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ESG, DEI, and the Rise of Fake Reporting

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27 minute read

From the Brownstone Institute

By Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster and Michael Baker

We know that the modern West has developed a jaw-dropping degree of totalitarianism, wherein the bureaucracies of the state and the corporate sector coordinate together to cripple humans outside their power networks and media channels. But what are the mechanics of this coordination? To understand one of the games they play, consider the rise of measures and standards associated with DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) – both occupants of a highly abstract thought dimension and the latter an especially incomprehensible word salad.

ESG as a phrase was coined in a 2006 United Nations report, gradually gaining adoption by private companies like BlackRock via the production of annual ESG reports. Governments then started supporting these voluntary efforts, and eventually began making them mandatory. Since early 2023, corporations in the EU have been compelled to report on ESG. Many US companies with subsidiaries in the EU must observe both US and European rules, and those in the Asia-Pacific region too are starting to follow the ESG reporting pantomime.

In brief, ESG originated at the level of the international and intellectual stratosphere and then grew, unchecked by tedious real-world constraints like scarcity and tradeoffs, as a kind of malignant joint venture between large government bureaucracies and large corporations.

This JV is a serious industry, offering lucrative money-making opportunities for consulting companies, fund managers, and assorted professionals who ‘help’ companies comply. Bahar Gidwani, co-founder of a company called CSRHub, a compiler and provider of ESG company ratings, estimates that the collection of ESG data alone is already costing companies $20 billion worldwide.

It is an expanding industry too, since the reporting requirements keep increasing: according to recent reports, the head of the US Securities and Exchange Commission estimates that the cost of ESG reporting by the companies it oversees could quadruple to $8.4 billion this year, primarily due to the introduction of more ESG requirements. And that’s just in the US.

Large reporting costs are easier for large companies to bear, which offers a clue to why they’re interested: this sort of burden, particularly when made compulsory by the state, helps them dominate their smaller competitors.

DEI is the younger brother of ESG. At present, DEI reporting is not yet compulsory, but about 16% of the biggest US firms have open DEI reports, and the DEI fad is growing, perhaps eventually to eclipse ESG. Just as with ESG, DEI originates from the grandiose world of fluffy abstractions, big corporations, and governments. Despite efforts to make it appear otherwise, it is not grassroots at all.

The Benign-Sounding Aims of ESG

ESG measures and reports are supposedly about gauging whether the activities of corporations are ‘sustainable,’ and especially whether companies are reducing their carbon footprints. DEI is about whether a company’s employment practices promote gender and race ‘equality,’ provide ‘safe spaces,’ and rely on global supply chains that adhere to ‘fair’ practices. Most reasonable people would agree that many of these stated goals sound worthwhile in principle. What is being advocated sounds caring and does not, on the face of it, appear to be destructive in any way.

Yet, talk is always cheap. How do these pretty ideas get operationalized when they confront the harsh reality of measurement? Let us delve into a leading example from a company report.

Grab Holdings from Singapore

Many Asian companies are ensnared in the ESG compliance system because they are listed on Western financial exchanges. One such company is the Singapore-based ‘superapp’ Grab Holdings, listed on the Nasdaq. Its customers mainly interact with Grab Holdings via a mobile phone app, where they can buy many different services (food delivery, e-commerce, ride-hailing, financial services, etc.), hence the term ‘superapp.’

Grab is unprofitable but very visible. For the first half of 2023, it lost $398 million, on top of the $1.74 billion it lost in 2022. However, it operates in businesses — particularly food delivery and ride-hailing — with serious environmental and human impacts across a vast region encompassing 400 cities and towns in eight Southeast Asian countries. To anyone living where Grab operates, its fast-moving, green-helmeted motorcycle riders are as familiar as yellow taxis are to New Yorkers or red double-decker buses are to Londoners.

Grab’s business model is inherently not great for the safety of its drivers and the public. Grab uses routing and other technology to match riders with deliveries and to minimize both wait time for drivers and delivery times to customers. Scheduling is highly efficient because of the technology, which is to say that drivers are on tight schedules with razor-thin commissions.

