckled by Republican shareholders and state-level officials,” said Marcela Pinilla, director of sustainable investing at Zevin Asset Management. “These anti ESG proposals continue. So companies are moderating their message.”

In the U.S., Republican politicians and conservative groups have launched a string of legal challenges against so-called “woke” corporate policies, mainly on the basis that they violate a duty to maximize returns or are being pursued in an underhand way.

Globally, meanwhile, companies are facing mounting pressure to prove their climate statements are accurate, or they risk being challenged by environmental and consumer activists, investors and authorities. Last year, the kind of class-action lawsuits that have long fueled litigation in the U.S. became accessible in the European Union, allowing consumers to punish companies for misleading and broken environmental pledges.

 

“There is more scrutiny than ever on ESG. Companies are also scared of being too ambitious and not being able to back up their commitments,” Pinilla added.

Diversity

When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected affirmative action at the nation’s colleges last year, it spurred a legal assault on corporate diversity programs. Some companies are cutting back on diversity, equity and inclusion — known as DEI — initiatives as a result, while others are disbanding them altogether. Many more are hurriedly reconfiguring their policies, with business booming for lawyers who specialize in the topic.

Diversity and related terms generated 121 mentions among America’s biggest listed groups during the current quarter, down from 244 a year ago.

Not all companies are rowing back on their ESG policies, even if it may seem that way, according to Lewis Iwu, co-founder of the consultancy Purpose Union.

While a small number are focusing less on the issues, there’s still a bigger group of companies that are committed and “see these issues as a key part of reputation building,” he said.

(With assistance from Hannah Levitt and Brad Skillman.)


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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