Is ESG bullsh*t? Making Sense of ESG and SDGs: A Guide to Responsible Investing

Harshita Kalra |

No, ESG isn't bullsh*t.

Although this may sound like a hippie-dippy concept, ESG investing is a major factor in today's world of business. It is a widely recognized framework that is used by investors, analysts, and other stakeholders to evaluate companies based on their sustainability and social responsibility performance. 

ESG: Environmental | Social | Governance

  • Environmental factors include things like a company's impact on climate change, waste management, and natural resource conservation.
  • Social factors include employee relations, human rights, and community engagement.
  • Governance factors include a company's board structure, executive compensation, and shareholder rights.

ESG evolved from socially responsible investing (SRI) in the 1960s and 1970s, when investors began to consider non-financial factors such as social and environmental impact in their investment decisions. 

Over time, governance factors were also being considered as well, and the term "ESG" came into use in the early 2000s. A key milestone in the development of ESG was the launch of the United Nations Global Compact in 2000, which called on companies to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies and practices. This helped to popularize the concept of ESG and raised awareness of the importance of considering non-financial factors in investment decisions. In less than 25 years, the ESG movement has grown from a corporate social responsibility initiative launched by the United Nations into a global phenomenon representing more than US$30 trillion in assets under management by 2018.

Today, ESG has become a vital consideration for many investors. The field of ESG investing continues to evolve, with new tools and methodologies being developed to help investors evaluate companies based on their ESG performance. There is growing evidence that companies that prioritize ESG factors in their operations and decision-making can outperform their peers over the long term. In addition, consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions on the environment and society, and are choosing to support companies that prioritize ESG considerations. 

Governments and international organizations are also supporting the ESG movement through policies and initiatives aimed at promoting sustainability and ethical practices. This includes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and various national and regional regulations. 

The Strong Connection Between ESG and SDGs

There is a lot of confusion between ESG SDGs—attributed partially to their similar acronyms. There is significant overlap between ESG and SDGs to the point that they are nearly synonymous. But acronyms aside, ESG and SDGs are closely connected as they both aim to promote sustainability and responsible business practices.

SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all. The SDGs are a set of 17 global goals and 169 targets that aim to address social, economic, and environmental challenges facing the world.

SDGs are built on the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000, which focused on poverty reduction and basic human needs. The SDGs are more comprehensive and ambitious than the MDGs, with a broader focus on issues such as climate change, inequality, and sustainable development.

SDG Global Goals:

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life On Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

These are designed to be integrated and interdependent, recognizing that progress on one goal can have positive or negative impacts on other goals. They provide a shared framework for governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and individuals to work towards a more sustainable and equitable world.

ESG factors are closely aligned with many of the SDGs. For example:

  • Investing in renewable energy can help to address climate change (SDG 13), promote affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), and support sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11).
  • Companies that prioritize employee health and safety, diversity, inclusion, and community engagement are also more likely to contribute to the achievement of SDGs related to health (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), and reduced inequalities (SDG 10), among others.

By incorporating ESG factors into investment decisions, investors can help to promote companies that are aligned with the SDGs and contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Companies that are committed to sustainability and responsible business practices are more likely to be resilient in the face of emerging sustainability risks and opportunities, which can ultimately lead to long-term financial returns. 

The connection between ESG investing and the SDGs highlights the potential for finance to play a positive role in advancing sustainable development and addressing global challenges.

The "Anti-Woke" War on ESG

While the ESG movement has gained significant momentum and popularity, some are skeptical or critical of its approach and impact. This "anti-ESG" wave pushes back against the perceived overemphasis on ESG considerations in business and investment decisions.

  • Reduced Returns: One argument against ESG investing is that it can lead to reduced returns for investors, as companies that prioritize ESG factors may not be as profitable as those that prioritize financial performance alone.
  • Lack of Standard Metrics: Some critics also argue that ESG investing is subjective and lacks clear standards and metrics for evaluation, making it difficult to compare companies and determine their ESG performance.
  • Greenwashing: Others may view the ESG movement as a form of "greenwashing," where companies market themselves as environmentally and socially responsible in order to improve their public image, without making significant changes to their business practices.
  • Politics: There are increasing ideological or political objections to ESG investing being viewed as a form of government or corporate overreach and interference in the free market.

Consequences of Rejecting ESG

Not integrating ESG frameworks into investment decisions may result in a range of negative consequences, including:

  • reputational damage
  • reduced investor confidence
  • legal and regulatory sanctions
  • financial losses

If a company does not take environmental issues seriously and does not implement measures to reduce its carbon footprint or mitigate pollution, it may face public backlash and damage to its reputation, which could result in lower sales and reduced customer loyalty.

If a company fails to uphold social standards, such as labor rights or human rights, it may face legal action, negative media attention, and reputational damage. This could lead to increased scrutiny from investors and potentially, a decrease in stock value.

If a company does not prioritize good governance practices, such as transparency and accountability, it may face legal and regulatory sanctions, shareholder activism, and a loss of trust from stakeholders.

Long story short (and this has been a longer blog—thanks for reading to the end!), ignoring ESG factors can be bad business for companies, their stakeholders, and the planet as a whole.

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