ESG litmus test intensifies as 2024 elections loom

Political uncertainty is one of the biggest themes in the ESG world this year, with sustainable and responsible investing being attacked on several fronts.

A campaign against the use of environment, social and governance factors in managing assets for public workers has snowballed, with many conservative-leaning states considering or passing legislation. The issue has also been a focus in Congress, with the Republican-majority House holding hearings on it. In March, President Joe Biden also issued his first veto, shooting down legislation that would have nullified a new rule from the Department of Labor that allows retirement plan fiduciaries to consider ESG criteria.

And earlier last month, the first 401(k) lawsuit centering on the use of ESG factors was filed.

Those developments are all part of the relatively recent politicization of ESG, which has become a rallying cry for conservatives and a pillar in the campaigns of at least two Republicans vying for the 2024 presidential election nomination.

Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission has held off on publishing the final versions of several rules that address ESG — one for the climate-related disclosures public companies will have to make and others covering marketing, advertising and fund-naming.

Whether the SEC will require big companies to publish their Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions is a big question. Those emissions represent the biggest proportion of emissions, as they cover the supply chain and end users that manufacturers and distributors serve.

Those rules — especially the one covering public companies’ disclosures — will all but certainly face a legal challenge, once finalized.

But that might be of little consequence, as the state of California is poised to move forward with legislation that would effectively stand in for, and surpass, the SEC’s proposed rule for emissions disclosures.

Regardless, the war on ESG might be toned down after next year’s election, but it doesn’t show any signs of abating sooner. Public companies — most notably Anheuser-Busch — have faced increasing scrutiny over their marketing strategies that have sought to make them appeal to broader audiences.

That has also led to more attention on how asset managers vote proxies in shareholder resolutions. In response, fund companies like BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street have been piloting or rolling out new programs to give customers some say in how their shares are voted on ESG issues.

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