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Defining ESG: Capitalism, Sustainability, and Market Forces

  • 10 mins

Another day brings forth another topic in the ongoing culture war. I've been following Shane Wenzel, the President and CEO of Shane's Home, for approximately a year now. He has penned numerous blogs over the past few years, addressing a range of subjects. Some of his recent propositions include raising the voting age to 21. Today, my focus is on responding to Wenzel's blog from a couple of years ago about ESG. I intend to address Wenzel's misrepresentation of ESG and provide a brief explanation of its nature. If you haven't perused his ESG blog, I recommend you do so to ensure that my response is contextually accurate. I've selected six statements for my response.


1. “Plastic alone is produced at nearly 400 million tons annually with thousands of uses, but in particular is indispensable in health care and in our hospitals. Regardless of health care always being one of the top (if not the top) concerns of the mass population, the elimination of plastics still appears to be one of the key targets of our governments.”


In Alberta, the provincial government has taken action by introducing the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Amendment Act (EPEAA). This act places the responsibility on product and packaging producers to be more environmentally conscious from a financial perspective. Interestingly, every province except Alberta has embraced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a concept that holds manufacturers accountable for their products post-use. It's essential to clarify that the EPEAA serves as an initial step towards creating EPR, albeit exclusively addressing household products while excluding the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors. The timeline for full implementation is set for 2025, and as of Fall 2023, the development process is still focused on bylaw formulation.


Given this context, it becomes evident that Alberta lacks concrete plans to reduce plastics in healthcare facilities, let alone considering a ban. It's important to acknowledge the indispensable role of plastics in healthcare, particularly during critical moments. However, opportunities for environmental improvements and financial savings exist even within healthcare settings. Take the operating room as an example – there's potential for environmental gains through reusable personal protective equipment (PPE) and a reduction in single-use plastics (SUP), depending on the situation. The cost-effectiveness of reusing PPE over the long term and the proven safety of reusable PPE forms are noteworthy. Furthermore, other countries within the EU have successfully implemented circular systems, suggesting its viability.


Undoubtedly, there's room for discussion on enhancing the system's effectiveness, safety, and efficiency. However, it's fallacious to argue that the government shouldn't or cannot simultaneously pursue plastic reduction while improving healthcare. For a comprehensive perspective, research indicates that the scope of regulations proposed by the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations (SUPPR) exclusively encompasses checkout bags, foodservice ware, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws. Concerns regarding the imposition of "woke" regulations by a "big government" on healthcare facilities are largely unfounded. Even in the scenario of regulations being imposed, they would be introduced gradually, ultimately contributing to long-term cost reduction and safety maintenance. An effective approach to ensuring fiscal responsibility involves minimizing overhead costs – a point on which we can surely find common ground.


2. “Advocates have gone so far to suggest you could take your own non-plastic cutlery to the food courts along with your non-plastic food containers should you have the need to eat while shopping.” 


Reusable bags and containers are already integral parts of our routine. When you eat lunch at work, do you not bring your own reusable utensils? It's perplexing to consider bringing your utensils an unreasonable notion. Have you ventured on camping trips or backpacked through mountains? While admittedly not always convenient, I'm certain your pockets can accommodate a reusable fork and spoon.


While you could raise a pertinent argument about the inequitable shift of environmental responsibility from corporations to individuals, you choose not to. If you oppose "imposing" ESG goals on corporations, consider establishing a basic standard for individuals to uphold. Isn't personal responsibility a core tenet among conservatives? What about being mindful of your environmental impact?


3. “Calgary City Council musing the idea of setting the price of retail products such as paper bags and reusable bags to their list of council duties. That should delight private business owners!”


To offer fairness, the government's proposed bylaw aims to establish pricing regulations for businesses, imposing a minimum fee on customers who opt for paper or reusable shopping bags. This move has sparked controversy, though not for the reasons one might assume. Primarily, its purpose is to steer consumer behavior. The bulk of the costs are shifted onto the customers, thus relating less to internal business operations. It's worth noting that some businesses voiced concerns, citing challenges in swiftly adapting, possibly requiring investments in dishwashers for reusable cups. In such instances, the government could step in, providing assistance to small businesses undergoing necessary transitions. Ultimately, it's foreseeable that this will become a baseline requirement for businesses to operate. If implementing these changes is beyond their financial capacity, then these businesses might not be suited for operation.


Regrettably, your argument omits crucial concerns. Notably, the actual worries tied to this bylaw involve its potential as a regressive tax on low-income Canadians. Additionally, there's a risk of substituting single-use items with alternatives that could be even more detrimental. Yet, Canada isn't alone in pursuing these changes; countries ranging from Zimbabwe to the UK have taken steps towards prohibiting single-use plastics. If the apprehension is businesses' inability to afford biodegradable containers or utensils, the solution doesn't lie in dismantling sustainability initiatives. Rather, investment in compostables or innovative alternatives is the key, fostering economies of scale to make degradable products more financially viable. Notably, taxpayers have supported the entire oil industry, including carbon capture technology. It's time to forsake hypocrisy and channel resources into sustainable practices.


