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ESG is one of the most notable trends in corporate governance, management, and investment of the past two decades. It is at the center of the largest and most contentious debates in contemporary corporate and securities law. Yet few observers know where the term comes from, who coined it, and what it was originally aimed to mean and achieve. As trillions of dollars have flowed into ESG-labeled investment products, and companies and regulators have grappled with ESG policies, a variety of usages of the term have developed that range from seemingly neutral concepts of integrating “environmental, social, and governance” issues into investment analysis to value-laden notions of corporate social responsibility or preferences for what some have characterized as “conscious” or “woke” capitalism.

This Article makes three contributions. First, it provides a history of the term ESG that was coined without precise definition in a collaboration between the United Nations and major players in the financial industry to pursue wide-ranging goals.  Second, it identifies and examines the main usages of the term ESG that have developed since its origins. Third, it offers an analytical critique of the term ESG and its consequences. It argues that the combination of E, S, and G into one term has provided a highly flexible moniker that can vary widely by context, evolve over time, and collectively appeal to a broad range of investors and stakeholders. These features both help to account for its success, but also its challenges such as the difficulty of empirically showing a causal relationship between ESG and financial performance, a proliferation of ratings that can seem at odds with understood purposes of the term ESG or enable “sustainability arbitrage,” and tradeoffs between issues such as carbon emissions and labor interests that cannot be reconciled on their own terms. These challenges give fodder to critics who assert that ESG engenders confusion, unrealistic expectations, and greenwashing that could inhibit corporate accountability or crowd out other solutions to pressing environmental and social issues. These critiques are not necessarily fatal, but are intertwined with the characteristic flexibility and unfixed definition of ESG that was present from the beginning, and ultimately shed light on obstacles for the future of the ESG movement and regulatory reform.

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