To make a buck, the drivers for Grab (and its competitors) have to be brave and aggressive on the road. Some are real daredevils – the Evel Knievels of Southeast Asia – as we have personally witnessed. Not only that, but there is stiff competition in each of the markets in which Grab operates. Grab itself says that 72% of its five million drivers do double duty, performing both food deliveries and ride-hailing services. This makes the company a more efficient service provider across both cut-throat businesses and gives drivers the opportunity to earn more money.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t make a profit — at least not yet — Grab splashed out to produce an ESG report that in its last iteration (2022) was 74 pages long and almost as heroic as its drivers.

The introductory pages are taken up with the usual marketing talk, replete with large photos of company motorbike drivers grinning from ear to ear because, well, they are just so grateful to be part of such a great organization. The uniforms in the photos are smart and clean, in contrast to the reality which is that the drivers’ green uniforms are almost always greasy and grubby and the drivers often look, understandably, stressed and morose.

Deeper into the ESG report, Grab gives us 5 pages on how admirably it is performing regarding road safety, 8 pages on greenhouse gas emissions, 1 on air quality, 4 on food packaging waste and 8 on inclusiveness.

Pantomime One: Road Safety

The part of the report on road safety is of special interest, since Southeast Asia’s roads have a deservedly deadly reputation for motorcyclists, and much of the mayhem is provided by the delivery drivers themselves. For example, one study in Malaysia reported that 70% of food delivery motorcyclists drivers broke traffic rules during delivery, and the kinds of violations covered the waterfront: illegal stopping, running red lights, talking on the phone while riding, riding in the wrong direction, and making illegal U-turns. The statistics on crashes involving these drivers make for grim reading.

Other studies based on rider surveys tell an even grimmer story. A 2021 survey of food delivery drivers in Thailand found that 66% of the more than 1,000 respondents had been in one to four accidents while working, with 28% reporting more than five. This squares with reputation: in countries like Thailand, where enforcement of traffic laws is the exception rather than rule, dangerous driving by two-wheelers is famously awful.

So it is with some surprise that one reads in Grab’s ESG report that there is only just under one accident for every million rides involving a Grab delivery driver. That is an incidence at least one hundred times lower than the incidence implied in self-reports. One may assume that many accidents involving delivery drivers are not reported to the company, particularly those involving no or minor injuries, or where the driver is concerned that he will lose his job.

This latter concern is not trivial, since Grab claims that it has a zero-tolerance policy toward violators of the company’s Code of Conduct, which includes failure to follow road rules. This means the count of accidents per ride is a shaky number at best. The report doesn’t really say where the company gets this number from, so it could well be made up out of thin air, though presumably whoever wrote it down had some rationale in mind. One might imagine something like “Sounds low, and dumb Westerners will believe it.”

Pantomime Two: Grab’s Strategy for Saving the Planet

After dispensing with the road safety issue, Grab’s ESG report moves on to how the company is saving the planet. The company’s greenhouse gas emissions rose during the course of the year because of ‘normalization’ after covid, but the report’s author disingenuously sidesteps the problem by saying that most of the emissions were made from vehicles that were owned by the ‘driver-partners’ rather than the company itself. So, with direct blame for GHG emissions dodged, the company’s priority is stated as to ‘support our driver-partners in transitioning to low emission vehicles and encouraging zero-emission modes of transport.’

It really isn’t clear how that fluffy ‘transition’ might come about, since conventional motorcycles are a cheap and convenient form of transport in Southeast Asia, easily outcompeting other available options for the coal-face work required by Grab’s business model. The report says it will encourage cycling, walking, and EVs. The first two are obviously out of the question in most instances for food delivery, and as for the third, for the overwhelming majority of two-wheeler drivers, upgrading to an EV is a pipe dream (or pipe nightmare, depending on how much they know about EV recharging, weight, and maintenance issues).

