In recent years, France has become one of the most dynamic European markets for socially responsible investment (SRI). Figure 1 shows that in 1997, just seven asset managers supplied a marginal amount of SRI products; in 2012, however, 53 asset managers (including the largest, Amundi) were actively involved in the management of more than 250 SRI products. Between 2012 and 2017 and, in particular, since 2013, the SRI market in France grew hugely both in terms of AUM subject to ESG criteria (from €200 to €322 billion) and the number of new SRI funds created (from 250 to 439 funds).
How has the French government contributed to the spectacular growth of sustainable finance in recent years? What role did policy making play in stimulating this development of the French SRI market?
Although commentators usually attribute this mainstreaming to aggressive policy making, and in particular the article 173-VI—which remains to date one of the most ambitious regulations of climate change reporting—our historical and qualitative analysis of the French SRI market (1997-2017) suggests that these recent changes reflect deeper transformations in the modes of governmental CSR interventions, capitalise on a legacy of at least twenty years of regulatory activities, and should be analysed in light of the multiple interactions between governmental interventions.
We present these insights, and then discuss two of their key implications of policy making: first, that there is no silver bullet in the domain of SRI policy making as interactions between multiple interventions should be diligently orchestrated to enhance their overall market impact; and second, financial markets have become a key regulatory space for promoting socially responsible behaviour.
Reinventing governmental interventions: blending steering and rowing
Traditionally, studies of regulative capitalism have distinguished two types of governmental interventions: steering and rowing. Steering relates to “governing by setting the course, monitoring the direction and correcting deviations from the course set” (Crawford, 2006: 453), and is regarded as the prerogative of governmental actors. Rowing interventions, on the other hand, relate to the enterprise, products and service provision, and are usually handled by private actors. Our analysis of governmental interventions in the French SRI market suggests reconsidering this dichotomy as well as the neat sharing of tasks between private actors and governments it presumes.
We found that governments move beyond steering through the active mobilisation of state-owned organisations—a process that we labelled delegated rowing —or the capture of labeling initiatives developed by other actors—which we refer to as microsteering, as it corresponds to a form of governmental micro-management which takes place at low cost, by steering actors through specific devices such as labels.
The creation of a SRI label by the French government offers a case in point of the blending of traditional rowing and steering, and the parallel blurring of private and public roles it involves. In order to create this public SRI label, the government enabled and organised deliberations between private actors, specified the criteria of the label to be implemented by private investors, and defined which private auditors were allowed to audit this label while formally remaining the owner of the label.
Capitalising on pre-existing and co-occuring interventions: layering and catalysing
Our analysis also shows that innovative regulations such as the Article 173-VI do not appear in an institutional and legal vacuum. On the one hand, we identified a mechanism of layering, which reflects governmental action within a legacy of CSR regulations. In the French case, there were no omniscient technocrats with a 20-year regulatory “grand plan”. Rather, successive governmental CSR interventions developed the pieces of a multi-faceted regulatory puzzle and, in so doing, developed the breadth and depth of the French SRI market.
On the other hand, catalysing reflects a more pro-active approach to governmental regulation, as it involves leveraging market actors’ power through the alignment of their interests within a predefined regulatory context. In this regard, catalysing consisted of French governmental actors adding the last decisive regulatory pieces to the puzzle—through dedicated and targeted interventions—to trigger mainstream acceptance.
The mobilisation of actors around the creation of the SRI public label and the drafting of Article 173-VI is a good example of catalysing.
From 2012, the French state looked at how to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Part of this analysis involved looking at what players in the SRI market (asset managers, public asset owners and service providers) had developed.
Article 173-VI was developed and implemented against the background of an ongoing dialogue with investors. In addition, the French state built on previous trade-union and state agencies’ efforts to create a label for SRI products. This all came to fruition at the time of COP21 and the launch of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, when in the space of just four weeks, the French state released three ground-breaking bills. These were: the public ecological transition label (10 December, 2015), Article 173-VI (29 December, 2015), and finally the public SRI label (8 January, 2016).
Find implication: a need for governmental CSR interventions ”orchestration”
A first implication of our analysis is that a government can “orchestrate” its policies to maximise its influence on business. We found that orchestration is relevant to making sense of the regulatory efforts of governments; we can see them orchestrating – in part – through a reliance on intermediary organisations (delegated rowing), or the creative capture and shaping of standards or labels (microsteering). Although subject to a path-dependency effect, this orchestration work can serve to maximise the impact of its interventions while keeping the costs down as they are delegated to intermediaries.
Furthermore, we found that orchestration can result from a mix of naturally developing and deliberately targeted interventions, while this combination can result in improved outcomes.
Second implication: financial markets as a space for governmental CSR interventions
Finally, our analysis brings financial markets back into the scope of governmental studies of CSR by showing how financial markets became a relevant space for governmental CSR interventions, notably through the development of robust national SRI markets that put pressure on investors, as well as their investee companies, to adopt socially responsible behaviour. Considering financial markets is crucial given their weight in national domestic policy making and the restrictions that may be imposed on governmental capacities to promote CSR. Neglecting finance as a “regulatory space” can misrepresent governmental capacities to regulate CSR, given how financial markets weigh on governmental choices and policies. Our analysis also shows notably the value of recognising the importance of crucial yet often neglected categories of financial market intermediaries: state-owned, state-designed, and/or state-regulated banks, pension funds and/or financial intermediaries. In the French case, through delegated rowing, the government has actively reoriented a major state-regulated financial actor – the CDC – which has itself financially supported CSR and SRI rating agencies; and the design of SRI-focused public pension funds has also created important peer pressure for SRI activities in the market.
This article provides an overview of the core arguments and findings developed in: Giamporcaro, S., Gond, J.-P., and O’Sullivan (2019), Orchestrating governmental corporate social responsibility interventions through financial markets: the case of French socially responsible investment, forthcoming in the Business Ethics Quarterly. An earlier version of this paper, titled “Governing responsible business conduct through financial markets? The case of French socially responsible investing”, was awarded the Best Qualitative Paper Research Award at the Berlin PRI Academic Network Conference in 2017.
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