Corporate profits

Can Meaningful ESG, Virtue Signaling, and Corporate Profits Get Along?


It’s quite a spectacle: Major League Baseball in the United States is moving its all-star game location from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado for political reasons. The move is a protest against election laws in Georgia which are deemed discriminatory by those on the left of the political spectrum, but not by those on the right.

Is it an ESG issue?

This is a more nuanced question than it first appears.

An ESG industry has been born before our eyes over the past two years, without anyone really defining it. Yes, it is good to pay attention to environmental, social and governance issues. But some companies have been doing it, and doing it well, for years. Others haven’t and will likely continue not to, whether or not a new acronym is in circulation.

It used to be called corporate social responsibility, or CSR, and before that it was related to political correctness.

The novelty of ESG is not so much the idea itself. Rather, it is branding that has finally been able to gain ground in the digital age, after a few false starts. CSR was, if you will, the MySpace of the corporate world’s efforts to do good – it worked for a while, but never really reached critical mass.

With ESG, it’s different. Companies are suddenly scrambling to create dedicated ESG roles at reasonably high levels in the corporate structure. The mining sector in particular has been particularly enthusiastic, with a decidedly mixed record in this area.

Thus, at the beginning of April, the British broker SP Angel noted the appointment of Kate Harcourt as ESG manager of the private company.

It’s a role, the broker said, “we’ll probably see a lot more of it in the years to come.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Colossi of the Old World are also trying to find their way. Rio Tinto, for example, no longer sees itself as a mining company, but as a producer of “materials essential to human progress”.

He also claims the role of ‘water stewards’ for his staff, who when taken out of context look more like characters from The Lord of the Rings.

Deeper into Rio Tinto’s website, a graphic appears to imply that the company employs 250 human rights specialists, archaeologists, economic development experts and “scientists”, which is fine.

But how does all of this impact reality, and does it amount to anything other than companies playing local politics as carefully as they can, as they have since the time? of the East India Company?

After all, the East India Company has been repeatedly wrong when it comes to ESG, while maintaining its position as one of the wealthiest companies in history. He was duly taken to task on his ESG by one of the greatest liberal minds in history, Edmund Burke, during the impeachment of Warren Hastings. And while not all ailments have been resolved, many of them have come to light.

To some extent, ESG has been with us ever since, whether in the children’s chimney sweep campaigns launched by ‘Water Babies’ author Charles Kingsley, or the contemporary outrage at the rampages of Cecil Rhodes across Africa in search of precious metals.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that it has gained new momentum in recent years, as online communities have learned to mobilize and put the issues that are important to them on the news agenda. .

For a significant number of people, ESG is such a problem.

How far they are willing to go is questionable.

As is known, there was outrage when Rio Tinto technicians blew up the Juukan Gorge in Australia last year, disregarding its importance as a cultural and heritage site for local indigenous peoples.

But that’s about as clear an ESG issue as it gets. Rio Tinto also sells large amounts of iron ore produced by its Australian operations to China, a country where the free market is largely about smoke and mirrors, where there is no free speech. , and where there is significant and growing evidence that ethnic minority groups are being held in concentration camps and worse.

But at this level, we are talking about questions of realpolitik and morals as old as the hills.

It all brings us back to Major League Baseball. Depending on which side of the political aisle you are on in the United States, you either think Georgia’s election laws are, or are not, oppressive. At the same time, however, there is almost unanimous agreement that the Chinese government is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. But Major League Baseball has lucrative sponsorship deals with Tencent, one of China’s myriad parastatals, unlike the state of Georgia.

So you take your ESG gains where you can get them if you’re a liberal, and cry hypocrisy if you’re a conservative. But in the grand scheme of things, the world is basically the same. There are good and bad actors. And bad actors are sometimes called to account, whether through ESG or otherwise. And sometimes they don’t.


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