Can companies score ESG points under pandemic pressure?

Both laggards and leaders in corporate responsibility have a chance to step up — but not everyone’s taking it

Can companies score ESG points under pandemic pressure?

Interest and assets in ESG have accelerated in earnest over recent years, and more big companies and investment firms have since pledged to act in consideration of all their stakeholders. With the continuing spread of the coronavirus, they now have an opportunity to put some action behind their words.

“We believe this is the acid test for all this talk about purpose and stakeholder capitalism,” JUST Capital CEO Martin Whittaker told the Financial Times.

As reported by the Times, top ESG-scoring tech firms like Microsoft and Alphabet are cementing their ratings by continuing to provide their hourly workers their normal wages even though operations are slowing.

And while Facebook has been kicked out of ESG Indexes amid questions about its commitment to protect user data and curb the spread of false information, it has set up a US$100m grant program to support virus-hit small businesses. The tech giant has also reportedly suspended employee reviews, granting bonuses to all its full-time workers as if they were top performers.

BlackRock, meanwhile, is sticking to its convictions on climate change. According to Reuters, the firm’s global head of investment Michelle Edkins said that while coronavirus is sucking up all the attention in the corporate world, her firm will not waiver in holding company directors accountable in making progress on goals tied to climate issues.

Examples of commendable corporate behaviour are also on display in Canada. The Big Six banks are helping Canadians through the crisis with measures to support the health and finances of their customers.

Still, many other companies aren’t stepping up. Amazon has long been criticized for its labour practices; news that the CEO of Whole Foods, an upscale grocery chain owned by Amazon, has asked employees to donate sick leaves to coronavirus-stricken peers is not likely to help.

Airlines have also drawn flak as Norwegian, British Airways, and other players announced moves or plans to cut staff. Some CEOs have declared they are taking pay cuts, but have nevertheless been criticized as they seek government bailouts after years spent shovelling nearly all their free cash on stock buybacks and other shareholder-first initiatives.

“This is when we find out who was just talking the talk and who is walking the walk,” Whittaker told the Times.


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