Greenwashing, Firm ESG Strategy, and Employee Impact

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This dissertation studies the causes and consequences of firms’ environmental and social (ESG) actions, with a specific focus on employees. Essay 1 examines greenwashing: when firms present an overly positive view of their environmental and social outcomes. I ask how top managers and investors’ ESG preferences influence companies’ self-reported environmental and social policies, and their independently reported environmental and social outcomes. I find that managers’ ESG preferences, as proxied using their language on earnings calls, correlate with both ESG policies and outcomes. However, investors’ ESG preferences correlate with only policies and not outcomes, suggestive of greenwashing. I conclude that agency issues explain these divergent results.Essays 2 and 3 ask how employees respond to firms’ ESG outcomes and to firms’ pay policies. Essay 2 explores the relationship between a firm’s ESG outcomes and labor productivity. In two contexts, we find that ESG outcomes predict higher labor productivity, but only when there is sufficient information about firm behavior. In one study, the positive impact on labor productivity only exists for large firms. In another study, the positive relationship appears only after a government regulation requiring that firms disclose their carbon emissions. Essay 3 provides large scale evidence on the relationship between wages and employee attrition. We find that paying above median wages for a specific role decreases attrition rates, but only among low and middle wage workers in the US. If stakeholder capitalism is to sustain and integrate into the US corporate system, the movement needs to be based on accurate assessments of environmental and social outcomes. These essays provide an advance in that direction, by using independently reported ESG data to examine how ESG issues impact firm strategy.