ESG-labeled funds have over $13B worth of holdings in companies linked to Myanmar’s brutal military regime, a financial investigation reveals.
March 9, 2022
Companies with ties to Myanmar’s military are benefitting from over $13 billion in ESG-labeled investments, according to financial records and other information compiled and published today by Inclusive Development International and ALTSEAN-Burma. In their report, “The Myanmar ESG Files: How ‘responsible investment’ is enabling a military dictatorship,” the human rights advocacy groups document how hundreds of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) funds hold shares in 33 corporations that are enabling a brutal regime responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Activists on the ground have been risking their lives and liberty to stop the flow of money, weapons and other resources that has allowed the military to maintain its illegitimate grip on power,” said Debbie Stothard, founder and coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma. “It’s shocking and devastating to see so-called ‘responsible investment’ doing the opposite.”
Companies receiving “sustainable investment” include weapons dealers that are arming the regime, tech firms serving the military-controlled national police force, and others that direct profits to the military, allowing it to surveil and violently crush dissent. Data compiled by Inclusive Development International and published today in an open-access online database show that ESG-labeled funds continued to hold shares in these companies even after Myanmar’s military was found responsible for two of the most egregious and well-publicized human rights crimes in recent history: the genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya and last year’s bloody coup and subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
“That dozens of companies with ties to Myanmar’s genocidal regime are included in ESG portfolios shows just how large the gulf is between ‘responsible investment’ marketing claims and reality,” said David Pred, executive director of Inclusive Development International. “The foundation of this fraudulent industry is a deeply flawed ESG ratings system, which is in urgent need of regulation.”
From responsible investing to ESG greenwashing
Tailoring investment strategies to consider ESG issues is increasingly common. Yet while the ESG investing industry is capitalizing on public demand for ethical and sustainable investing options, it is directing capital in ways that are neither – as evidenced by information revealed in the Myanmar ESG Files.
This is in part because the process through which companies’ ESG practices are rated and then used to tailor investment portfolios typically only reflects information considered “financially material.” That means a company’s links to gross human rights abuses are only relevant insofar as they threaten its future profitability and share price.
ESG ratings can also mask serious human rights abuses because they are based on an amalgamation of information about numerous indicators and a diverse range of environmental, social and governance issues. As a result, a company making and selling weapons used to perpetrate genocide and war crimes in Myanmar can effectively compensate for the reputational risks of that behavior and raise its ESG rating by, for example, committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The role of ESG index providers
Firms that translate ESG ratings into suggested investment portfolios (ESG indexes), including MSCI, FTSE Russell and S&P Dow Jones Indices, have enormous leverage to improve human rights compliance among companies seeking a spot on their indexes. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, they have a responsibility to exercise that leverage – including by excluding companies that refuse to stop enabling the Myanmar military’s human rights abuses. Information documented in the Myanmar ESG Files demonstrates that all three firms are failing to do so.
The low bar for securing a place in ESG funds does more than direct “responsible investment” to the wrong place. It makes it harder to hold some of worst corporate offenders accountable. The “ESG” stamp of approval undermines the efforts of communities and human rights defenders to secure redress for corporate abuses by making investors less likely to engage and use their leverage to compel action.
“Real socially responsible investing could be a crucial catalyst for advancing human rights in business,” said Pred. “But without a complete overhaul, the ESG investing industry is actually doing the opposite – greenwashing abusive companies and diverting energy from this potentially powerful force for good, with real human costs in Myanmar and around the world.”