4. “This could be merely my personal opinion but based on the strange illogical actions of many western democratic leaders, it appears they have little concept of the damage their policies are doing to their own people based on a natural or manufactured crises.”


The presence of plastic and forever chemicals in our oceans and soil is neither a natural nor a manufactured issue. Moreover, there exists a robust scientific consensus that climate change isn't a naturally occurring crisis or a fabricated concept; its primary cause is human activities. While you may choose to cherry-pick climate change denial arguments from Christopher Monckton, it's crucial to note that your stance lacks credibility, especially in light of the overwhelming consensus on this matter.


Having clarified this, let's direct our attention to the realm of regulations. Regulations in the Western world have been extensively crafted to facilitate the creation of the comforts we enjoy. A comparative examination of our policies against those of regions with laxer regulations reveals the profound significance of stringent environmental norms. What strikes as ironic is the inclination of conservatives, such as yourself, to lament the potential "downfall of Western civilization," even as you relish the magnificence of landscapes like the Rockies. It's worth acknowledging that these very environments have been safeguarded by government regulations.


5. “while companies scramble to meet all the ESG requirements which is assured to put many of them out of business…”


Your understanding of ESG seems to be missing some key fundamentals. No company is in a state of panic to meet ESG criteria. The truth is, ESG isn't about enforcing "requirements." It's not a localized, regional, or national mandate. These are simply goals set by businesses themselves. Furthermore, ESG is far from novel; it's been in existence for decades, originating as early as the 1960s.


For those unfamiliar, ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance – essential considerations in companies' decision-making. Environmental factors assess a company's impact on nature, social aspects delve into their treatment of people, and governance evaluates their management practices. While skeptics may question the practicality of ESG, its purpose is to hold companies accountable (though not through legal means) for positive shifts in their environmental, social, and ethical conduct. ESG fosters transparency and responsibility, albeit with concerns about genuine commitment.


In essence, ESG represents aspirational objectives. If you're concerned about substantial changes in governance, rest assured – it doesn't demand immediate action, and companies are free to cease pursuit at any time. Transparency in disclosing risks and investments constitutes one facet of ESG, a concept that's not groundbreaking.


There's no substantial data supporting the notion that ESG is driving businesses to bankruptcy. In fact, the opposite is true – investors use ESG criteria to assess a company's reputation and screen for potential risks. This is a pragmatic approach, unrelated to altruism. Investors' bottom lines are intrinsically linked to social impact investments, whether you're in agreement or not. Given the public's growing demand for transparency and sustainable practices, ESG becomes crucial for social approval. Companies clinging to outdated practices face existential threats. While you may attribute this to "wokeness," it's actually the mechanics of the free market at play.


Valid critiques of ESG do exist. For instance, one argument posits that it functions more as a form of greenwashing, lacking genuine intent or action to adopt sustainable practices. However, your assessment of ESG stems from a misrepresentation of its purpose, coupled with a reluctance to align with climate science. BlackRock's response to the GOP underscores this, citing flawed premises that jeopardize investors' retirement funds. Concerns about BlackRock divesting from the fossil fuel industry are unnecessary, as the company expects to remain invested in carbon-intensive companies, citing their roles in a successful energy transition.

Indeed, the resistance against ESG aligns with the denial of climate change. While you might believe anthropocentric climate change is fabricated, it's important to recognize that the free market can't be constrained. BlackRock's strategic partner program reflects substantial support for the energy transition, with over two-thirds of major clients, holding assets exceeding $3 trillion, favoring this shift.


6. “People are starting to lose trust in public institutions and governments.”


Undoubtedly, that's accurate, but the rationale behind it differs from what you're suggesting. Individuals like yourself are actively cultivating skepticism in our institutions and public systems, potentially bolstering the influence of private entities. An intriguing irony surfaces as you criticize ESG. The absence of stringent regulations empowers businesses to independently determine their sustainable practices. So, the question emerges – would you prefer governmental intervention enforcing concrete environmental and social regulations, or should companies be left to self-regulate? I venture that the latter is your preference.


In this ever-evolving landscape, the adage "adapt or go bankrupt" aptly applies. Investors are representing clients who are increasingly embracing sustainable development – a reflection of the prevailing dynamics in the free market. It's becoming clearer that this issue is more political than economic in nature. If you harbor concerns about ESG, direct your inquiries toward capitalism itself. ESG is essentially the market's response to existential threats and ailing industries.


So, as we navigate this landscape, consider this: the discourse surrounding distrust, private influence, and the role of government isn't confined solely to economics. It's a multifaceted arena where your critique of ESG ties directly into the broader fabric of societal and economic structures. Remember, when confronted with the intricacies of ESG, you're essentially grappling with a facet of the broader capitalism narrative – a narrative that's being recalibrated in response to the growing urgency of sustainability and industry deterioration.


Final Thoughts

I value Wenzel's perspectives on the matter, as they present an opening to address prevailing misconceptions. While our paths toward social justice might diverge, our shared aspiration lies in the core principles of ESG. Our divergent approaches notwithstanding, the common goal for businesses remains clear: to prosper harmoniously while nurturing a symbiotic rapport with the planet and customers. For a more in-depth exploration of this subject, refer to this Vox article, which delves into the GOP's engagement with the ESG discourse.

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