Rio Tinto oustings show shareholders finally getting tough on bad behaviour

Five years ago, the idea that three of the most senior bosses at an £80 billion miner like Rio Tinto would be fired over the fate of a couple of caves in the Aussie outback would have been laughable.

While every big company would trot out the obligatory line about its green credentials, it rarely merited even a footnote in the boardroom minutes.

But as the members of the public people investing in these businesses have become more aware, and caring, of the damage companies can do to the planet, so they have started demanding the pension funds managing their savings take notice, too.

Fund managers have seen it as a marketing opportunity, launching “ESG” funds which have proved a big hit with investors.

Now, if corporates do bad stuff, many asset managers have no choice but to ditch the shares which, in turn, hits the price.

The amount of cash now invested using ESG data as part of the selection process has almost doubled in the past four years to $40.5 trillion.

Smelling that money, management consultancies and accounting firms now have whole divisions dedicated to helping companies behave better – or at least look like they are.

Senior level execs have moved from tooth-and-claw investment banking to ESG advisory jobs: Marisa Drew at Credit Suisse, Keith Tuffley at Citi, Richard Threlfall at KPMG.

So, at Rio Tinto, it was not politicians or pressure groups who did for the top trio, but shareholders. They made it clear to the board that those at the very top had to go.

True, Rio investors had more to lose than most from the stupidity of their company; miners in Australia have to be sensitive to indigenous people’s rights or they’ll get their licenses revoked.

But these oustings feel like a watershed moment to stem bad corporate behaviour.

Free market capital saving the planet; who’d have thought it?