One of the beauties of Grab being a platform that connects eateries with drivers without actually operating restaurants itself is that – as with GHG emissions – food packaging waste isn’t really Grab’s direct responsibility. It is the responsibility of the restaurants and food manufacturers, like the owners of the factories that make all those nasty little sachets of ketchup, soy sauce, and other condiments.

Brilliant! With this sleight of hand squarely in frame, this part of the ESG report then writes itself as an exercise in hand-wringing, admitting with furrowed brow that food packaging waste is a serious problem, and stating that the company’s goal is ‘Zero packaging waste in Nature by 2040.’ Exactly what this means and how it is to be accomplished is shrouded in mystery, but to anyone whose beach holidays have ever been marred by the ugly sight of plastic litter on the shoreline, it sounds awfully good.

Pantomime Three: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Most of this section of the report consists of descriptive marketing: saying all the right things and showcasing the occasional shining example, without getting into too much detail. The main statistics given are that 43% of Grab’s employees are women and 34% of those in ‘leadership positions’ are women. Well, maybe that could be true if one counts the few thousand direct employees, including a lot of secretaries, but omits the five million ‘driver-partners’ who are overwhelmingly male. The report also says that female employees earn 98% of what men do, which presumably means that the odd male secretary is treated just as badly as his female colleagues.

This section of the report showcases other inventive labeling. We are told the company has ‘Inclusion Champions,’ collectively a group of employees who ‘contribute to inclusion through crowdsourcing of ideas and on-ground feedback for better inclusion initiatives. They also help to identify and coach fellow Grab employees towards more inclusive behaviour, and will co-drive projects that help drive inclusion.’ Who knows what that really means? One might guess that ‘crowdsourcing ideas’ is the new term for having a suggestion box, and that pretty much every email sent by HR can be contrived to be a form of ‘inclusive’ coaching.

Grab’s report thus seems like it addresses ESG- and DEI-related issues, but no real-world mechanism ties them to actual outcomes, and there is no realistic external verification. Even seemingly simple things, like counting how much fuel a company buys directly for its processes and thereby estimating the size of its ‘carbon footprint,’ are like child’s play to game, as demonstrated by Grab’s masterly reporting: simply forcing workers and subsidiaries to buy their own fuel (compensated via higher wages or other things) will make the footprint of the company itself seem dramatically lower, while requiring nothing substantial to change. It’s all an elaborate show.

Who’s Asking for This Crap?

Though specious, unverifiable, and mostly made up, ESG reporting is a way to formally present a company’s ‘ESG performance.’ This performance can theoretically be ‘scored’ by some third party, and thereby compared with that of other companies. If ESG is valued highly by consumers, then companies that get high scores should attract a disproportionate amount of investment, meaning that their cost of capital will be lower than companies who don’t score so well – the magic through which a bullshit report is turned into a business opportunity.

This also makes delicious fodder for fund managers, who can bundle firms’ stock into ‘ESG funds’ or ‘sustainable funds’ or whatever, and charge investors fat fees for the privilege of investing in them. Fund managers also have another motivation to egg on more ESG reporting: their funds are designed not to green the world or make it a nicer place, but rather to highlight which companies will adapt best and thrive the most in a world where ‘progress’ toward ESG goals (for example, ‘net zero’) is actually being made.

How big is this market? According to Morningstar, by the end of the third quarter of 2023, global ‘sustainable’ funds numbered more than 7,600, of which nearly 75% were in Europe and 10% in the US. These funds had assets of $2.7 trillion. However, global inflows into these funds have been falling sharply since the first quarter of 2022. While they have still been attracting more inflows than non-sustainability funds in Europe, this is not true in the US. Amid waning interest in the US, fewer and fewer new ESG funds are being launched, and in 3Q2023 there were more ESG fund exits than new arrivals.

