Shareholder Activism on Sustainability Issues

by Jody Grewal, George Serafeim, and Aaron Yoon

Overview — Shareholder proposals on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics have more than doubled in the last two decades. Testing the effect that ESG proposals have on firms’ subsequent ESG performance and market valuation, the authors find a considerable portion (42 percent) of ESG proposals to be financially beneficial and associated with subsequent increases in environmental and social performance, too. Managers need to identify significant sustainability issues, based on their industry, wisely because errors could be value-destroying as the authors show declines in financial value for the rest of the sample (58 percent).

Author Abstract

Shareholder activism on sustainability issues has become increasingly prevalent over the years, with the number of proposals filed doubling from 1999 to 2013. We use recent innovations in accounting standard setting to classify 2,665 shareholder proposals that address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues as financially material or immaterial, and we analyze how proposals on material versus immaterial issues affect firms’ subsequent ESG performance and market valuation. We find that 58% of the shareholder proposals in our sample are filed on immaterial issues. We document that filing shareholder proposals is effective at improving the performance of the company on the focal ESG issue, even though such proposals nearly never received majority support. Improvements occur across both material and immaterial issues. Proposals on immaterial issues are associated with subsequent declines in firm valuation while proposals on material issues are associated with subsequent increases in firm value. We show that companies increase performance on immaterial issues because of agency problems, low awareness of the materiality of ESG issues, and attempts to divert attention from poor performance on material issues.

Paper Information