From debanking to Bud Light: the rights and wrongs of ESG

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


In July, NatWest’s CEO Alison Rose became the latest casualty of the turn to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) in big business. Rose resigned after the furore over the closure of Nigel Farage’s Coutts account, in part because his political views did not ‘align’ with the company’s values. From Nike annoying women by embracing trans ‘influencer’ Dylan Mulvaney to Gillette annoying men by piggy-backing on the #MeToo movement, there have been numerous high-profile corporate mis-steps in the name of projecting a ‘progressive’ image.

The traditional image of a big business is one of an organisation single-mindedly focused on generating profits for shareholders. But in recent years, there has been a drive to introduce other aims into corporate practice and mission statements, from tackling climate change to promoting ethnic and gender diversity. Given the strong position of big corporations in society, changing the way they conduct business could be a powerful force for good, in the eyes of many.

But there have been concerns that the promotion of such values could be at odds with the views of customers. In April, the backlash against Bud Light’s use of Mulvaney in their advertising led to a boycott of Budweiser products and a decline in the company’s share price. Alissa Heinerscheid, Anheuser-Busch’s vice-president for marketing, had earlier declared that the brand needed to increase its ‘inclusivity’, but she was later reported to have been fired by the company.

Moreover, the rise of debanking and the withdrawal of online payments services is a serious threat to the ability of individuals and organisations to operate in modern society. In July, the Guardian reported that a thousand accounts per day are being closed. While most people would accept that banks have the right to reject customers on commercial grounds, the idea that expressing the ‘wrong’ ideas could make it impossible to send and receive payments is worrying. Moreover, banks are seemingly under no obligation to explain why accounts are being closed.

What is the best role for big firms in improving society? Should they focus solely on producing the best products and services at the keenest prices? Or given their influence, should they be promoting social change, too? Is the turn to ESG, as many claim, merely ‘wokewashing’ or have top executives really bought into pursuing these aims? Is ESG really progressive or does the debanking trends point to illiberal outcomes?

Joan Mulvenna
semi-retired garden designer; founding member, Politics In Pubs

Professor David Paton
professor of Industrial Economics, Nottingham University Business School

Hilary Salt FIA, FPMI, FRSA
actuary; founder, First Actuarial

Barry Wall
course director,

Sam Parker
European financial regulation specialist; former parliamentary assistant, European Parliament and House of Lords