The World Economic Forum meetings, which see political and business leaders from around the world gather to chew over the issues of the day, keep nearly all major media outlets busy every January. And while last year’s Davos produced fewer big headlines and lacked buzz because it didn’t have a headline act, the 2020 event managed to generate a fair amount of media excitement.
The most obvious reason for that was the presence of Donald Trump, who skipped the gathering last year. Another reason was the appearance of one of the US President’s most outspoken foes – the 17-year old climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, who participated in two panels at the forum. Because of her contribution and the attendance of other activists such as 19-year-old Melati Wijsen, some publications argued that Davos is no longer so elitist.
Naturally, the media’s preoccupation with Greta and the showdown between her and Trump made ‘Sustainability’ the main topic of the media conversation around Davos 2020 in the top-tier English-language publications between 20-27 January:
A number of commentators remarked that with no urgent economic crises waiting to be managed, ‘Sustainability‘ became the topic of scores of panels, meetings and cocktail conversations in Davos and that it has increasingly being identified as the biggest problem the planet faces. And among the big ideas being bandied about, and big-picture proposals being announced, reporters pointed out that the summit broke up with most delegates agreeing there’s a big problem but little consensus on what should happen next.
Reminiscing about Davos, some analysts stated that climate change is now firmly established as a C-suite issue. With an increasing amount of reports like the McKinsey Global Institute’s “Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts”, more and more executives have started to frame climate change as a here-and-now risk that demands action.
A major coverage driver within the ‘Sustainability‘ topic was the Davos initiative One Trillion Trees, pushed by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, which supports the growing, restoring and conserving of a trillion trees worldwide by 2030. The project gained the support of President Trump but was met with criticism by Greta, who said it simply wasn’t enough.
Greta’s dominance in the debate was amplified by the growing interest in climate change expressed by both liberal- and conservative-minded media outlets. Climate change and global warming have become powerful coverage drivers not only in ecological and scientific discussions but also in political, economic and cultural analyses.
This is in large part due to a public debate over whether global warming is actually occurring, which has been fuelled primarily by right-wing US publications and conservative think tanks which deny the need for strong environmental regulations. Although there is a strong scientific consensus that global surface temperatures have increased due to human activity, climate change has been a controversial political subject since at least the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s.
However, the recent tendency even among the most conservative high-profile outlets is to admit that climate change is indeed an issue which needs to be addressed. Thus, the main point of dispute between liberal and conservative publications is not whether climate change is real but what measures should be taken – the liberal ones tend to reiterate that governments and businesses are not doing enough, while the conservative ones think that they’re going too far.
Greta’s share of voice in the media discussion was especially impressive when compared to that of other spokespeople cited in the coverage (we didn’t include politicians in our sample in order to cut through the media noise):
Greta made headlines for saying that “our house is still on fire” and for strongly criticising politicians and business leaders. She urged the business elite to stop investing in fossil fuels immediately or explain to their children why they did not protect them from the “climate chaos” they created.
Having inspired a large number of school-aged adherents to launch their own school climate strike movements, her influence was dubbed by several media outlets as the “Greta Thunberg effect”, while Time magazine described her a “next-generation leader“. And after a speech at the United Nation Climate Action Summit 2019 which went viral, she is now commonly referred to as the de facto face for a movement of millions of young people protesting against insufficient action on climate change.
But the activist has also faced waves of backlash, especially from right-wing media commentators, politicians and climate change deniers. Some of the critics engaged neither with her arguments nor with the available scientific evidence, but rather with ad hominem attacks which often exploited her Asperger’s diagnosis as a way to compromise her.
However, there were also some fairly mild criticisms which tried to be reasonable, arguing that the activist’s “histrionics” were counterproductive to developing good climate change policy or that she is shifting the focus from personal responsibility to governments and big corporations only, which threatened to turn environmentalism into another “wedge issue that politicians often use to motivate their base of voters.”
Green is the new black
Greta was also mentioned for meeting with Prince Charles, who delivered a speech saying that a “paradigm shift” is needed in the way the world deals with climate change. But she was criticised by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said she should study economics before lecturing world leaders about climate change, and indirectly by President Trump, who decried climate “prophets of doom” and called for a rejection of “predictions of the apocalypse”.
The most often quoted corporate spokesperson was David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who was prominent in the ‘Sustainability‘ topic for saying that his bank, which recently worked on the initial public offering of oil giant Saudi Aramco, would not “draw a line” by refusing to advise clients that are major polluters: “If you’re looking for a line, there’s not a line. There’s a transition that’s going on, and my view is this is going to be a multi-decade transition where we see changes in the way people allocate capital,” he said.
As one would expect, his comments were met with criticism from many media outlets. However, his media presence in the ‘Diversity & Inclusion‘ topic was more favourable: he said that his bank won’t work on stock market listings of companies unless they have at least one “diverse” candidate on their boards. He told CNBC in an interview at Davos that “we’re going to move towards 2021 requesting two.”
According to some commentators, this pledge would make Goldman one of the first investment banks to mandate diversity among clients. The bank has had a long-standing reputation as the ultimate ‘old boys’ club’, reinforced by articles such as New York Magazine’s ‘The Head of Goldman Sachs Will Always Be Bald’.
Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and BlackRock Founder Larry Fink were among those who have entered the debate over whether companies should better engage with stakeholders such as customers and employees. Similar conversations made the relatively new topic of ‘Stakeholder capitalism‘ popular in the media discussion around WEF, with participants discussing the opportunities and necessities for business to align with the public and nonprofit sectors to solve the world’s most intractable problems.
A major coverage driver within the ‘Stakeholder capitalism‘ topic was Davos’ revamped manifesto, which proclaimed that a company’s purpose should be to “engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation.”
As some journalists noted, the participants couldn’t walk 10 steps at the gathering of the global elite without overhearing someone talking about “stakeholders”, with that word appearing in no fewer than 13 sessions on the forum’s main program. This came as a contrast to last year when ‘AI’ was the big conversation for executives with 11 public discussions.
‘Stakeholder capitalism‘ emerged as a significant topic among a growing media focus on topics involving corporate social responsibility (CSR). High-profile media outlets got into the habit of scrutinising companies for their approaches towards the social issues of the day. More than ever, the notion of corporate reputation has come to imply putting purpose before profit and delivering value to all stakeholders instead of merely focusing on the interests of stockholders.
This trend culminated with last year’s Business Roundtable statement, which was met with both support and criticism. For some commentators, the statement was a definitive repudiation of the overarching “Friedman doctrine”, formulated in the 1970s by economist Milton Friedman, according to which the sole social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.
Our analyses of the media landscape proved that throughout 2019, many corporations were mentioned in the media namely for their CSR policies or their failings to behave responsibly. Judging by our most-read stories of the year, what grabbed our readers’ attention was the way businesses conveyed their engagement with matters like consumer well-being, sustainability and LGBTQ+ issues.
Tech rules again
The most often mentioned companies in the media conversation around Davos 2020 were from the technology sector:
Some reporters noted that Big Tech embarked on a repentance tour to Davos two years ago in response to criticism about their role in issues such as election interference, distribution of extremist content, antitrust violations; and tax avoidance. For many analysts, tech’s most influential leaders had a new message: It’s not us you need to worry about – it’s artificial intelligence.
Indeed, most tech companies played a central role in the ‘AI‘ topic, with executives warning audiences that the technology itself must be regulated. For example, Google CEO Sundar Pichai compared AI to international discussions on climate change, saying: “You can’t get safety by having one country or a set of countries working on it. You need a global framework.”
The comments were echoed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who said that “the U.S. and China and the EU having a set of principles that governs what this technology can mean in our societies and the world at large is more in need than it was over the last 30 years”.
Tech companies were also driving the conversation within the ‘Data privacy‘ topic, which gained traction especially after the Guardian broke the story that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had apparently been hacked by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Google was eager to promote its privacy credentials, with Sundar Pichai saying that privacy is at the heart of what the company does and that countries have to strike a balance between protecting high-risk data and preserving a common internet. In the meantime, Microsoft’s Nadella said that data privacy should be a human right.
Consumer concerns about privacy have been around since the dawn of the Internet, and data breaches regularly make headlines around the world, but data protection has recently become a central concern for consumers – after several high-profile failures such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it became clear that improper handling of sensitive information can lead not only to financial abuse but can also influence global politics and people’s well-being. The risk associated with the way data is used versus the way it’s safeguarded is becoming a priority for an ever-larger group of stakeholders, not just regulators and policy makers.
Big tech also featured prominently within the ‘Sustainability‘ topic: for example, many articles focused on Microsoft‘s plan to go “carbon negative” by 2030 and Salesforce‘s funding of the trillion tree initiative.
Meanwhile, the big banks were mentioned in that topic for rejecting suggestions that they are not doing enough to combat climate change, with some promoting their readiness to tackle the issue more eagerly – for instance, BlackRock said that the intensifying climate crisis would bring about a “fundamental reshaping of finance” and has set sustainability as a core goal, in what journalists described as a stunning shift by the world’s top asset manager.
Analysing Davos 2020, some publications noted that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing – a way of investing which takes into account not only the potential financial returns of an investment but its social impact as well – is having its moment on the world stage, with many companies taking a more active part in the climate change debate by communicating corporate social responsibility.
This investment strategy has grown 107.4% annually since 2012, and new exchange-traded funds (ETFs) tracking sustainable and responsible investments have thrived since last year. Around a quarter of all professionally managed assets around the world, and about $12 trillion of the $46.6 trillion dollars professionally managed in the US right now, incorporate ESG criteria.
Apart from passionate protestors, climate activists are also well-organised and motivated investment managers, while environmental groups like Climate Action 100+ and Follow This have hundreds of institutional investors on their side. BlackRock estimated that ESG investment funds had grown 50% in the past five years to more than $750 billion in assets in the US and Europe.
For investors, ESG credentials communicate corporate values and strong reputation relating to issues which are more and more often in the public eye, which in turn can improve the performance of both active and passive risk-factor portfolios. The growing awareness of academic research has been a decisive factor for the encouragement of more and more investors to practice ESG integration into the analysis of listed equity investments, making it the most widespread responsible investment practice in the market today.
Another important factor for the rapid growth of ESG investments are millennials, whose investment preferences always circle around their personal values: a survey by First State Investments found that more than 80% of millennials are interested or very interested in sustainable investing. And since millennials are meant to receive more than $30 trillion of inheritable wealth, more and more companies are taking note.