A colleague at The Financial Times picked out this quote from William Burroughs …
… and it piqued my thoughts.
Burroughs was a huge inspiration to David Bowie, who is a huge inspiration to me. I’ve read Naked Lunch, where this quote was taken, but they used this quote in relation to ESG.
The Naked Lunch author offers a fair summary of the ESG marketing industry’s current state: don’t improve the merchandise, simplify the client … it’s a convenient construction if your business is selling stocks to funds with ESG mandates.
The article points out that companies can gain an ESG accreditation, even when they are way off the mark. It’s a method of getting on the charts, but not doing what’s needed to be in the charts.
Intriguing, but not surprising. In fact, it builds on the whole theme of greenwashing generally.
For example, I recently posted that HSBC is good at marketing …
I’m not sure if everyone checked the images. The first two are genuine HSBC adverts emphasising that water is rare and becoming a currency, and that society can shape the world. They have many adverts at airports along these lines, demonstrating their ESG credentials. The third advert is a spoof, and makes clear how their ESG commitments are farketing* …
As mentioned, I’m not sure if people read the subtext here, but the advert looks corporate whilst being subversive. On the other hand, there is corporate that looks good whilst being subversive. A line that jumped out for me from the FT article was this one:
Berenberg updated its client database that judges an investment on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. If at least 45 per cent of a company’s revenue is tied to something worthy by the UN’s definition, they're good. If the worthy revenue is just 1 per cent or greater, they’re probably fine.
If one per cent of the company’s revenues are related to just one of the United Nations seventeen goals around sustainable development, then it’s fine.
One per cent.
Maybe I’m mis-reading these things, but it truly is something when companies can broadcast, advertise and align their ESG credentials to causes they don’t believe in. Having said that, I know it’s not easy. The C-suite are measured by returns to shareholders, not returns to stakeholders. Why would you place the good of the world above the good of your company, your salary and your bonus?
“The conclusion might be that anything is ESG if it looks cheap enough.”
Can the two things be aligned and integrated? Can we make the good of society part of delivering the good of the company and its investors?
I think we can.
I think we need to have far more active shareholders and customers. We need investors and clients to be a collegiate of pressure on the C-suite to change their accountabilities.
That sounds laudable, but I know it’s not easy. Nevertheless, there are movements to check a companies ESG credentials. The S&P 300 is a good example. It measures company’s true commitments to ESG, and recently knocked Tesla off the list for being socially irresponsible. You may be environmental, but you need to be responsible.
This movement to responsible or, more importantly, responsibility is going to be a call to action for all C-suite leaders in the future. You cannot just pay lip service or greenwash your commitments to doing good and giving returns to stakeholders, society and the common good. You need to be accountable for it. That’s what investors and others are calling for, and clients and customers. You cannot ignore this.
* "farketing" is the act of marketing something that actually is the opposite of what the company believes and does, as in you see what they say but you smell what they leave behind
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...