The Anti-Woke Campaigns Are Failing
While fewer ESG proposals were passed overall during the proxy season, support for the anti-ESG ones that went to a shareholder vote was non-existent.
Environmental, social, and governance proposals surged again this proxy season and fewer won the approval of shareholders than in recent years. Investors and politicians who are against companies using ESG to make decisions celebrated the reversal but they can’t claim victory.
Average support for U.S. environmental and social shareholder proposals was cut nearly in half to 19.6 percent in the 2023 season, compared to 27.7 percent for the same period last year, according to Diligent Market Intelligence’s 2023 annual stewardship report. But that may come down to more ESG proposals having become politicized and overly prescriptive, making them less palatable to shareholders — including BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, the biggest proxy voters.
Proponents of ESG factors driving more company decisions have things to feel positive about, too. For one, the backlash to ESG faced its own rebuke and institutional investors expect their ESG-related investments to become more prevalent in portfolios.
Some proposals that gained traction this season were ones requiring companies to create a climate report (up 6 percent to 27.2 percent), proposals to adopt or amend a human rights policy (up 3.7 percent to 27.7 percent), and ones to create a charitable contribution report (up 2.5 percent to 6.6 percent), according to Diligent’s latest stewardship report.
“One reading of the data is that the shock effect of the three proxy seasons from 2018 to 2021, when support for environmental and social proposals soared, is that the relationship between companies and their shareholders is returning to normal,” Josh Black, editor-in-chief of Diligent Market Intelligence, wrote in the report.
If ESG opponents measured their success by enthusiasm for explicitly anti-ESG proposals, they had a miserable proxy season. Shareholder support for anti-ESG proposals was effectively non-existent.
Opponents want companies to refocus on their financials and steer clear of making political and social statements that could alienate customers and other stakeholders. They argue that ESG has diminished financial returns for investors. But if it has, shareholders either don’t care or don’t believe a solution is anti-ESG proposals, which “won some of the lowest support levels on record.”
Diligent’s report says that the National Center for Public Policy Research is “perhaps the most prominent player in the anti-ESG movement” but the conservative think tank’s proposals failed to gain traction. In the 2023 season, the NCPPR filed 57 proposals on the risks of ESG investing, including corporate statements on abortion, business activities in China, and audits of corporate net-zero goals. More than 30 made the ballot but most received less than 2 percent of support from shareholders.
The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative non-profit group, filed 14 anti-ESG resolutions (the second most) seeking content censorship risk audits and content censorship reporting, among other topics. Most proposals had little support but required reporting on operations in China were among its best received. At Boeing’s and Walt Disney’s annual meetings, the China proposals won 7.5 percent and 7.4 percent support, respectively.
The American Conservative Values ETF partnered with NCPPR to file four shareholder proposals related to risks of political speech, and diversity and inclusion policies. An average of less than 2 percent of shareholders supported them.
Nonetheless, the NLPC believes the proposals are important.
“Liberal activist shareholders have dominated this [shareholder proposal] process for many years and now ‘own the battlefield,’ which should not be a ‘battlefield’ — it should be a process in which shareholder proponents engage to try to help improve governance, leading to better company performance and returns,” Paul Chesser, corporate integrity project director at NLPC, said in Dilligent’s report.