Generally speaking, ‘big business’ has become cleaner, greener and safer over recent decades, albeit with a vastly increased operating footprint. The effects of social media and 24/7 news coverage obscure this, but it is nevertheless true. As much as I applaud the growth of social enterprises and alternative approaches to doing business, I still believe that the publicly listed corporation has the potential to be a very sustainable business structure if properly governed: widely and publicly owned, overseen by elected independent directors, and accountable to all of its key stakeholders, with a time horizon that should be multi-generational. It feels like we’re a long way from that ideal today, and it is not surprising that corporations are the least trusted of all types of business.
To gain some perspective on the present-day challenge, it’s helpful to step back and look at the long-term picture. As a bit of a history geek, I naturally revert to the past as a logical starting point. The idea for writing about the history of the rise of responsible investment, and the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in investment, came about in this way. In discussions with clients and colleagues about the rapid development of the ESG discipline, I often found myself starting with the historical context and personal anecdotes to ‘set the scene’ for the inflection in interest that we are seeing today. By way of example, my experience of researching corporate shortcomings in the Nigerian oil and gas sector as a Masters’ student twenty years ago was that there was almost no disclosure or commentary of any kind from companies on some really important issues. We have come a very long way, and this should be celebrated.