Not having an ESG strategy can be controversial. Now having one is turning dicey

Conservative groups and politicians say they don't want to do business with those "woke" players.

Striving for greater environmental and social responsibility is a noble undertaking for any company, right? Not if you ask a small but influential group of far-right politicians and their supporters.

Roused by arch-conservatives like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, they’re equating the quest for ESG—environmental, social and governance, the shorthand term for assuming more public responsibility—as “woke” politics, or the pursuit of a liberal agenda.

They accuse proponents of ESG of trying to sell their political viewpoint by disguising the effort as attempts to help the environment, society and the 99% of Americans who aren’t billionaires. At a recent gathering of conservatives, for instance, a whole session was devoted to ESG, which the event’s planners suggested should really stand for “evil stupidity or grift.”

Some conservative backers are even forming capital funds to support companies that aren’t addressing ESG.

The problem, as this week’s Working Lunch podcast reports, is that some progressive investment groups are simultaneously pushing corporations to reveal what they’re doing in support of ESG causes so those efforts can be factored into the funds’ investment decisions.

The anti-ESG forces say the evaluation of an investment candidate’s ESG commitment is essentially pressure for the would-be recipient to pursue liberal political causes. The conservatives are saying that a stated commitment to ESG is enough to brand a company as liberal-leaning and hence not a desired partner. And they’re pressing states to make the same judgment.

As Working Lunch co-host and Align Public Strategies principal Joe Kefauver points out in this week’s edition, virtually every public restaurant company has ESG goals and reports periodically on its progress.

“You’ve got investment funds saying, ‘Hey, you’re not pursuing these environmental and social goals, we’re not going to invest in you,’” said Kefauver. “Now you’ve got investment funds saying, ‘Hey, you are pursuing these environmental and social goals, we’re not going to invest in you.’ What do you do?”

He called it a “pissing match between the red and the blue…it’s just craziness.”

“There’s exposure and land mines on either side,” commented his co-host and business partner, Franklin Coley. “You have to go into that with eyes wide open and plot the course that’s best for your business, understanding you may take flack and there may be blowback.”

Learn more about the situation, along with an overview of other political issues with implications for restaurants, from this week’s edition of Working Lunch. Download it wherever you get your podcasts.

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