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The Data Behind ESG: Social Responsibility, the Anti-Woke Movement, and What Americans Really Think

April 25th, 2023 | 11 min. read

Brent Seaborn

Brent is the Co-founder and Chief Data Science Officer at Tunnl.

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Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) awareness is surging. Legislators and consumers alike are weighing the impact of their investments, purchases, partnerships, and patronage with organizations based on how environmentally and socially conscious those organizations are. But how is that heightened interest advancing or impeding our national trajectory?

Over the last several years, Tunnl has surveyed and modeled hundreds of microtargeting audiences for issue advocacy and purpose-driven campaigns focused on vital issues like energy, corporate responsibility, and social equity. We track peoples’ attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs on a range of progressive issues intended to promote socially desirable outcomes.Blog article image templates (9) 

With ESG, the fundamental idea is that consumers and investors can make economic choices that coincide with their core beliefs and be a catalyst for social good. But, opinions are divided on how beneficial these initiatives truly are for the future of U.S. policy, economic prosperity, and social responsibility.

Tunnl has taken the models it has built over the last several years and used a data reduction technique called "principal component analysis" to create an aggregate score that accounts for the many issues in play in the ESG debate. Our surveys have substantiated the observable divide emerging in ESG sentiment throughout the country.

This is what that looks like by the numbers and the implications issue advocates and corporate advertisers to have.

How do voters and consumers feel about ESG?

Companies are increasingly hesitant to publicly share their ESG stances, according to Axios. Are their concerns justified?

Predictably, ESG considerations have become polarizing across partisan divides, like most other environmental and social issues that become matters of governance. 

The American right refers to many of these policies as “woke” and has begun to counter the efforts of progressives, either through purchasing decisions, electoral decisions, and increasingly, policy decisions at the state level.

And while the left and the right compete, where do Americans stand on these issues generally?

We modeled Americans on several ESG issues, using questions including:

1. Agree or Disagree: Corporations and their CEOs should lead on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the United States by speaking out on important social issues and modeling these practices with diversity initiatives in their organizations.
  • Agree: 53%
  • Disagree: 26%
Blog article image templates (4)2. Important or Not Important: Thinking about the various factors that go into how you make a purchase decision of a product or service such as quality, accessibility, pricing, brand, and company values, how important is it to your purchase decision that the company shares values like yours on political and social issues?
  • Important: 34%
  • Not Important: 34%
3. When it comes to investing your money, which statement comes closest to your position even if none are exactly correct?
  • I have already made investments in companies that promote environmentalism, social equity, and corporate responsibility OR I am interested in making investments in companies that promote environmentalism, social equity, and corporate responsibility: 29%
  • I am only interested in getting the best return on my investments, and do not think companies should sacrifice value for shareholders by focusing on environmentalism, social equity, and corporate responsibility: 27%
4. Which of the following comes closest to your view, even if neither is exactly correct? 
  • State investment portfolios should be managed by banks that prioritize socially and environmentally conscious companies. Not only is it the ethical thing to do- those companies are better, more stable long-term investments, anyway: 37%
  • State investment portfolios should not consider the relative morals and ethics of companies, in terms of their environmental and social good. States should just be focused on keeping taxpayers’ money safe and maximizing their return: 35%

5. Questions probing whether consumers would be more or less likely to support brands orBlog article image templates (5) businesses based on their public stances on LGBTQ+ and/or abortion issues gleaned similar results. For roughly 65% of Americans, a company's position on these topics makes no difference in their choice to engage with the brand. But people on either side of both of these issues feel strongly in their respective directions.

Recently, some entertainment companies have shown their support for the LGBTQ+ community by improving representation in television shows and movies including showing more same-sex relationships and queer characters. Does a brand or business taking this type of stance make you more or less likely to purchase from their business, or does it not matter at all when you think about what kind of entertainment you interact with?
  • More Likely: 14%
  • Less Likely: 22%
6. Recently, more states have considered further restrictions or bans on access to abortions and reproductive care. In response, some financial institutions and tech companies have stepped in to expand employee health coverage of reproductive care, even offering to relocate employees out of states with these restrictive policies. Does a brand or business taking this type of stance make you more or less likely to purchase from their business, or does it not matter at all when you think about where you will shop?
  • More Likely: 16%
  • Less Likely: 17%

To create the index below, we aggregated the data for these questions and others from our bespoke library of ESG-relevant inquiries.

  • Scores less than zero indicate conservative positions on these issues.
  • 0 is neutral.
  • Scores greater than zero indicate progressive positions on these issues.

The results are instructive:

Graph representing how Americans feel about ESG

Overall, most Americans are somewhere toward the middle: largely neutral, but skewing slightly conservative. Nationally, the mean is an index score of -2. Visually you can see there is a modal tendency around -10; that’s a technical way of saying there are a lot of people at -10 or very close to an index score of -10 for ESG sentiment. 

Looking at the visualization of the index, one can clearly see a secondary mode right around +38. This other mode (indicated by the highest point on the graph) represents a distinct grouping of adults who generally favor ESG efforts. Somewhere in the range of 72 million adults favor policies and behaviors that promote progressive causes.

What is the role of counter-activists in the ESG movement?

We can also begin to see a third mode forming. Someplace on this spectrum around -50 the conservative counter-activism is beginning to coalesce. This counter-activism includes vocal boycotts of products, and state legislatures and governors enacting policies to counterbalance the activism of the left. Somewhere around 32 million adults fall into this population of counter-activists.

