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IN-DEPTH: A Quiet Revolution Is Unfolding Against ‘Woke’ Corporate America—Here’s the Strategy Behind It

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By Darlene McCormick Sanchez(Epoch Times) Consumer boycotts against “woke” corporations such as Target and Anheuser-Busch are the key to reversing race, gender, and environmental activism in corporate America, according to conservative groups.

That’s because customers ditching companies pushing left-wing policies have given conservative groups the traction they needed to fight them legally.

Scott Shepard is a Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) and director of the National Center’s Free Enterprise Project, a conservative shareholder activist group.

Shepard told The Epoch Times the tide is turning against environmental, social, and governance, or ESG.

“We’re seeing something very different this time. Because it’s not just the conservatives, who are always interested in this sort of thing, it’s the whole country,” Shepard said.

ESG, which started as guidelines, has now turned into heavy-handed mandates on controversial “social justice” ideologies, he said.

And a potential breach of fiduciary responsibility to shareholders will expose businesses to legal action like Shepard’s organization has started.

Even with companies losing billions of dollars, they continue to embrace the concept to the detriment of their shareholders, Shepard said.

Target came under fire for “Pride Month” merchandise, including rainbow-colored onesies for babies and “tuck-friendly” women’s swimsuits for men identifying as women in front-of-the-store displays.

Epoch Times Photo
People walk past a Target store in New York City on June 6, 2023. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Likewise, consumers boycotted Anheiser-Busch after the company provided transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney with a personalized can of Bud Light which subsequently went viral on social media.

Target and Anheuser-Busch both came out with statements as the boycotts intensified. But they fell short of apologizing or continued to support transgenderism and LGBT causes as consumers stayed away.

Target’s strategy was to blame threats from customers for removing some of the more “controversial” items from their “Pride Month” displays and relocating LGBT items to the back of the store.

Epoch Times Photo
Pride Month onesies displayed at a Target store in Nashville, Tenn., on May 24, 2023. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Employees at a Target location in Tennessee, where some wore rainbow-flag gear, gave a mixed review on June 13 about how the boycott was impacting sales.

“Sundays and Mondays have been less busy. It’s noticeable if you work here long enough. The past few weeks have been slower,” one employee said.

“It’s kind of hard to say. Day-to-day things are different,” added another.

Anheuser-Busch came out with pro-America ads featuring Clydesdale horses traversing the country shortly after their campaign with Mulvaney.

“We never intended to be a part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth said.

Besides Target and Anheuser-Busch’s continued support of Pride Month, business titans such as Citi, Bank of America, Cisco, HP, and Pfizer have all changed their social media icons to Pride-themed logos.

Billionaire Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner, and Shark Tank star, went so far as to call going woke “good for business” over the weekend.

Boycotts Kryptonite For Woke Firms

Shareholder lawsuits could be the key to stopping ESG—and prolonged consumer boycotts are making it possible by inflicting huge losses on “woke” companies, Shepard said.

On June 6, America First Legal (AFL) demanded Target’s corporate books and records amid the backlash against the retailer for selling Pride Month items aimed at children.

The law firm represents NCPPR, a free market public policy research group, where Shepard is a fellow.

AFL, headed by former Trump presidential adviser Stephen Miller, accused Target’s management of a “radical LGBT political agenda that has cost the corporation over $12 billion in market valuation since mid-May 2023,” according to a news release.

The boycotts hit the companies’ market capitalizations, meaning their value dropped on the stock market.

Target’s market capitalization fell from $72.52 billion to $58.61 billion between May 1 and June 10 and was downgraded on Wall Street twice.

Anheuser-Busch’s market cap slid even more—from $132.06 billion to $108.96 billion between April 3 and June 2 and was also downgraded.

Attorneys for AFL said its client has concerns about the possible financial risk posed by selling LGBT-related merchandise since Target admits its customer base is mainly made up of families.

“This dramatic and sudden loss to shareholders is a direct and predictable result of management’s calculated efforts to please its extreme leftist “stakeholders,” almost none of whom shop at Target, and evidence contempt for the corporation’s core customers,” AFL said in a statement.

Shepard said stock value losses demonstrate that “woke” corporate boards and executives care more about an ideology than their shareholders.

“I think it’s now clear people are paying attention,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A 12-ounce can of Bud Light on a railing at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Fla. on May 26, 2023. (T.J. Muscaro/The Epoch Times)

“Aside from the hard-left activists, nobody wants trans issues aimed at children; nobody thinks that Target ought to play a central role in deciding whether our children are going to get drawn into all this nonsense,” Shepard said.

If CEOs and corporate board members continue to “pretend” going woke won’t make them broke, Shepard believes they will likely be sued personally.

He predicts executives will be forced to pay back the amount they cost shareholders out of their pockets by “running companies according to their own personal preferences, rather than according to objective, neutral rules of running a business.”

Why Executives Alienate Customers

Woke isn’t going away without a fight, according to Will Hild, executive director of Consumer’s Research, a nonprofit consumer protection group.

