World Economic Forum flags ESG risks—but hardly mentions the controversial term in its Davos agenda

January 13, 2023, 9:05 AM UTC
Updated January 18, 2023, 4:45 PM UTC
Walkers on a trail of thinning snow around Lake Davos in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 8, 2023.
Francesca Volpi—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Good morning, Peter Vanham here, filling in for Alan. 

What are the global risks facing business leaders in the new year? It’s a question the World Economic Forum attempts to answer each year ahead of its annual meeting. And with “Davos” starting next week, the Swiss organization on Wednesday revealed its 2023 risk survey results. (Disclosure: I’m a former WEF employee.) 

It won’t surprise anyone that the “costs of living crisis” and “geo-economic confrontation” top the list of short-term risks in the Davos crystal ball, alongside natural disasters and extreme weather events. Predictions about the future are hard to make, after all, so people revert to the risks they know.    

But looking a decade ahead, the worry of the Davos crowd turns to what you could call “persistent ESG concerns:” a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity loss, natural resource crises, large-scale involuntary migration, erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization, notably. 

It may be hard to fathom, now, but this focus on ESG risks wasn’t always there. Until the early 2010s, more conventional economic risks such as oil prices, stock market collapses, and a China slowdown (ironically all risks that actually materialized in 2022) preoccupied the Davos luminaries more. 

But over the past decade, worries over “E” and “S” risks grew among global business leaders, and that trend shows no sign of abating, as the WEF’s 2023 report shows. It begs the question: was last year’s ESG backlash a partisan, politically-motivated, and mostly American fad?

Without venturing into that minefield, the WEF’s Saadia Zahidi told me that the persistence of ESG risks is a sign that “ESG has to remain front and center for companies that want to help address and mitigate some of these concerns, whether on environmental or social side.”

Nevertheless, the term ESG seems to have become a “no go zone” for even my former colleagues. In the Davos agenda for next week, filled with hundreds of sessions, the term ESG is mentioned only … once. The winner of the Davos agenda bingo? “Climate,” mentioned more than 100 times.

CEO Daily is off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday and will be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

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Peter Vanham 


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Claire Zillman. 

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