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INSIGHT-Companies walk ESG tightrope, under fire from all sides over disclosures

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Anti-ESG backlash in U.S. prompts new trend: 'greenhushing'

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Environmental statements from U.S. finance sector drop 20% in Q3

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Statements from autos, healthcare also down -Permutable data

By Richa Naidu and Simon Jessop

LONDON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Since joining Asahi Group in 2020 as sustainability chief, Preeti Srivastav has helped the Japanese brewer make several environmental and social pledges but has not got it to disclose all its progress.

Asahi said on Feb. 9 it had brought forward its target to 2040 from 2050 for lowering net greenhouse emissions to zero. It has not fully explained how it plans to get there.

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Asahi is keeping private a sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) "dashboard" launched in December 2020 to monitor progress in environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), Srivastav said in an interview.

The dashboard serves as an internal system for collecting the data which is then used for external reporting, Asahi said.

"There's so many landmines in some of these areas," Srivastav said. She noted that peer Anheuser-Busch InBev saw Bud Light sales slide as some U.S. beer drinkers bristled at a promotion featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Srivastav also cited fears that employees and consumers could criticize slow progress on ESG targets or that regulators or investors could file "greenwashing" lawsuits accusing Asahi and other firms of exaggerating ESG accomplishments.

"A lot of companies are hesitant, including us, to talk about any of our sustainability work until we can show even marginal improvement or impact," Srivastav said.

Reuters interviews with more than 20 company executives, data firms, consultants and investors shed light on how corporate ESG disclosures have become an ever more challenging balancing act for companies.

Environmentally and socially minded shoppers, employees and business partners seek ambitious ESG goals and want companies to document progress, while regulators and investors scrutinize ESG statements for accuracy. Meanwhile, some politicians, especially U.S. Republicans, have pressured companies to drop ESG policies altogether.

The result often is discretion about ESG policies and accomplishments, or "greenhushing" as business leaders call it.

Analysis of more than 10,000 news sources for environmental statements shared with Reuters by data firm Permutable shows greenhushing has been most prominent in the U.S., particularly for companies relying on Republican-led states for revenue or regulatory support.

Financial sector companies worth $10 billion or more collectively showed the biggest drop in ESG-related statements year-on-year in the third quarter of 2023, down 20%. U.S. Republican politicians have targeted banks and asset managers that support the transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy.

A recent survey by The Conference Board, a U.S. think tank, showed 37% of financial and insurance industry respondents had experienced some type of ESG backlash. That far outpaced the next most impacted sector, business and professional services, at 8%.

ESG mentions by autos and healthcare companies also fell according to the Permutable data. Food and beverage company statements were flat.

Politicians in Republican-controlled U.S. states have already launched 150 anti-ESG bills in 2024, which has had a chilling effect, according to Andrew Behar, chief executive of activist group As You Sow, which pressures companies, including the big U.S. banks, over ESG issues.

"We have to walk a very fine line... we're in a particularly tough situation in the United States right now. The way we talk is impacted," an executive at a U.S-based bank said on condition of anonymity.

A European banking source said U.S. clients were also affected:

"Look, the environment in the U.S., you go to a client who does an 'E' project, he doesn't even want to name it 'E'... Everyone is hesitant right now."

The trend is completely different elsewhere in the world. Governments in many heavily polluted Asian countries are pressuring companies to do more on sustainability. Asian financial companies showed a collective 70% increase in ESG mentions over the same period while European financials posted a 51% jump, the data showed.

'DIFFERENT TENSIONS'

In the U.S. ESG announcements in sectors including retail, and food and beverage were up, according to the Permutable data, as some consumers put a premium on environmentally and socially friendly products.

This led to "different tensions" between companies and their legal teams over being vocal about environmental strategy, even in the same industry, "depending on who their customer base is", As You Sow's Behar said.

Starbucks, for instance, increased environmental announcements by 56% in the third quarter, and started 2024 by announcing it was cutting down on paper waste by letting customers use their own cups in its stores.

"Customers care about their communities and the planet," a Starbucks spokesperson said, adding this has contributed to it reporting more on the environment and linking executive pay to progress on the targets.

In the U.S. utilities sector, which has suffered from extreme weather events such as storms and wildfires, total statements rose 5% year on year. One exception was regional utility Black Hills, which said its investors prioritized its near-term financial wellbeing.

"Once earnings growth rates were in jeopardy, the investors and analysts were suddenly less interested in ESG topics," said Jerome Nichols, director of investor relations.

Other companies said they were concerned about negative press or consumers misinterpreting nuances of sustainability initiatives.

It's too "complicated" to put into a few words on a package, Oriol Margo, head of EMEA sustainability transformation at Huggies diapers maker Kimberly-Clark, told Reuters on the sidelines of the Reuters IMPACT conference in London.

"This is a problem -- I cannot claim we have an answer to it... We don't talk sustainability a lot. We don't talk enough."

(Reporting by Richa Naidu and Simon Jessop in London Additional reporting by Isla Binnie in New York Editing by Greg Roumeliotis and David Gregorio)