RI Interview: The ‘Yes Men’, the hoaxers who have turned their attention to ESG investment

The group behind the fake Larry Fink letter and fictitious Equator Principles update

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s annual letter has become a fixture of the asset management scene over the past few years and the 2018 edition certainly struck a chord with the quintessential ESG declaration: “To prosper over time, every company must show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

It should come as no surprise that BlackRock’s stakeholders, of which there are quite a few given that it is a $6trn firm, are looking at how the world’s largest asset manager is walking the talk – as happened yesterday both inside and outside its AGM.

The 2018 letter certainly didn’t go unnoticed by environmental and corporate responsibility pranksters The Yes Men – who took the liberty of writing an “improved” one on Fink’s behalf in January. This was the infamous fake letter which caught out several media organisations, including RI.

The fake letter said BlackRock would be screening out from its ETFs all non-Paris compliant companies and voting against boards that do not work enough towards carbon neutrality by 2050.

“The letter of our dreams would have said this,” The Yes Men’s pseudonymous ‘Jeff Walburn’ tells RI.

Walburn says they just knew the date range of the letter’s publication from previous years and decided to bet on the earliest, with January 16 coinciding with the fourth quarter earnings report.

Then something unexpected happened. BlackRock’s response was to publish the real letter the following day.

“It wasn’t the right move to release Fink’s letter on our tail because you let our letter become part of the story of the real one. It gave the project such a boost. Honestly, you would expect they would have waited a week or two.”

Walburn has an interpretation for this: “I have to guess he maybe is such a good guy that he wanted to help us or just made a quick decision.”

Against this interpretation, Walburn says, there is the view that the real letter was very “disappointing” in terms of bringing tangible change.

Nonetheless, Walburn sees potential in BlackRock: “I think he truly believes in his convictions, and he is in the right place. That’s one reason his company is a good one for The Yes Men to work on: they want to do the right thing and our pressure can help them.”

The Yes Men are now shifting focus from the corporate to the climate finance world in an attempt to go back “to the root of the problem”.

“For many years The Yes Men targeted the big bad guys in climate change. Everyone knows that companies like Exxon, Shell and Gazprom are destroying the planet. But it is investment firms, even more than banks, who make the work of the big climate polluters financially possible.”At the research phase of the projects, The Yes Men normally partner with specialist NGOs.

“We are kind of environmental mercenaries,” Walburn says, although the NGOs don’t want to be named because “they don’t like our tactics”.

Walburn joined The Yes Men in 2012. He belongs to the new wave of activists who are continuing the tradition of the group founded by ‘Mike Bonanno’ and ‘Andy Bichlbaum’.

“But it is investment firms, even more than banks, who make the work of the big climate polluters financially possible.”

Walburn got lucky in his first ESG investment hoax with the fake BlackRock letter.

And luck played a part in what is probably the group’s most prominent spoof to date: where they fictitiously appeared as Dow Chemical pledging to fully compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster.

On that occasion, the BBC contacted them via a fake website looking for a broadcast appearance from a Dow official coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial accident.

As featured in their film, The Yes Men Fix the World, the hoax showed how doing the right thing for a company was welcomed by everyone — except the stock market, which immediately punished Dow by wiping $2bn off its share value.

Another classic campaign saw Bichlbaum posing as an official of the US Chamber of Commerce announcing its support for a climate change bill and reversing its climate scepticism. Its fake Shell marketing campaign, giving ice cream cones from melting polar ice caps as freebies, ridiculed Shell’s plans for drilling the Arctic.

In the latest campaign release just this week, Walburn penned a whole new set of the perhaps obscure Equator Principles, the bank sustainability risk management framework, to target Japanese banks financing coal plants.

“The idea here wasn’t to target the Equator Principles but these banks that finance new coal. The way around this was: what if they got kicked out of their own organisations?”

Walburn admits the action is quite niche and hasn’t attracted much attention. But The Yes Men are watching you. Paraphrasing the motto of their fake New York Times edition of 4 July 2009, they will be giving journalists “All the News We Hope to Print”.