I am an attorney who writes about ESG policy, laws, and regulations.
The first tweet I saw this morning was from Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis in which he stated "When companies act stupid, it's probably ESG. CC: @budweiserusa". The tweet is in reference to a decision by Budweiser, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, to feature transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a Bud Light can. Obviously, Patronis is anti-ESG and his tweet is designed to feed the right, but it raises an interesting question. Was the decision to feature Mulvaney driven by ESG or was it a marketing decision?
Environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, is a type of financial investing where factors beyond financial considerations are considered. Companies are scored by fund managers based on varying, and undefined factors. Standardization of reporting standards are being developed in Europe, with signs of reporting standards being developed for the United States, but they are not in place yet.
In the ESG debate, most focus on the environmental aspect. Measuring sustainability programs and environmentally friendly actions taken by a company. However, the social aspect is the real red meat for the right. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, programs; policies which target specific industries; and policies tied to political stances are often factors in ESG.
As I noted earlier, fund managers vary on what factors they consider in ESG. Companies vary as well, focusing on what they think may catch the eye of a fund manager, or help in their broader public perception. Anheuser-Busch InBev's 2022 ESG Report outlines their eight strategic priorities as a company. As is the norm in ESG, half their priorities relate to environmental concerns. Their "ethics and transparency" priority falls solidly under the often-ignored governance piece. "Entrepreneurship", "Smart Drinking & Moderation", and DEI generally fit under the social umbrella.
One may reasonably assume that the Mulvaney decision would fall under the DEI category. The company touts "we have introduced inclusive benefits such as gender-affirming medical support for transgender colleagues in the US and Canada." While that is directly relating to their employees, it is an indicator of core beliefs.
Under DEI, the company also highlights two outward facing initiatives, focused on gender equity. First, they highlight "Uncomfortable Foods," a program launched by Stella Artois to highlight women chefs, in a stated goal to gender equity in gastronomy. Second, they highlight programs by Michelob Ultra and Busch Light to address gender equity in sports. The Busch Light program is a pledge to sponsor all women drivers in NASCAR. The Michelob Ultra program is geared towards encouraging more women to participate in sports by "adding to its roster of women athletes and influencers to increase their visibility."
It is that language which leads me to believe that the Mulvaney decision may actually have been about ESG. If they decided to include raising awareness of transgender influencers for their 2023 ESG report, Mulvaney fits that description.
The company also promoted their DEI rating with the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index. While the GEI is focused solely on internal policies of a company, the Corporate Equality Index put out by The Human Rights Campaign is 40% based on outward facing policies, and a company can face an additional 25% penalty for actions which do not support the LGBTQ cause. It is not unreasonable to assume that Anheuser-Busch InBev is trying to increase their CEI score for a better ESG rating.
Ultimately, I have to give you a lawyer answer as to if this decision was about marketing or about ESG. Maybe. The internal decisions of a company are internal, and we only see what they choose to share. The 2023 ESG report will tell us more, but by then this issue will be long forgotten.
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