The curious origins of the anti-ESG movement
The anti-"woke investing" movement was not created by financial experts. It was created by two of the fossil fuel industry's most notorious climate disinformers.
A new trend is sweeping conservative America. It’s called the anti-ESG movement, or anti-”woke capitalism” movement, and it’s one of the biggest emerging barriers to corporate action on climate change.
Anti-ESG proponents want to stop corporations from following environmentally and socially conscious investing principles, commonly referred to as Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) principles. They say companies are prioritizing “left-wing” goals over the financial interests of businesses and their employees, and should be prevented by law from doing so.
This movement has gained a massive following in the last six months. Elon Musk supports it, as do billionaire investors Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman, who are are backing a new financial firm dedicated to anti-ESG investing. Banning “woke investing” is also one of the biggest recent priorities of Leonard A. Leo, the prominent conservative legal activist who runs one of the “best-funded and most sophisticated operations in American politics,” according to a New York Times investigation published Wednesday. In the past year, 17 states have proposed or adopted legislation seeking to bar state investments in “woke” companies.
The anti-ESG movement frames itself as a strictly financial enterprise. Its proponents insist it’s not a political movement. They’re simply trying to get politics out of the financial system so people can make the most money as possible.
But the anti-ESG movement is, at its core, a lobbying effort created by climate deniers to make money for fossil fuel companies. It did not originate with financial experts or economists, but with two prominent industry operatives who’ve spent decades spreading disinformation about the human health risks of fossil fuels and cigarettes.
These former coal and tobacco operatives first started their movement to ban socially conscious investing in 2004. Only now, nearly two decades later, have they been able to get mainstream conservative America on board.
The anti-ESG movement is the climate denial movement
Before the anti-ESG movement was the anti-ESG movement, it was the anti-CSR movement, the acronym standing for Corporate Social Responsibility. The two leaders of the anti-CSR movement were Steve Milloy and Tom Borelli.
Milloy is a former coal company executive and paid advocate for Phillip Morris and ExxonMobil. His career focus is developing communication strategies to deny or downplay the risks of tobacco and fossil fuel pollution. He is among the most prominent people “clouding the climate change debate,” according to the The Washington Post.
Borelli is “one of the best-known of the science corrupters who worked for the tobacco industry,” according to The Center for Media and Democracy. In the 90s, while working for Phillip Morris, he led the tobacco industry’s efforts to team up with other polluting industries—like coal and chemicals—to promote anti-science rhetoric. “The climate denial movement is a direct result of these coalitions,” according to CMD. (He now promotes climate denial).
In 2004, Milloy and Borelli formed a non-profit called the Free Enterprise Education Institute. The non-profit’s purpose, according to its tax forms, was to “educate the public about the American system of free enterprise” by “maintaining a website about its research.”
The website they launched was called CSRwatch.com, and was marketed as a news destination for anyone opposed to “corporate social responsibility.” CSRwatch primarily aggregated news articles attacking corporations that had climate change and other socially conscious policies, like refusing to invest in child labor.
One article posted to CSRwatch in 2006, for example, slammed corporations that refuse to invest in overseas sweatshops, saying they deprive children in developing countries of good paying jobs. "They try to shut down so-called sweatshops as though no jobs [are] better than what they consider to be low quality jobs, as though working as a 12-year-old beggar, thief or prostitute is better than working in a garment or shoe factory,” it read.
The article also slammed pro-indigenous corporate policies. "I would love to meet just one corporate social responsibility activist … who's willing to go native for even one month and live in a state-of-the-art mud hut in malaria-infested rural Africa under the indigenous conditions they extol and perpetuate," it read.
CSRWatch was directly funded by the fossil fuel industry. From 2004 to 2005, ExxonMobil gave the Free Enterprise Education Institute $80,000. The non-profit also received grants from a Koch family charity foundation, DonorsTrust, and The Randolph Foundation, all conservative groups with ties to fossil fuels.
The original anti-ESG investing movement was not so great at investing
CSRWatch was not Borelli and Milloy’s only effort to push back against ESG investing in the mid-2000s. They also set up a mutual fund called the The Free Enterprise Action Fund, designed to show that being anti-woke was also good business.
The fund sought to achieve long-term investment returns “while aggressively challenging CEOs who use shareholder assets to advance the liberal political agenda.” But, perhaps because neither Borelli nor Milloy had any experience managing money professionally, the fund didn’t do very well, according to a 2006 Slate piece:
Judging by the early returns, these free-marketers are failing the test of the marketplace. The fund has attracted a paltry $5.2 million in assets as of March 31. Returns have lagged the S&P 500 badly. In its first 10 months in business, the fund returned 2.32 percent while the S&P 500 rose 4.72 percent.
Of course, the fund’s poor performance could also simply have been explained by the fact that it’s bad business to ignore environmental and social risk factors. Indeed, this is why the bulk of the financial and corporate worlds don’t agree with the anti-ESG movement. They know that ESG investing, particularly investing with climate change risk in mind, is not ideological. It’s merely the smartest long-term financial decision.
The anti-ESG movement doesn’t agree with this assessment for one reason, and one reason only: They’re climate deniers. And the fact that they’re climate deniers is not a coincidence. That is what the fossil fuel industry intended.
The new anti-ESG movement: same folks, different face
The original anti-ESG movement eventually appeared to fizzle. CSRwatch.com stopped being updated in late 2007 and the domain expired in 2008. Shortly after, The Free Enterprise Action Fund was merged into a separate mutual fund that had nothing to do with anti-ESG advocacy.
The Free Enterprise Education Institute was then acquired by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a much larger right-wing think tank funded by some of the similar players, including ExxonMobil. The NCPPR announced that Milloy and Borelli would remain at the head of the project, which would from then on be called the Free Enterprise Project.
At the time, Borelli said the merger would “significantly enhance our ability to educate the public on emerging threats to our free enterprise system.” And though it took about 14 years, it appears Borelli was correct.
The new anti-ESG financial firm backed by Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman, Strive Asset Management, is being led by Justin Danhof, the former executive Vice President of the NCPPR. In a recent interview with the Capitol Account newsletter, Danhof explained his qualifications: “I ran a program called the Free Enterprise Project,” he said. “We were really at the beginning of what you would call any sort of pushback against ESG, woke capital — before it was even a term.”
It may be more sophisticated today, but the anti-ESG movement is the same as it ever was: a political effort to delay climate action led by fossil fuel industry propagandists. It follows the classic playbook of climate disinformation by trying to “both sides” the idea of climate risk. But Witold Henisz, the director of the Wharton School’s ESG program, put it best: “Climate risk is investment risk. There is no credible other side, only an ideological opposition cynically seeking a wedge issue for upcoming political campaigns.”
“Proponents of climate science and more sustainable investing need to plan and execute their counterattack,” he added. “Silence in the face of such an attack is complicity. Which side are you on?”
How to Confront the Anti-ESG Campaign. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, August 2022.
Banks and Business Leaders Who Use ESG Aren’t ‘Woke.’ They’re Protecting Their Bottom Lines. Fortune, September 2022.
The Republican War on “Woke Capitalism” Is Really Just a War on Capitalism. Slate, June 2022.
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