During the first two years of covid, American ESG stocks outperformed conventional stocks by a wide margin. This is not surprising since technology companies did rather well out of lockdowns, and they also have high ESG scores because of their lower carbon footprints than miscreant ‘old economy’ companies. Still, since the start of 2022, ESG stocks have fallen back and now are only just edging the market. Indicatively, in the seven quarters ending September 30, 2023, the S&P ESG Index was down 7.3%, while the S&P 500 was down 9.4%.

Importantly, many ESG fund investors themselves are government-type entities, like public pension funds, where the distance between investment decision and personal consequence is about as big as it gets. So often the ultimate payers for this circus are the general population whose pensions are, unbeknown to themselves, being used for virtue-signaling by public fund managers.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

Learning how to write up and cheat with these performance reports requires a lot of resources, but once a company antes up, the game becomes easy to play. ESG reporting is just one example of the broader reality that compliance with external bureaucracies requires largely a one-off fixed cost, and in this case the cost is often large enough to bankrupt a small firm. This means that, just as bizarre covid-era rules were a gift of competitive advantage to big companies, ESG and DEI reporting is a mechanism through which big companies can pressurize and even get rid entirely of smaller ones.

This, we think, is the reason why bullshit reporting is not getting pushback from the largest companies that don’t already have natural monopolies: plainly, it suits their purposes. They are big enough to absorb the cost without a major effect on the bottom line, and they are getting in return a stronger position in their markets. They naturally support the big bureaucracies that make these reports compulsory. Big consulting companies, and the aforementioned fund managers, also love the idea of compulsory reporting because it creates business for them.

On this very issue, Michael Shellenberger opined recently on Tucker Carlson’s channel that big traditional energy companies were led by cowards who had been “bullied into submission:” that the ESG movement had “used political activism and the pension funds to put pressure on the oil and gas industries to basically sell out their main product.” He called the ESG movement an “anti-human death cult” and asserted that “it’s finally becoming obvious to people that it’s a scam.”

On the lattermost point, we hope he’s right.

Yet, the scam is still spreading, as there are plenty more unproductive people eager to climb aboard. The push for companies to jump on the ESG reporting bandwagon is not confined to the West. Regulators in Asia are also pushing — harder in some countries, like Singapore, than in others — to make ESG reporting mandatory rather than optional. Sensing a huge opportunity to divert valuable resources their way, a posse of consulting firms are also coming after companies to advise them on how they can bridge the ESG gap with the more advanced West. Companies in Asia are starting to fall in line and dutifully churn out their ESG reports, breathing more life into the scam.

Will This Eventually Crash and Burn?

Hard-nosed managers of big firms understand that bullshit reporting requirements can be a source of competitive advantage, causing financial distress for their smaller competitors. What is in the whole charade for the state bureaucracy and the corporate bureaucracy is that it makes them seem virtuous while creating a huge fog of mystery about what they are actually doing, thereby providing both jobs and cover.

Like the woke movement, ESG and DEI are at heart parasitical developments, originating from a decaying West, championed by the useless and the clueless, and benefiting the shrewd and the corrupt.

Such malignancies weaken our society and should be discarded at the earliest opportunity. Much like Elon Musk showed the door to 80% of Twitter staff with no loss of functionality, and just as we have advocated previously that 80% of employment in ‘health’ professions is useless, so too do we think that firing all professionals whose primary business involves ESG and DEI can be done without any loss of functionality. We don’t think this will happen anytime soon.

If it were to happen, what would one do with all those unproductive workers who have been dining on the ESG/DEI word-salad gravy trains for months or years? Paying them to paint rocks for a while would at least get them out of the way. Better still, taking a cue from what the Ontario College of Psychologists has suggested recently for Jordan Peterson, these people could be taken into the field to help communities struggling with actual problems, involving actual trade-offs, as part of a reeducation and retraining program aimed at making them useful to their societies once again.

Authors

  • Paul Frijters

    Paul Frijters, Senior Scholar at Brownstone Institute, is a Professor of Wellbeing Economics in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, UK. He specializes in applied micro-econometrics, including labor, happiness, and health economics Co-author of The Great Covid Panic.