Consumer’s Research launched a public information campaign on BlackRock and recently created a “woke alert” for consumers. Those who sign up are notified when companies “cave to the woke mob—so you know the brands attacking your values.”

Corporate leaders fear losing their jobs if they drop ESG more than they fear corporate losses, Hild told The Epoch Times.

That’s why “woke” companies don’t seem to learn their lesson and keep pushing ESG’s “far-left agenda,” he added.

“It’s a cover for pushing politics using other people’s money,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Will Hild, executive director of Consumer’s Research, a nonprofit consumer protection group, says corporate executives fear losing their jobs if they don’t go along with ESG. (Courtesy of Consumer’s Research)

“In fact, if BlackRock likes you, and Vanguard likes you, and State Street likes you, then you may not ever get fired, no matter how bad of a job you do, because they can have your back,” Hild said.

BlackRock managers who control investments can call the board of directors and pressure them into making efforts toward left-wing goals such as “net zero,” where companies work to reduce their carbon emissions, he said.

Bud Light is a case in point.

Despite losing billions of dollars, Bud Light sponsored the Cincinnati Pride Parade and announced a $200,000 donation to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Companies care about ESG scores because they are essential to attract investment companies such as BlackRock, which controls some $10 trillion in assets, Hild said.

BlackRock, whose CEO Larry Fink became an early ESG disciple, issued a thinly veiled threat in 2018 for companies to get with the program—or else, according to an article in the New York Times.

Fink sent out a letter demanding business leaders do more than make a profit and “contribute to society” to receive BlackRock’s support, according to the article.

Democracy Bad For Business

Fink’s reasoning for iron-fisted ESG enforcement appears simple—Democracy is bad for business.

“Markets don’t like uncertainty. Markets like, actually, totalitarian governments,” Fink said in a Bloomberg video posted on Twitter.

Since BlackRock manages trillions in investments through 401(k) plans and mutual funds, it gives Fink tremendous influence over such things as corporate executive pay, and whether investors are voted on or off boards, Shepard said.

Under Fink’s control, BlackRock voted to replace three members of Exxon’s board in 2021 with green “left-wing” members, Shepard said.

After changing the board, Fink pressured Exxon into selling an oil investment to a state-backed Chinese company where BlackRock holds investments, Shepard said.

China has lax environmental laws, so tons of carbon will still be spewing into the atmosphere, he said.

“So the difference is that by forcing that move, Larry Fink and BlackRock got brownie points with the Chinese Communist Party,” Shepard said.

The seal for IMF is seen near the World Bank headquarters
The seal for the International Monetary Fund is seen near the World Bank headquarters (R) in Washington, on Jan. 10, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

ESG Started With UN, World Bank

Some point to the 2004 United Nations and the World Bank initiative “Who Cares Wins” as the genesis of ESG.

The initiative grades companies on social performance instead of financial performance, according to Dan Sanchez, director of content at FEE.org, the Foundation for Economic Education.

“ESG is antithetical to capitalism and is antithetical to consumers,” Sanchez told The Epoch Times.

Since 2004, ESG has evolved from “guidelines and recommendations” to standards “that hold sway over huge swaths of the global economy,” according to a 2022 article by Sanchez.

Sanchez explained the idea behind ESG is “stakeholder capitalism,” which supporters claim is the antidote to the excesses of shareholder capitalism.

Traditional shareholder capitalism has been condemned as narrowly focused on maximizing profits for corporate shareholders without considering the interest of customers, suppliers, employees, local communities, and society in general, he wrote.

Sanchez said that ESG has been able to mute the power of the consumer to some extent because of government policies favoring ESG.

These standards are set by ESG rating agencies like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and enforced by investment firms that manage ESG funds, according to Sanchez.

Conservative States Part of Equation

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this spring to stop “Biden’s ESG financial fraud.”

DeSantis, who launched a presidential bid last month, partnered with 18 other states to force asset managers away from woke ideology.

They are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Investment companies such as BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard manage state pension funds and university endowments.

Other states, such as Texas, passed legislation in 2021 to divest state pension funds from ESG portfolios that “boycotted” fossil fuel.

Epoch Times Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs legislation banning the financial industry’s use of ESG principles on May 2. (Courtesy of the Florida Governor’s Office)

This year, the state legislature passed a bill restricting insurance companies operating in Texas from considering ESG factors when setting rates under a measure sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

Some insurers will not issue policies to those in the fossil fuel business, which prompted the legislation.

Hild said pressure from conservative states had helped the effort to break ESG’s hold on businesses.

“We’re gonna see probably 14 states pass anti-ESG measures this year,” he said. “They are going to start pulling the power back from these asset managers.”

While it may seem like a David-and-Goliath matchup, the power of the consumer is still a force to be reckoned with, he said.

“Consumers and citizens do have the power—they just have to stand up and use it,” Hild said.

Neither Target Corp. nor Anheuser-Busch immediately responded to a request for comment.

Epoch Times reporters Naveen Athrappully and Jackson Elliott contributed to this story.

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