This month’s tweet from Ben & Jerry’s urging President Joe Biden not to send troops to eastern Europe to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine was roundly and deservedly jeered on Twitter by Russia experts, military hands, and foreign policy specialists.
“You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war,” the ice cream company stated. “We call on President Biden to de-escalate tensions and work for peace rather than prepare for war. Sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia’s threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war.”
One critic of this naïve statement went so far as to suggest a new flavor for the occasion: Appease Mint.
But the tweet was more than an embarrassing gaffe. It was a clarifying moment. The Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) movement has lost its way. Corporate leaders with little to no experience in foreign affairs increasingly feel entitled to weigh in on complex policy challenges. If they are lucky, it only results in embarrassment. It’s time to provide ESG with some guardrails, if not all-out reform.
Ben & Jerry’s is now a cautionary tale on the dangers of ESG run amok. Last year the company, which is owned by parent company Unilever, announced it would terminate its license to distribute in Israel. In doing so, the company picked sides in a century-old clash of nationalist aspirations that has vexed even the sharpest diplomatic minds. The 2021 decision was particularly odd, given that the company failed to take such strident positions on other disputed territories.
To be fair, Unilever isn’t alone. Many corporations that advertise their commitment to ESG are rather selective in their application. Take, for example, the major sponsors of the Beijing Olympics. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Toyota, and Panasonic all purport to adhere to ESG principles, with dedicated pages on their websites to all the good they do for the world. Yet, they have all chosen, for the sake of profit, to ignore the documented genocide destroying the lives of millions of Uighur Muslims in China.
The goal here is not merely to single out these companies for hypocrisy. In a sense, they are victims of a growing malady. Corporate boards increasingly feel the need to keep pace with politically charged causes to avoid “cancellation.” Companies often find themselves under duress for support of the wrong cause (or nonsupport of the right ones). This explains why they have sought out the counsel of ESG consultants and experts who purportedly know how to navigate this complicated space.
Here's the rub: these experts have no idea what they are doing. Even the most seasoned ESG consultants will quietly cede that there are no rules in this field. It’s entirely subjective. There is, in fact, no correct way to commit to ESG principles. The embrace of ESG is more about virtue signaling and branding than substantive change. Corporations often adopt the policies that impact their businesses the least. But they don’t want to risk running afoul of the latest corporate craze. So, they invest valuable time and resources to demonstrate their commitment to ESG.
Consultants who purport to be ESG gurus are paid top dollar to train corporations in how to get high ESG investment ratings and be included in ESG-based index funds. For a hefty fee, the C-suite can gain a coveted ESG stamp of approval. Yet, after doing so, they often continue with business as usual. Petroleum companies continue to have a heavy carbon footprint. Big pharma continues to produce drugs that can cause social upheaval. Multinationals continue to work in jurisdictions with poor human rights records. But they vow to be better global stakeholders, with occasional divestments or statements that reflect the latest political trends. In the era of ESG, this accounts for something.
One might argue that if corporations wish to project their softer side, ESG is a fairly innocuous way of doing so. However, this may not necessarily be the case. Morningstar, for example, acquired the ESG rating company Sustainalytics last year. This means that Sustainalytics’ ESG analysis will be used in twenty-nine countries by millions of investors. This also means that the subjective interpretation of Sustainalytics on political, social, and environmental issues will influence those millions of investors. Who is to say that this particular company’s perspective on a wide range of contentious issue is correct?
How are investment and divestment decisions being made? What data or analysis feeds into such recommendations? How does one company end up boycotting the pluralistic democracy of Israel while others enable a genocide in China? For a movement built on calls for transparency, these corporations are increasingly making decisions based on non-transparent, politicized information without regard to fiduciary responsibilities and shareholder value.
Deluged with complaints and concerns about the company’s ESG standards, Morningstar has hired a law firm to audit its process.
This is a welcome development. But Morningstar is not the only company that requires oversight. This was something that the SustainAbility Institute observed, which led to its sputtered effort to “rate the raters.” Absent such efforts from within the ESG community, it may be time for federal investment authorities, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, to take a close look at the analytical practices wielded by financial firms providing ESG research and by corporations, themselves. This may be more urgent than ever given a Department of Labor proposal that would allow corporations to drag pension investments into the ESG abyss.
Last month, one top Unilever investor said the company had “lost the plot” due to its fixation on ESG. The same could be said for any number of corporations today. The commitment to being better corporate citizens is laudable. But when ice cream executives start weighing in on complex conflicts a half a world away, it just might be time to re-assess.
Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer), a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Richard Goldberg (@rich_goldberg), a former U.S. Senate aide and National Security Council official, is senior adviser.