Ever heard of ESG?

David Penberthy Herald Sun February 24, 2024

As another millionaire CEO loses his job over another PR disaster, maybe it’s time sanctimonious corporations resorted to honesty. There was an interview in last month’s Qantas inflight magazine with the chief executive of the mining giant Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto you will recall is the company which landed itself in deep strife when it emerged in 2020 that it had blown up two 46,000 year-old Aboriginal caves in Western Australia to access $135 million worth of iron ore.

The revelation was pivotal in the departure of former CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and his replacement with new boss Jakob Stausholm, the subject of the profile piece in the Qantas mag.

In that article, Stausholm talked about how he has always placed himself at the vanguard of what’s known in business circles as ESG, which stands for environmental, social, governance. ESG is basically the progressive corporate checklist covering everything from carbon emissions and reconciliation to gender equality and LGBTQI friendliness, against which “enlightened” modern corporations assess their conduct as good corporate citizens.

ESG strikes a delicate and often unsuccessful balance between doing the right thing, and coming across as preachy and sanctimonious.

It creates a real risk that companies can be seen as straying from their day jobs.

And it can also set them up for accusations of hypocrisy, as was the case last year when Rio Tinto took time out from its once-hectic schedule blowing up indigenous sacred sites to campaign for a Yes vote at last year’s referendum.

Australia now has a growing rollcall for former chief execs who are the living embodiment of a favoured sledge of the right-wingers – go woke and go broke.

None of them have gone broke, of course, the parachutes from these high-flying positions on Mahogany Row are spun from pure gold, as the exit payments afforded to Alan Joyce and now ex-Woolies boss Brad Banducci attest.

Banducci’s back-pedalling efforts on last Monday’s excruciating Four Corners interview were almost as spectacular as the gymnastics he performed last month in relation to Australia Day. Woolworths’ decision not to stock Australia Day products, and to belatedly spin that decision as merely a response to flagging consumer demand, was a protracted PR disaster.

In my home state, the independent and family-owned Drakes supermarket chain cannily seized it as an opportunity to announce with great fanfare that they would be stocking as many Australia Day products as they could get their hands on.

Drakes enjoyed record sales, suggesting that Woolies’ decision had nothing to do with consumer demand but was a bit of ESG-inspired, feelgood boardroom gesture politics.

And of course, given the vocal stance of Woolworths at the referendum last year – a stance it reversed after a customer backlash and abuse of its Big W staff – cynics had every right to suspect that yet again Woolies was trying to tell Australians how they should think about politics.

I am in that minority of Australians who voted yes to the Voice. I did so not because of the Yes campaign, but despite it.

All this impertinent corporate posturing had the sum effect of driving up the No vote in this country.

To this day I find it bizarre that smart people like Banducci and Joyce and Stausholm failed to comprehend how a free lecture from the big end of town was going to win hearts and minds in suburban and regional Australia.

Especially at a time when the four categories of products those companies sell or help make – flights, groceries, energy and building materials – are at the absolute epicentre of the cost-of-living crisis.

Going to the dentist is never a fun experience.

I had a really bad time of it a few years ago when I went in for a clean and ended up being seen to by a woman you could describe as the Che Guevara of dentistry.

Having prised my jaws open and turned on her whizzing scraper she engaged me in conversation, where having made the fatal error of telling her I was a proud lifelong employee of News Corporation, she gave me a half hour lecture about the evils of the mainstream media, followed by a long dissertation on the mistreatment of asylum seekers.

With a mouthful of metal, I was powerless to respond to her onslaught and sat there wallowing in my own drool, grunting occasionally in total disagreement.

Be it a left-wing dental hygienist, Qantas, Woolworths or Big W, those in the provision of goods and services would do well to stick to their day jobs.

Our relationship with them is transactional.

We pay them for stuff, we pay them to do stuff, and we don’t really give a stuff what they think about politics.

As for Rio Tinto. I can see why their new chief executive is charting a much more conciliatory and sensitive path on indigenous affairs.

The destruction of those caves was an utter disgrace.

But how far down the ESG path can a company such as Rio Tinto credibly travel?

At the end of the day, a company such as Rio is simply in the business of digging bloody great holes in the ground so the rest of us can have access to shelter and keep the lights on. Perhaps a more honest approach is required.

Instead of pretending they’re playing some major role in saving the planet, laughably claiming to tread lightly on Mother Earth, they might experiment with a more honest approach.

Along the lines of: listen, if you want a roof above your head and would like to keep the power on, don’t mind us, we’re going to be making a bit of a mess over here.