- Climate change proposals rise up the shareholder agenda, as does reproductive health and wellbeing.
- …That’s said, anti-ESG changes now take up 8% of proxy proposals but garner very little subsequent support.
- Shareholders are demanding far more reporting transparency, especially on lobbying and election spending.
If you want a window into the priorities of corporate America, you could do worse than pore over upcoming shareholder resolutions to get a look in.
For those lacking the wherewithal to do so on scale, they should probably have a read of the 2023 Proxy Preview report from the non-profit shareholder advocacy group As You Sow.
The report reveals shareholders care deeply about the factors that make up ESG. As of mid-February, when the analysis was conducted, proponents had filed at least 542 shareholder resolutions linked to the environment, social development and sustainable governance for the 2023 proxy season already. This is likely to exceed the total for the previous year of 627.
Climate change remains top of the proxy season agenda with 23% of proposals explicitly linked to it. Many investors are specifically interested in getting more companies to report on greenhouse gas emissions. Out of 122 climate-linked proposals, 72 are on emissions, while 42 request more understanding of strategy and risk assessment and 8 centre on deforestation.
On emissions reporting, the majority of proposals want companies to set either net-zero GHG goals or those that are “Paris-compliant”, framed as part of a “transition plan” to a lower carbon economy to prevent drastic shifts in climate behaviour.
As a proxy investor, As You Sow noted it had a specific request at Chevron and ExxonMobil about how each calculates an “emission baseline that determines progress towards emissions reduction goals”. As You Sow is concerned that through divestment of high-carbon operations, emission reductions can appear more pronounced, but it fails to register the impact of those divested assets.
Interestingly, proposals focused on political influence take up almost one in five (17%) of the ESG-inked resolutions picked up by As You Sow. Around 30 of those pick up specifically focus on lobbying, 28 on elections and 35 on other issues that centre on mismatches between corporate policies and recipients’ viewpoints.
The report states: “The established approach to political money controversy — adopting a policy and providing oversight and disclosure — is clearly not sufficient to the moment for most; hyper-partisanship in the political arena means companies face ever-greater scrutiny about the actions of political players they fund.”
Most proposals are more specifically concerned with support for net-zero or Paris-compliant aims this year and how lobbying may influence political decision making on it. Another new angle, As You Sow detects, seeks a “framework for identifying and addressing misalignments” at big tech firms. Most climate lobbying proposals were withdrawn after agreements last year and three of four votes were more than 30%.
Very specific to the US, reproductive rights have shot up the agenda with proxy investors. After the June 2022 Supreme Court ruling to dismantle existing abortion rights, investors such as Rhia Ventures “substantially increased” the number of proposals on this subject. Now seven ask how companies are handling the risks that the new restrictions impose.
Another seven companies have been asked how they will handle law enforcement queries about private health information, while two make specific requests on digital privacy policies. Three ask about insurance coverage for reproductive health care, two are about maternal health benefits and three others ask hospital companies about their policies on access to abortion.
Increasing in popularity, there are at least 40 proposals for 2023 linked to what can be classed as “anti-ESG”. This is up from 27, according to the Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2). Proponents, including long-time players such as the National Centre for Public Policy Research and the National Legal and Policy Center, are joined by organisations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Consumer’s Research. Many, according to As You Sow, have ties to right-wing groups and are all actively discouraging consideration of ESG factors in state investments.[Read more on ESG-related proxy voting here]