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I survived the worst ESG backlash since the term was invented. Today’s ESG critics are running out of ammunition

September 13, 2022, 9:20 AM UTC
Europe is contemplating a future without cheap Russian gas and plans to heavily invest in renewables.
Sean Gallup—Getty Images

In 2007, I co-founded the investment firm Auður Capital in my native Iceland. We set out to incorporate more “feminine” values into finance, with the overriding philosophy that we would pursue profit with principles and place environmental, social, and governance issues at the heart of our investments.

The following year, a global financial crisis brought down Iceland’s financial sector–a black swan event that swept reality out from under our feet. Our firm was the only asset manager that survived intact. We went from being laughed at by some in the sector to being broadly trusted by a fast-growing community of clients.

Timing and team mattered, sure, but it was our vision and principles that set us apart. We rejected the view that women are risk averse. We believed then, as I do now, that gender balance in business and finance elevates risk awareness and better positions firms to navigate future risk–and the black swan events that always eventually come.

“Black swans seem to swoop in from every direction on a regular basis,” wrote Fortune CEO Alan Murray in CEO Daily on August 30. He’s right. As the world emerges from a once-in-a-century pandemic, people in nearly every corner of the globe are grappling with at least one unprecedented climate event–extreme heat, devastating fires, catastrophic flooding, historic drought– and the cascading impacts that often follow, like food crises, economic hardship, and social unrest.

Europe is facing a particularly acute emergency, triggered by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The continent’s energy crisis, warns Alexa Capital co-founder Gerard Reid, is sending “seismic shocks so great they could destabilize the whole ecosystem: the social, economic and political fabric of Europe.”

These are ESG issues, whether we call them that or not.

In decades past, financial managers tended to look in the rearview mirror, prioritizing their assessment of past performance over future risk awareness. These days, we need only read the latest Wall Street analysis to sense the potential black swans on the horizon.

For business leaders, risk awareness and resilience are the new must-haves. If you want to prosper, here’s the question to ask: Is our business prepared to weather the storms ahead?

Risk awareness alone will not ensure prosperity, but businesses lacking resilience may struggle to access capital when they most need it–as recession looms in Europe, for instance, and climate and ecological breakdown continue apace. Asset owners and managers are prioritizing resilience; their actions are neither motivated by politics nor driven by ideology. It’s a fiduciary duty and responsible business, plain and simple.

ESG is ultimately about building resilience for people, our shared planet, and business. It’s about measuring things that matter–about equipping companies with the knowledge and agency to survive and thrive in a changing, uncertain world. It’s about equipping investors with the robust data they need to build truly sustainable portfolios.

My friend Mindy Lubber penned a fantastic commentary for Reuters last month, crystallizing the choice confronting business leaders, investors, and policymakers alike. “The bottom line is that the effects of climate change will mean one of two things for companies’ long-term outlooks,” she writes. “Either their resources and assets will be put at severe risk, or they will avert the worst of that risk because our society shifted to a cleaner economy. That means the investors and companies that are best prepared to literally weather the eventual storms and facilitate the energy transition are the ones that will win out in the coming decades.”

The recent ESG backlash, which prompted Mindy’s response and a flurry of others, is unfortunate but inevitable. In an August 26th essay, Morningstar’s Jon Hale diagnosed the reasons behind the anti-ESG push, particularly in America: grievance politics, fossil fuel protectionism, and anti-stakeholder capitalism.

ESG is a set of tools, not a panacea. And it’s far from perfect. The sea of related acronyms is frustrating to many. A lack of meaningful and comparable data is a key obstacle facing investors. The disjointed landscape of ESG reporting continues to breathe life into “greenwashing,” allowing some companies to exploit sustainability rhetoric without matching words with meaningful action. These are dilemmas we must acknowledge and confront.

But the ESG backlash is here because the big picture is real, and momentum is not going away. Massive sums of capital are already flying in. “More than 90% of S&P 500 companies now publish ESG reports. ESG will this year exceed $40 trillion worth of assets. The amount allocated to sustainable investment funds reached around $2.5 trillion at the end of June,” according to Bloomberg.

Leaders who attack ESG adoption and cling to “business as usual” are terrified because their old power playbook is under threat–from old-power capitalists to opportunistic politicians in the United States and elsewhere. Business as usual is how they hold onto power. ESG done right is fundamentally about transparency, and transparency gives power back to people. It’s a force for restoring trust and catalyzing belief in our ability to navigate the coming decades, together.

This is why we need a global baseline for ESG disclosures: to bring clarity and consistency to sustainability reporting so businesses and investors can compare apples to apples. I applaud the efforts of B Team leader Emmanuel Faber in his new role as chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), which is developing a global baseline of sustainability disclosure standards — a common language enabling investors to assess companies’ sustainability risks and opportunities. “The sustainability financial disclosures of ISSB will be the language of resilience for the capital markets,” Emmanuel shared with me in a new The Catalyst Conversations interview. I invite you to watch it.

Support for the ISSB’s efforts is growing, including from the G7 and G20, global financial regulatory authorities, the IMF, the UN, and others. Ultimately, the ISSB is a vehicle for incentivizing sustainable business activities, tackling ‘greenwashing’ and enabling the allocation of capital toward more sustainable investments.

Business leaders have an opportunity to showcase their support in a number of ways:

  • Engage formally with the ISSB as it develops its reporting standards, ensuring that supportive business voices are seen and heard;
  • Advocate publicly and privately for the adoption of the ISSB baseline, engaging policymakers such as the European Commission and the US Securities and Exchange Commission; and
  • Commit to voluntary adoption of the ISSB’s standards.

Through the embrace of a common sustainability language, we can unlock the best in ourselves and the entire system, accelerating ambition, action, and accountability to build a world that serves and safeguards us all.

Halla Tómasdóttir is the CEO of The B Team.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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