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The Business Community Is Terrified of the ESG Backlash. It’s Just Starting to Fight Back

6 minute read

It’s not good for business for lobbyists to cross the legislators they’re meant to sway in a public setting. And yet on March 14, a stream of insurance lobbyists stepped up to the podium at a hearing of the insurance committee of the Texas House of Representatives to oppose the state’s latest foray into legislation meant to cut the legs out from under Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts.

“If there are climate-changing weather patterns, insurance companies need the flexibility to factor that in,” said Paul Martin, a vice president at the Reinsurance Association of America.

The tone was conciliatory, but it was clear that the lobbyists firmly opposed a policy that would ban insurers from using ESG considerations in the state. “Can we do our business the way that we do it?” asked Lee Ann Alexander of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “Can we use the tools at hand that are legal, not unfairly discriminatory, and actuarially justified?”

This hearing tells us a lot about the state of the ESG debate in the U.S. From the outset, corporate leaders viewed the conservative backlash to ESG as a threat to how they conduct business. But executives have been reticent to speak out, fearing the wrath of angry GOP lawmakers. “Almost every company and investor that has committed to acting on sustainability, analyzing the risk of environmental and social issues is continuing to do so,” says Mindy Luber, president of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit. “Where we’re seeing some hesitancy, and certainly not across the board, is the willingness to stand up and speak out.”

Whether, and how quickly, businesses stand up and push back, will shape whether the anti-ESG movement balloons or deflates. If the Texas case is any indicator, the best motivator to get businesses to push back will be the bottom line.

To understand why the ESG backlash is so alarming to businesses, it’s helpful to look back at the first widely-referenced mention of ESG: a 2004 United Nations report.

For decades, business leaders had debated to what degree companies should concern themselves with social matters beyond factors that directly impacted their bottom line. The UN report, endorsed by major banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, made the case that in a globalized economy ESG matters would affect financial returns, so therefore financial firms needed to do a better job considering ESG in their operations.

“Companies that perform better with regard to these issues can increase shareholder value,” the report said.

At the same time, a wide range of sustainable investment funds began to appear. Some focused on investments that would deliver positive societal outcomes—say, minority empowerment. Others focused solely on helping investors avoid risks associated with ESG issues—think of, say, a company located in a flood zone.

By 2020, U.S. investors had placed more than $17 trillion in funds employing ESG strategies, according to analysis from the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. Just as importantly, those principles had begun to infiltrate the language and thinking of corporate executives as they sought to consider and adjust for how risks like climate change might affect their business. In the lingo of investors, climate-linked extreme weather poses physical risks to corporate assets while the possibility of new rules and regulations pose so-called transition risks. Both of those amount to a compelling economic case to take environmental concerns seriously.

“Science and society together drive the economics on this,” says Anne Simpson, the global head of sustainability at Franklin Templeton, an investment firm. And those economics are driving some companies to begin to challenge the anti-ESG rhetoric and legislation behind the scenes and, in some cases, in public forums.

In Texas, after legislators tried to restrict the insurance industry from using ESG metrics, insurance lobbyists went public with their opposition to the restrictions, arguing that they would be bad for business. Indeed, environmental factors can represent significant risks for insurers and can play into decisions about which policies to issue and what rates to charge. “You can think of things that would fall within the description of environmental, social, and governance that might be completely legitimate rating and underwriting considerations,” Jon Schnautz of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies told the Texas House insurance committee.

State banking associations in deep red parts of the country, including North Dakota and Montana, have pushed back on anti-ESG legislation targeting banks. In Kentucky, the banking trade group went as far as suing the state’s attorney general over his anti-ESG attempts. The case remains active.

National brands have been slower to push back, fearful of blowback, but there are hints that they may be on the precipice of changing. On March 24, a group of hundreds of companies convened by Ceres released a letter calling for policymakers to respect the “freedom to invest responsibly” and arguing that using ESG considerations is simply good governance.

Still, it’s not surprising that so many others have chosen to remain silent. The political risks of speaking out remain high. Texas, which has a higher GDP than Russia, blocked 10 financial firms from doing business with the state government because of their ESG positions. Moreover, firms can and do continue to implement their ESG-related practices without publicizing it. And investors continue to send hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment to ESG funds despite the backlash and other economic headwinds.

“The proof is in the pudding: look at how those companies are allocating resources, allocating capital,” says John Morton, managing director at Pollination, a climate change investment and advisory firm. “I think that tells a pretty compelling story about where they see both financial risk in markets and where they see financial opportunity in the transition to a lower carbon economy.”

Nonetheless, the backlash will take a greater toll if it’s allowed to continue to spread unchecked. A Republican bill to restrict pension managers from considering ESG passed both houses of Congress, and failed only thanks to Joe Biden’s veto. For those concerned that ESG risks threaten their business, speaking out may soon become the best path to protect the bottomline.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com