Business leaders on how they navigate ESG backlash: ‘The language needs to change’

September 29, 2022, 10:00 PM UTC
Marcie Frost, CEO of CalPERS, speaks during the Milken Institute's 22nd annual Global Conference in Beverly Hills on April 29, 2019.
CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost argues that the term ESG needs a rebrand to specify that sustainable investing is also a risk-averse, long term, safe set of investing principles.
Mike Blake—Reuters

The finance industry has a unique set of regulatory, financial, and logistical hurdles on the path to going green.

Yet one additional challenge that leaders say is especially unique to American investors, executives, and fund managers is navigating the fraught political climate in the United States, according to panelists at Fortune‘s Global Sustainability Forum on Thursday.

“ESG has become this three-letter word that has become a political football, at least here in the U.S.,” explained Marcie Frost, CEO of CalPERS, which manages California’s pension fund. “I don’t see that globally and with our international counterparts.”

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) mandates are a strategy of investing that screens companies to determine how well a corporation is meeting the standards of environmentally conscious socially equitable operations. Yet the term is being painted by conservative critics as “woke” investing and some investors are facing criticism that a sustainable investing strategy means sacrificing profit. 

Frost argued that the term ESG needs a rebrand to specify that sustainable investing is also a risk-averse, long term, safe set of investing principles. “We need to find a way to make sustainable investors and sustainable investments withstand all the various market cycles and the various conditions that are going to be ahead of us,” explained Frost. “I think the language needs to change, at least here in the U.S.”

Professor Laura Tyson at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley also emphasized that a semantic change could sway investors, arguing that focusing more on the “environmental” component of ESG will help sustainable investors avoid criticism that comes with a general, catch-all term.

“I like the idea of a distinguishing ‘E’ and talking about climate-led investing,” said Tyson. She added that some investors may be opposed to social and governance corporate policies, but are willing to support more climate-conscious investing decisions. 

Another issue caused by American political turmoil? A lack of comprehensive environmental regulation and standards from the government, according to Tyson.

“The movement for disclosure and transparency has momentum, even if the U.S. can’t take a major step right now because of political reasons,” Tyson explained. She pointed to the fact that the U.S. is making some progress, namely the tax incentives that are built into the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed in August that she argued will create demand for consumers and companies to choose sustainable products and services.  

Tyson had a suggestion for still making progress with climate legislation despite federal gridlock. “I want to emphasize that there’s also a role for states,” she explained. California, for example, announced that it is banning carbon emitting cars after 2035. She argued that even if the federal government does not coordinate regulation that is as far-reaching as many say we need, individual states can lead the charge.  

The panelists emphasized that despite the fact that the U.S. may not be as heavily involved as other nations, the world is moving towards creating more robust regulations and transparency standards to avoid carbon emissions. “Investors have put a lot of pressure on these companies,” said Tyson. “So over time, there are going to be more and more global standardized measures developed to lay out the targets of Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions.”

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