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  • Gigi Foster

    Gigi Foster, Senior Scholar at Brownstone Institute, is a Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Her research covers diverse fields including education, social influence, corruption, lab experiments, time use, behavioral economics, and Australian policy. She is co-author of The Great Covid Panic.

    VIEW ALL POSTS 

  • Michael Baker

    Michael Baker has a BA (Economics) from the University of Western Australia. He is an independent economic consultant and freelance journalist with a background in policy research.

    VIEW ALL POSTS 

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Economy

Prime minister’s misleading capital gains video misses the point

Published on

From the Fraser Institute

By Jake Fuss and Alex Whalen

According to a 2021 study published by the Fraser Institute, 38.4 per cent of those who paid capital gains taxes in Canada earned less than $100,000 per year, and 18.3 per cent earned less than $50,000. Yet in his video, Prime Minister Trudeau claims that his capital gains tax hike will affect only the richest “0.13 per cent of Canadians”

This week, Prime Minister Trudeau released a video about his government’s decision to increase capital gains taxes. Unfortunately, he made several misleading claims while failing to acknowledge the harmful effects this tax increase will have on a broad swath of Canadians.

Right now, individuals and businesses who sell capital assets pay taxes on 50 per cent of the gain (based on their full marginal rate). Beginning on June 25, however, the Trudeau government will increase that share to 66.7 per cent for capital gains above $250,000. People with gains above that amount will again pay their full marginal rate, but now on two-thirds of the gain.

In the video, which you can view online, the prime minister claims that this tax increase will affect only the “very richest” people in Canada and will generate significant new revenue—$20 billion, according to him—to pay for social programs. But economic research and data on capital gains taxes reveal a different picture.

For starters, it simply isn’t true that capital gains taxes only affect the wealthy. Many Canadians who incur capital gains taxes, such as small business owners, may only do so once in their lifetimes.

For example, a plumber who makes $90,000 annually may choose to sell his business for $500,000 at retirement. In that year, the plumber’s income is exaggerated because it includes the capital gain rather than only his normal income. In fact, according to a 2021 study published by the Fraser Institute, 38.4 per cent of those who paid capital gains taxes in Canada earned less than $100,000 per year, and 18.3 per cent earned less than $50,000. Yet in his video, Prime Minister Trudeau claims that his capital gains tax hike will affect only the richest “0.13 per cent of Canadians” with an “average income of $1.4 million a year.”

But this is a misleading statement. Why? Because it creates a distorted view of who will pay these capital gains taxes. Many Canadians with modest annual incomes own businesses, second homes or stocks and could end up paying these higher taxes following a onetime sale where the appreciation of their asset equals at least $250,000.

Moreover, economic research finds that capital taxes remain among the most economically damaging forms of taxation precisely because they reduce the incentive to innovate and invest. By increasing them the government will deter investment in Canada and chase away capital at a time when we badly need it. Business investment, which is crucial to boost living standards and incomes for Canadians, is collapsing in Canada. This tax hike will make a bad economic situation worse.

Finally, as noted, in the video the prime minister claims that this tax increase will generate “almost $20 billion in new revenue.” But investors do not incur capital gains taxes until they sell an asset and realize a gain. A higher capital gains tax rate gives them an incentive to hold onto their investments, perhaps until the rate is reduced after a change in government. According to economists, this “lock-in” effect can stifle economic activity. The Trudeau government likely bases its “$20 billion” number on an assumption that investors will sell their assets sooner rather than later—perhaps before June 25, to take advantage of the old inclusion rate before it disappears (although because the government has not revealed exactly how the new rate will apply that seems less likely). Of course, if revenue from the tax hike does turn out to be less than anticipated, the government will incur larger budget deficits than planned and plunge us further into debt.

Contrary to Prime Minister Trudeau’s claims, raising capital gains taxes will not improve fairness. It’s bad for investment, the economy and the living standards of Canadians.

