Over the last decade, the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) conversation has moved from fringe investment forums, to boardrooms, to dinner tables. Although the topic is now mainstream, ESG practices are far from mature.

This lack of maturity was exemplified this spring when the S&P Dow Jones Indices decided to remove Tesla from its S&P 500 ESG Index of companies meeting sustainability criteria. How could Tesla be removed after they’ve single-handedly driven the adoption of electric vehicles over the past 19 years? It’s tough to think of another company that has moved the needle on ESG as much as Tesla has – let alone 300 companies. Regardless of whatever technicalities caused Tesla to be removed from the index, common sense should have prevented this move. In the recent months, miscalculations like this and other ESG shortcomings has led to criticism and what some are calling – The War on ESG.

The growth in popularity of ESG has attracted some critics, but there has been serious progress over the past few years. We’ve seen a significant shift towards stakeholder capitalism and ESG investment vehicles (even if their structure isn’t perfect) are now widely available. There has also been a move by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require reporting on scope 3 emissions. This would be one of the most impactful and clear-cut ESG mandates to date.

There are plenty of other examples that represent a collective shift in the way that we do business. ESG-based decisions have a long payback period, but the moves being made today will help the world solve some of its most difficult problems down the road. This is a good thing. However, there is frustration in the pushback on ESG regulations. It’s easy to look at ESG detractors and jump to the conclusion that objections are based on greed or politics. In some cases, this is the root of anti-ESG sentiment. In others, the critiques have merit. 

There is still greenwashing happening in corporate messaging, reports, etc. Organizations still rely heavily on using quantitative data. There is also lack of materiality understanding among corporations, ratings agencies, ESG practitioners, and the general public. These problems are major issues that ESG experts and regulatory agencies must address to improve the actual impact of ESG practices.  The hard questions being directed towards ESG professionals today may be frustrating, but they are necessary. These difficult questions help us acknowledge the weaknesses of our current practices and focus on improvements. The War on ESG shouldn’t be looked at as a threat – but rather an opportunity to find new solutions to address some of the hardest problems facing ESG today. This will not only increase the legitimacy of ESG, but will help embed ESG into the way we think, the way we operate businesses, and we implement policy. Ultimately, this will move society towards the ultimate goal of ESG – a cleaner, more sustainable, and more equal future. 


  • Matt Adams is the CEO of NetBenefit Software. Based on the east coast of Canada, Matt has spent his career (and more of his social life than he’s willing to admit) in the Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) software space.