ESG resolution round-up: Reproductive rights set to be major theme at US AGMs

More than 30 shareholder proposals filed on issue, more than double last year, including at American Express and Mastercard.

The erosion of women’s reproductive rights in the US is moving up investors’ agenda ahead of this year’s proxy voting season.

Eleven proposals on the topic were taken to the vote last year, including pioneering ones at TJX, Lowe’s and Walmart that asked the US retail giants to report on risks and costs posed to their businesses as a result of US states restricting access to reproductive healthcare.

All three achieved substantial investor backing, particularly for a first-time proposal. The highest tally was 32 percent support at Lowe’s.

The votes took on added significance, coming at around the same time it was leaked that the US Supreme Court was likely to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling – a rumour that was confirmed a month later in June 2022, ending women’s federal right to have an abortion.

This proxy season has already seen 31 shareholder proposals filed on reproductive rights, more than doubling the 2022 total. All were filed in co-ordination with Rhia Ventures, a US impact fund focused on women’s reproductive and maternal health, which also was involved with the proposals last year at TJX, Lowe’s and Walmart.

Mastercard and American Express are among those being targeted this year. The US payment giants are being asked, separately, to disclose how they are managing risks and costs associated with sharing customer information that could be used by state enforcement agencies to prosecute those seeking access to reproductive health services.

The proposals, filed by non-profit Change Finance, state that neither firm is “immune to abortion-related law enforcement requests that may create significant reputational, financial, and legal risks”.

MasterCard is seeking to exclude the proposal via the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s “no action” process, the mechanism by which companies can ask the regulator for its blessing to omit the shareholder request. Among the reasons cited by company is that the filer has failed to provide evidence that it meets the stock ownership requirements to file.

The push on reproductive rights has already seen some success. This month, US faith investor United Church Funds announced that it had withdrawn its proposal at HCA Healthcare after the company publicly clarified that its member hospitals are prepared to provide emergency abortions.

“The successful shareholder engagement with HCA Healthcare offered us substantial opportunity to engage with the company around the broader issue of hospital support for patients and doctors when abortion services are sought or needed in the case of emergency,” said Shelley Alpern, Rhia Ventures’ director of corporate engagement.

AMR proposals struggle for support 

Investor support for shareholder proposals on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) are struggling to attract shareholder support again this year at US meat giants.

On 31 January, a proposal at Hormel Food co-filed by investment heavyweight Amundi and Aussie super fund HESTA secured just 6 percent support. It asked the company to align its business, including supply chains, with the World Health Organization’s guidance on antibiotic use.

Backing for the proposal, which was filed with the support of US non-profit The Shareholder Commons (TSC), would be significantly higher if non-management votes were discounted. Hormel, which opposed the resolution, is 47 percent owned by its namesake foundation.

Last year, another AMR proposal filed by HESTA in conjunction with TSC at Hormel attracted 14 percent of non-insider votes.

Amundi and HESTA’s joint proposal at Hormel was also filed at Tyson Foods and went to the vote on 9 February. The result has not yet been filed at the SEC.

As with Hormel, Tyson Food’s share structure gives the Tyson family a controlling stake. Last year, a proposal on sustainable packaging achieved 59 percent support from independent shareholders, but that equated to just 13 percent overall.

“We are asking companies to comply with WHO recommendations – to set a new standard of market practice,” HESTA’s general manager, responsible investment, Kim Farrant told Responsible Investor. “While we acknowledge the evolving practices, we feel it is important for shareholders to encourage companies to work towards full compliance to minimise the social cost.”

Among the supporters of the Hormel and Tyson proposals this year were Californian pension giant CalPERS, Dutch investor PGGM and the Office of the New York City Comptroller, which oversees the city’s five public pension funds.

By contrast, the manager of Norway’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, NBIM, voted against both, as did CalPERS’ fellow Californian pension fund CalSTRS and APG, the manager of €530 billion Dutch civil service pension fund ABP.

APG supported the proposal last year at Hormel Foods, which was disclosure-based and asked for a report on how the company’s current business practices around antibiotics threaten the returns of diversified owners. This year’s proposal was more progressive in asking for action, namely compliance with WHO guidelines.

Interestingly, New York City opposed the proposal at Hormel in 2022 but supported it this year, along with the one at Tyson.

New York State and City team up on unionisation 

New York City has teamed up with New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on a series of proposals at several US firms, including Netflix and Walmart, focusing on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

Proposals at Walmart and CVS urge each retailer to “commission and oversee an independent, third-party assessment of the company’s adherence to its stated commitment to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights”. They mirror a proposal filed at Amazon in December by Canadian responsible investment body SHARE and US-based SOC Investment Group.

Resolutions filed at other companies, including Netflix, ask them to adopt and publicly disclose a policy on their commitment to respect their employees’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining in their operations.

All the firms were targeted because of previous controversies.

“Respecting workers’ rights to organise – and not interfering when they do – should be the standard expected of any responsible employer,” NYC comptroller Brad Lander said. “Aggressive anti-union practices that spill into the press, violate labour laws, or contradict a company’s own policies can pose reputational and financial risks for businesses.”


Earlier this month, a coalition of investors led by the UK’s Local Authority Pension Fund Forum wrote to the chairs of all FTSE-listed companies requesting that they offer shareholders a vote on their greenhouse gas emission reduction strategy, a so-called “Say on Climate” vote.

The letters were supported by UK-based investment managers Sarasin & Partners and CCLA, along with Swiss investor body the Ethos Foundation.

“Climate change is eroding humanity’s ability to prosper,” said Natasha Landell-Mills, a partner at Sarasin & Partners. “Promises to align with net zero are necessary but not sufficient to move us onto a more sustainable path. Where will investment go to build a net zero future? What harmful activities will be wound down? Investors – and the public – need to know how these promises are going to be delivered.”