Some business leaders sided with Ford. Owen Young, the chairman of General Electric, said in the 1920s that, in addition to paying a “fair rate of return,” corporations had an obligation to labor, customers and the public. Jack Welch, a future General Electric leader, became a champion of shareholder value. But he later told the Financial Times, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, that shareholder value was actually “the dumbest idea in the world” and that “your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”
The conflict between creating value for shareholders and serving a wider set of stakeholders tends to become particularly acute during societal shifts, says Jennifer Howard-Grenville, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. The 2008 financial crisis was one. The climate crisis, she says, is another.
How can chief executives balance climate reality with the pressures from the anti-woke crowd? Some business leaders have responded by denying there is any contradiction — provided you take the long view. Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever from 2009 to 2018, insisted the consumer group’s future was inextricably linked to the planet’s. Unilever had been around for more than 100 years, he said in a speech the year after his appointment. To continue to exist for centuries more it needed shareholders who looked far ahead, too. To those who didn’t, Mr. Polman said, “don’t put your money in our company.”
Which was fine, until a 2017 bid from Kraft Heinz, later withdrawn, forced Mr. Polman into an immediate shoring up of Unilever’s stock price through cost cutting, dividend increases and a share buyback. The problem with Polman’s strategy is that many investors and lenders want their money, if not now, then soon. As Stuart Kirk, the former global head of responsible investment at HSBC Asset Management, said in a speech last year that led to his departure: “At a big bank like ours, at HSBC, what do people think the average loan length is? It’s six years. What happens to the planet in year seven is actually irrelevant to our loan book.”
Georg Kell, the chairman of Arabesque, a group of financial technology companies, has a claim to being the inventor of the E.S.G. label. He was the founder of the United Nations Global Compact, which, in 2004 launched an effort to “better integrate environmental, social and corporate governance issues in asset management, securities brokerage services and associated research functions.”