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Book review: ‘The Notorious ESG’ by Vasuki Shastry

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Published: 15 September 2023

This book will no doubt be loved by millennials as they exhort their elders to “GWTF” – get with the flow. But Christopher Walker longs for a few more facts and figures.

‘The Notorious ESG – Business, Climate and the Race to Save the Planet’ by Vasuki Shastry.

In brief

  • ESG is decidedly not “notorious” in this book, just in need of a bigger shove in the right direction.
  • And millennials are there to do it because they are “rebels without a pause”.
  • Underneath the gossipy narrative there are plenty of home truths for corporate, and policy, elites.
  • But detailed solutions need more facts and figures.

Fireside chats have their role. Elder statemen use them to bring populations onside, and elderly relatives to impart odd nuggets of wisdom buried deep between the platitudes and gossip.

The latter is very much Vasuki Shastry’s style. With a knowing wink to readers he tells us: “My own claim to infamy in the ESG field stems from my time at the International Monetary Fund… and most recently at a large international bank where I ran what is confusingly referred to as sustainability.”

We wander through the author’s thoughts on Tom Cruise, Richard Nixon, MBAs (apparently they have lost their shine) with endless digs at planting trees (a “particular bugbear”) along the way. International assessments of comparative progress on ESG criteria are reduced to football scores. Consumer protection: US – 0, Europe – 1.

But beneath this folksy style there is plenty of bite.

Not mincing his words…

That “international bank” was Standard Chartered and corporate insiders will no doubt be nervous as they pick up ‘Notorious ESG’, and read a few home truths.

In a chapter entitled ‘Bored of Directors’ he tells us: “To be a director of the modern listed corporation in Europe and America is the perfect sinecure”, allowing aging corporate titans to remain in the game and on the gravy train. “Young people look up to climate activist Greta Thunberg as their role model rather than any aging, fat-cat CEO,” he snarls. And argues that the “former corporate warriors currently resident in the boardroom have still not come to grips with what ESG means”.

The elite policy circles of Washington and London that he is familiar with are also given short shrift. “To date, all that the international community has offered to middle and low-income nations by way of assistance are platitudes, puffery, and pontification.” While although “the UK leads in curbing…social ills, the City simultaneously has a disgraceful record as an enabler and facilitator of global money laundering and corrupt practices, as evidenced by the simple metric that London is home to some of the world ’ s shadiest billionaires and their capital”.

I guess the title foretold a certain amount of harrumphing.

What it says on the tin…

But it is also misleading. A newly appointed chairman on seeing what I was reading became very excited that this book might be part of the ESG backlash wave. But this is definitely not the case.

Shastry does quote Ron De Santis: “Corporate power has increasingly been utilized to impose an ideological agenda on the American people through the perversion of financial investment priorities under the euphemistic banners of environmental, social, and corporate governance and diversity, inclusion, and equity.” And he notes the conservative activists, who are “labelling themselves as ‘anti-woke’ warriors and… pursuing legal action”.

But he is clear. “The train’s already left the station when it comes to ESG investing.” And any corporation would struggle to swim against the tide for two good reasons. They must attract ESG-minded millennials, and “societal expectations are racing ahead and will force American companies to remain at the cutting edge of staying ‘woke’”.

Millennials are central to his case. Criticism of them in the workplace is “mainly a problem of an older generation of middle and senior management failing to adjust to the new realities”, such as working from home and demands for work life balance. He thinks their “superiors are a bunch of old men who are best met with the riposte ‘Okay Boomer!’” and who should be told to “GWTF” – go with the flow.


Some solutions are dismissed, perhaps a little too quickly without enough evidence, in this opinionated chat. The role of gas as a bridging fuel to transition for example. We are told “The world seems to be sleep-walking toward a carbon-heavy future by taking expensive detours into the circular economy, energy-guzzling data centers, and cryptocurrencies.” We’re given the negative facts on crypto, but circular economy arguments are not dealt with at length.

There are many good ideas. “Tax compliance by companies..[should]… become a major source of contention in the ESG space and should be considered as a critical metric moving forward. Proposed metric: list of actual taxes paid at HQ and countries where the company operates in.”

But comments about cohesion are well-rehearsed. “The golden mean for investors in the ESG space is comparability of data across industry sectors and borders.” And they fall short of the promised real “manifesto”.

I was left longing for more facts and figures, and….a few more trees.

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