Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

Yvan Allaire is chairman, and François Dauphin is president and CEO of the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations (IGOPP)

For 40 years or so, corporations listed on stock markets were expected to pursue diligently, if not exclusively, value creation for their shareholders. A number of factors had pushed corporations away from an earlier “stakeholder model,” prime among them the revolution in executive compensation.

Then, in the new century, a perennial criticism of business corporations and “capitalism” suddenly took on new urgency, with the capitalist system being held responsible for the wealth and income inequality it produces and the environmental havoc it has wreaked. This time around, though, the complaints did not issue from some leftist organization but from the very heart of the system, from large institutional shareholders who have recently converted to the church of ecological sanctity and social responsibility. In this new view, corporations should henceforth be accountable for their financial performance, yes, but also for achieving set targets in matters of environment (E), society (S) and governance (G). The ESG concerns, tacitly fostering a “stakeholder” doctrine within corporations, has created new challenges for corporate governance.

Story continues below advertisement

A year ago, this revised doctrine received a surprising endorsement when 181 chief executives of large American companies signed on to the idea of a new “purpose” for the corporation: a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders). “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

So, institutional funds and others now require specific ESG action plans, target metrics and linkage of executive compensation to these metrics.

But there are unresolved issues with this “stakeholder” model of the corporation:

When the interests of various stakeholders are divergent, how should the interests of the corporation be understood? How should the board proceed in determining a fair trade-off between the interests of various stakeholders and which of them are entitled to such consideration?

A second concern: How are business corporations to cope with ESG demands when facing tough competitors, domestic and international, who are not subjected to these same pressures? A recent study shows that activist hedge funds treat ESG targets as a signal of management’s less than absolute devotion to shareholder interest. Firms spending more than average on corporate social responsibility activities have double the probability of being targeted by “activist” hedge funds.

At a more fundamental, philosophical, level: Should ESG targets go beyond what government regulations call for? In a democratic society, is it not, rather, the role of governments, elected to protect the common good and represent the general will of the people, to regulate business corporations so as to achieve society’s social and environmental goals? But, perhaps the recent ESG focus and rediscovered “corporate purpose” are but manoeuvres to fend off popular pressures on governments to impose stringent regulations.

In any case, the achievement of ESG targets will require changes in management incentives. Executive compensation in its current format is in large part linked to financial performance, with major components highly sensitive to stock price. Linking compensation to some ESG targets will call for retooling the way executives are compensated – a difficult task. In 2019, 67.2 per cent of S&P/TSX 60 firms incorporated at least one ESG metric in their incentive plans, but only 39.7 per cent related to environmental factors. About 90 per cent of the firms include ESG metrics in their annual executive incentive programs but rarely in their long-term incentive programs. Willis Towers Watson also noted in a recent study that only 4 per cent of S&P 500 firms used ESG metrics as part of their long-term incentive awards.

Story continues below advertisement

Finally, if a company is to be stakeholder-driven, why do only shareholders get to elect board members? That nagging question may come to haunt some of the promoters of the “stakeholder model” as it opens the door to board membership by other stakeholders, such as employees. It may not be what the institutional funds had in mind when pushing their ESG agenda.

A sharp debate is now raging (in academia at least) about the pros and cons of the stakeholder model. Be that as it may, in the business world, the relentless pressure from investors has converted most corporate management and boards of directors to the ESG religion despite many unresolved issues.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies