Can meaningful ESG, virtue signalling, and corporate profits ever get along?


It’s a spectacle alright: Major League Baseball in the USA is moving the location of its all-star game away from Atlanta, Georgia, to Denver, Colorado, on the grounds of politics. The move is a protest against voting laws in Georgia which are deemed discriminatory by those on the left of the political spectrum, although not so by those on the right.

Is this an ESG issue?

That’s a more nuanced question than is first apparent.

An ESG industry has been born in front of our very eyes over the past two years, without anyone really defining what it is. Yes, it’s good to pay attention to environmental, social and governance issues. But some companies have been doing that, and doing it well, for years. Others haven’t, and will probably continue not to do so, whether or not a new acronym is at large.

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

What’s new about ESG isn’t so much the idea itself. Rather, it’s the branding that has finally been able to gain traction in the digital age, after a few false starts. CSR was, if you like, the MySpace of the corporate world’s efforts to do good – it worked for a while, but it never really gained critical mass.

With ESG it’s different. Companies are suddenly falling over themselves to create dedicated ESG roles at reasonably high levels in the corporate structure. The mining sector in particular has been particularly keen, having as it does, a decidedly mixed track record in this space.

Thus, at the beginning of April UK broker SP Angel noted the appointment of Kate Harcourt as the ESG Officer at the privately-owned company Cornish Lithium.

It’s a role, said the broker, “we are likely to see much more of in future years.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum the old-world colossuses are trying to find their way too. Rio Tinto, for example, no longer sees itself as a mining company, but as a producer of “materials essential to human progress.”

It also claims the role of “water stewards” for its staff, which when taken out of context, sounds more like they’re characters from Lord of the Rings.

Deeper into Rio Tinto’s website, a graphic seems to imply that the company employs 250 human rights specialists, archaeologists, economic development experts and ‘scientists’, which is all to the good.

But how much of a bearing does any of this have on reality, and does it amount to anything more than companies playing local politics as carefully as they can, as they have done ever since the days of the East India Company?

After all, the East India Company famously got its ESG wrong on myriad occasions, whilst maintaining its position as one of the richest corporate entities in history. It was duly taken to task on its ESG by one of the greatest liberal minds in history, Edmund Burke, during the impeachment of Warren Hastings. And although not all the ills were resolved, a good many were flushed out into the open.

To some degree ESG has been with us ever since, whether it’s been in the campaigns about child chimney sweeps initiated by the author of ‘the Water Babies’, Charles Kingsley, or the contemporary outrage at Cecil Rhodes’ rampages across Africa in search of precious metals.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt it has gained a new momentum in recent years, as online communities have learned how to mobilise and force the issues that are important to them up the news agenda.

For a significant number of people ESG is such an issue.

How far they are willing to go is open to question.

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

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

But at this level, we are talking of issues of realpolitik and morality that are as old as the hills.

All of which brings us back to Major League Baseball. Depending on which side of the political aisle you sit in the USA you either believe that Georgia’s voting laws are, or aren’t, oppressive. At the same time, though, there’s 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, in a way that it doesn’t with the State of Georgia.

So, you take your ESG wins 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 fundamentally the same. There are good actors and bad actors. And the bad actors sometimes get called to account, be it under the framework of ESG or some such other. And sometimes they don’t.


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