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Automotive

The EV battery ‘catch-22’

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From The Center Square

While setting aggressive goals for electric vehicle market share, the Biden administration also wants tariffs and or restrictions on the importation of vehicles and the minerals needed for their batteries – creating heightened concerns over supply chains in what can be described as a “Catch-22” situation.

Solutions to some of the problems include battery recycling and increased domestic mining, however, the U.S. is currently limited in its capacity for both. Federal funds are spurring new recycling plant projects, but questions remain on whether there will be enough used material to meet projected needs.

In his e-book, “The EV Transition Explained,” Robert Charette, longtime systems engineer, and contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum, says making the transition is harder than anyone thinks. He recently told The Center Square it is truer now than it ever was.

“None of this is simple,” he said.

His argument centers on the lack of planning and systems engineering on initiatives that are politically, not engineering, driven. While change is possible, he suggested it would require trillions more in government spending and enforcing those changes through law.

Charette identified many serious issues in setting up the EV battery infrastructure – and even if those challenges are met, he said, there may be tradeoffs between affordability, security and environmental concerns.

Profitability. Battery recycling is a still-developing process which is time consuming and expensive. The cost of purchasing recycled materials may be more costly than buying them new.

Manufacturing demand and potential backlog. The U.S. will require eight million batteries annually by 2030 to meet the government’s EV target, with increases each year after that.

Standardization. Batteries vary in configuration, size, and chemistry.

Domestic mining. While decreasing our dependency on outside sources, what are the environmental impacts? It can also take years to acquire permits and get a lithium mine up and running.

Mineral shortfalls. Secure and sustainable access to critical minerals like copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel is essential for a smooth and affordable transition to clean energy. An analysis by the International Energy Agency indicates a “significant gap” between the world’s supply and demand for copper and lithium. Projected supplies will only meet 70% of the copper and 50% of the lithium needed to achieve 2035 climate targets.

The report said that “without the strong uptake of recycling and reuse, “mining capital requirements would need to be one-third higher. The agency also emphasizes China’s dominance in the refining and processing sector.

Transportation of discharged batteries classified as hazardous waste is one of the costliest steps of the recycling process. Experts suggest updates to federal EPA and DOT regulations for how battery-related waste is classified. In addition to health and safety, they say clearer definitions of what constitutes hazardous waste would help reduce transportation costs. Many recycling plants are being built in regions where production sites are located to address this.

Supply chain and skills gap shortages. The timetable set by the government is not aligned with the capabilities of the current supply chain. Software plays a key role in the management and operation of an EV battery, and automakers are competing for a limited supply of software and systems engineers.

Competing interests. The goal is to create a circular battery economy, reducing the need for raw materials. However, an EV battery that is no longer useful for propelling a car still has enough life left for other purposes such as residential energy storage. Experts propose a battery material hierarchy where repurposing and reusing retired EV batteries are more favorable to immediately recycling them, detouring them out of the cycle.

Charette says the biggest problem with recycling projections is that they are built on assumptions that have not been tested.

“We won’t know whether these assumptions hold until we reach a point where we are recycling millions of EV batteries,” he said.

Because most EV lithium-ion batteries produced through 2023 are still on the road, the International Council on Clean Transportation reports that the majority of materials being used as feedstock by recycling plants currently come from scrap materials created during battery production.

According to Charette, manufacturers also claim future generations of batteries will last 15 to 20 years, which he says would put a bigger kink in the used-battery supply chain.

Another issue contributing to consumers’ reluctance to buy an EV is the inability to determine the overall health of your battery. Current testing methods are inefficient and costly.

EV adoption has so far not met projections and with all the competing interests, Charette said the market will ultimately tell us what direction the situation is headed. He is also intrigued over the impact government pressure will have on the eventual outcome.

He said many individual components have yet to be worked out, adding that although there is a vision, “we’re a heck of a long way from that vision to getting where we need to go.”

In his opinion, battery recycling issues are even further behind than transitioning the electric grid to renewable energy sources.

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