This means that there are more Americans in strong support of progressive activism than Americans coalesced in strong opposition to ESG. But the national average shows the vast majority of Americans index near neutral, leaning slightly toward a conservative stance. Essentially, most Americans have mixed or not strong opinions on ESG issues in the national dialogue. 

Though we mostly hear from the vocal activists on either side of ESG issues, most Americans are neutral, undecided, or uninterested at this stage of the debate.

Who supports ESG? Who opposes it?

The strong support of activist progressivism on the left outnumbers the counter-activists. But this activism puts them at risk of being out of touch with the average American. 

Blog article image templates (7)There are other factors at play. Some of the most sought-after consumer groups favor the more progressive and active agenda. People with the highest incomes index at about +15 are much nearer the progressive pole than the conservative side. Generation Z is a barometer of the future and will be consumers for decades to come and they index toward the progressive side, as well. Hispanic and Asian American people also gravitate closer to the progressives than the conservatives. And African-Americans are much closer in ideology to the most progressive people, indexing about +25. 

Geographically, we see more evidence of the rural and urban divide. Urban adults index at about +19, while adults in rural areas index at about -18.

The bulk of White Americans across the ideological spectrum and of all incomes tend to fall in the middle and close to the national average. They lean slightly more toward the conservative side but land squarely in the center of the spectrum. 

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats have hard and clear differences. Republicans fall far to the conservative side with an index of about -34, and Democrats index at +29.

The 20% of adults who are the most progressive on ESG issues whom we define as progressive ESG activists tend to be:

  • Female: 65%
  • Upper Income: 42% 
  • Racially and Ethnically Diverse: 42% non-White (22% African-American, more than the percentage of the national population)
  • Democrats: 92%
  • Urban: 36% (63% suburban)

The 20% of adults who are the most conservative on ESG issues whom we define as the conservative counter-activists on ESG issues tend to be:

  • Male: 63%
  • Income Distribution: Average
  • White: 99%
  • Republican: 92%
  • Urban: 23% (71% suburban)

Suburban areas are emerging battlegrounds for ESG issues, as those most strongly for and against these policies reside there.  

How American Sentiment on ESG Will Impact Elections and the Economy

Policy, politics, and marketing have all collided. We will see brands continue to make expressions ofBlog article image templates (8) their values to appeal to target consumers. We will see conservatives work to counteract progressivism and make a stand on more traditional ground. Over the next political cycle, we will see politicians on the left and on the right campaign on the issue and use their political power to drive their values forward. Many Americans in the middle will begin to take sides, and many more will do their best to ignore the debates.

As undecided Americans begin to adopt clearer opinions on ESG, brands have an opportunity to connect with voters and consumers. Advocates of progressivism will need to compensate for the slight conservative skew in current ESG sentiments, while the right will need to capture and deepen those existing leanings. Consistent targeting of persuadable and polarized audiences will dictate the direction of ESG sentiment and legislation in the upcoming election cycles. 

Reach Your Target ESG Market with Tunnl's Audience Solutions

Microtargeting and data analysis experts at Tunnl closely monitor voter and consumer sentiments across hot-button issues with monthly surveys and AI-powered data modeling. We've amassed an extensive data library with current and historical data that informs our three audience types - prebuilt, premium prebuilt, and custom - each distinctly suited to help advertisers, advocates, and associations reach the right people in the right places. 

We offer several prebuilt audiences built around integral issues in the ESG debate, showing you instantly, for free, who the people are on every side of the issue on a state, national, and consumer level, and where they consume digital media from social to streaming TV:

  • Pro ESG State Investments: Individuals who believe state investment portfolios should be managed by banks that prioritize socially and environmentally conscious companies
  • Anti-ESG State Investments: Individuals who believe state investment portfolios should not consider the relative morals and ethics of companies
  • Prospective ESG Investors: Individuals who are likely to invest in companies that promote environmentalism, social equity, and corporate responsibility
  • Anti-ESG Investors: Individuals who are unlikely to invest in companies that promote environmentalism, social equity, and corporate responsibility
  • Energy Influentials: Individuals who are high turnout voters, likely to follow energy-related news, and actively engage in energy-related issues facing their community
  • Corporate Responsibility: Individuals who are community influencers and whose consumption choices are impacted by a company's or CEO's stance on hot-button issues

Create a free Tunnl account to access these audiences and their demographic and media mix insights instantly, for free.

Create a Free Account

Learn more about how to reach the elite 1% who directly shape U.S. policyReach the nation's policy leaders directly on ESG issues with Tunnl's U.S. Policy Opinion Makers audience, a premium prebuilt audience comprised of 1.2 million powerful decision-makers and policy influencers throughout finance, government, and news media including Congress.

Custom audience solutions are also available. Built on your precise issue and delivered to you for your use only, Tunnl's custom audiences are the ultimate solution for reaching your ESG audience with maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

To get started with either the U.S. Policy Opinion Makers audience or custom audience solutions, send a quick message to our sales team, and we'll be in touch.

Tunnl will keep on monitoring the American sentiment toward ESG as public awareness of the issue increases and debates swirl on, impacting issues at the state and national levels. As we do so, we will update our findings and refresh our ESG audiences accordingly.

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About the Author

Brent Seaborn is Tunnl's Co-Founder and Chief Data Science Officer. A microtargeting pioneer, Brent has been an innovator of survey research methods and modernized data applications across political, issue advocacy, and purpose-driven brand campaigns for decades. Read Brent's other articles in our Learning Center.