What do ESG Advocates and Foes Have in Common

A provocative essay by Peter Vanham at Fortune:

What do an environmentally-minded activist investor and an anti-ESG activist investor have in common? More than you would think, if Bluebell and Strive are examples to go by.

Both firms made headlines this week. London-based Bluebell demanded several governance changes at BlackRock, including a replacement of CEO Larry Fink. It said the company’s inconsistent messaging over ESG hurt its reputation—and its investors. It wants a new CEO to ensure Blackrock’s environmental and social stewardship is about actions, not words.

Ohio-based Strive, meanwhile, declared victory in its anti-ESG activism at Disney and Exxon. At those companies, a new CEO and two new board members were appointed, respectively, and that allowed Strive to move on to new targets. At Chevron and Home Depot, it now demands they stop “prioritizing ESG over excellence” or threatens to drag them into a costly proxy battle. 

At first sight, the two activist investors have very little in common other than their tactics. Bluebell seeks returns for its investors that are “environmentally and socially responsible,” its co-founder Giuseppe Bivona told me. Strive’s founder Vivek Ramaswamy, on the other hand, said that “if you want to pursue an environmental agenda with your own money, you’re free to do it. But Strive is not your home.”

Yet there is a commonality beyond the fact that they’re activist investors: both funds want to keep the companies they invest in out of politics.

“I don’t believe that the role of an investment manager is to dictate policy,” Bivona told me over the phone from London. “We all have an opinion, but the mission of BlackRock is not to be involved in influencing beliefs and suggesting, for instance, energy policy. Especially if you have alienated 23 states and 150 million of Americans as a result of your actions. That is bad for your business.”

“That’s very compelling,” responded Ramaswamy when I put Bivona’s assessment to him. “There may be some common ground. At Strive we prioritize excellence over politics. Companies have to be mission-driven: have a core purpose and stay true to it. But by trying to be everything to everyone, BlackRock has become nothing to anyone. [Bluebell] has a similar concern about inconsistency.”

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