It’s ESG Survey & Query Time — Public Companies Are In Response Mode

by Hank Boerner & Louis Coppola

Barrage… Avalanche… Tidal wave… Tsunami“Survey Fatigue…
These are terms we hear all year ‘round but especially in the spring of the year as corporate managers describe for us what they often feel as the inevitable flow of third party ESG / Sustainability surveys, forms and various types of questionnaires come pouring their offices. It’s spring – survey time!  Some large-cap companies may receive 200 or more such queries during a year.  What to do!

Effective Response and Engagements Will Be Key to Success
in Communicating Corporate Sustainability Strategies and
Demonstrating Leadership for Investors

The challenges posed to company managers are:

  1. First to decide which queries will matter most to the company and to investors and select those out of the large flow for response;
  2. decide what to do with the rest of the third party queries;
  3. decide what information to be disclosed is material, of relevance and of importance to the third party and beyond to that organization’s user base;
  4. internally source and organize the data and narrative needed in responding to put the best story forward to maximize the positive perceptions of the stakeholders using the data in some way;
  5. and as we hear, [typically] debate internally what can and should be disclosed and why — beyond the mandated financial and related disclosures.

These challenges grow in importance each year as many more asset owners and managers either directly pose the questions to companies — or do so through an army of third-party ESG analytics firms.

The stakes are high and getting higher; the most efficient and effective of the corporate responders could enjoy inclusion in the sustainable investing indexes and benchmarks, and investor products; win high rankings, scores, ratings and other honors bestowed by the third party organizations; and in turn, be recognized by still more third-party organizations for their high scores and rankings.

Questions Often Heard in the Corporate Office: 
How come we are not in the DJSI?
How come “competitor X” is ranked higher than we are?
What should we be doing to improve our scores?
Who are the most important providers to engage with and respond to?

THE MORE TRANSPARENT COMPANY – THE PUBLIC COMPANY ESG PROFILE
Beyond the challenges to responding to the many third party organizations that crank the response and other information into their models and into investor-facing products, there is an ever-widening transparency of the company profile that may be of importance say, to major customers or business partners: for example, the Bloomberg professional services ESG dashboard will put the company’s ESG data and profile in front of more than 300,000 subscribers.   Similarly, the Thomson Reuters’ Eikon dashboards reach 200,000 and more subscribers with the same kinds of information.

We can hear the call from the corporate offices this month — Help!  The spring round of queries is at hand. For example, RobecoSAM’s “Corporate Sustainability Assessment” (the CSA) opened for company response last week; companies have only until the end of May to respond.  (We recently conducted a workshop in NYC for first time reporters in collaboration with RobecoSAM’s Robert Dornau and Gretchen Norwood.)

The information provided by companies in responding to the CSA will be an important determinant in RobecoSAM deciding which companies will be in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes and featured in the prized Yearbook roster. The information is used in S&P Dow Jones Company’s various products as well.

HOW TO ADDRESS THE CHALLENGES IN RESPONDING
 The good news is that there are efficient, thorough, comprehensive and organized ways to meet the challenges described above that are faced by many managers at publicly-traded and even privately-owned enterprises.

Here at G&A Institute, we call this our matrix approach that results in a more comprehensive “mosaic” (multi-dimensional) corporate ESG profile with significant benefits for the issuer.

It is important to keep in mind: the public company already has a sustainability profile shaped by its own publicly-disclosed information, by the dissemination of information by third parties distributing ESG analysis and data sets and by such stakeholders as government agencies, media, NGOs, activists, competitors, and others.

This mosaic corporate profile may be incomplete, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise have information that is detrimental to the company and its stakeholders that can be corrected with more timely and/or accurate information. The “wrong information” can lead to negative perceptions that can affect corporate reputation and valuation, and perhaps even societal freedom to operate.

THE G&A INSTITUTE APPROACH TO ESG DATA REVIEW
We usually start with an examination of the existing public ESG profile of the corporation.  This is the information typically provided to investors and key stakeholders by a ever-expanding universe of the ESG rankers and raters.  This phase of the work this helps us and the internal team in developing an understanding of how investors and stakeholders may be viewing the company, what issues are most material in their view — and from this analysis we can provide strategic guidance for how the company can work to better position itself to take advantage of any advances in corporate sustainability over the months and years ahead.

The comprehensive sweep of first-round examinations can be for a key set of the most important data providers (around 4-to-6) or more comprehensive and up to 15 or more of the ESG data providers, index managers, asset managers and public information platforms (such as the data on the Bloomberg and on Eikon).

The specific third party service providers to be examined may depend on peer group, geography of operations, the company’s sector and industry classifications (and keep in mind there are variations of these), the nature of products and services, and other factors.

IMPORTANCE OF THE GAP ANALYSIS
Once the key third party organizations are selected for close examination, an internal gap analysis against the information being made available to investors by the third party provider can be determined – and addressed by the internal team.

Key areas of strength, weakness and the peers’ standings will emerge for internal managers to address. Low hanging fruit such as correcting inaccurate data, or improving reporting by better organizing important ESG disclosure data, may make it easy for short-term improvement.  Longer term the results of this type of analysis and engagement will inform strategy setting, and resource allocations to most efficiently and effectively improve the ROI of the Sustainability program.

G&A’s Co-Founder Louis Coppola was recently interviewed at Skytop Strategies ESG4 Summit on the “Value Companies Can Obtain by Engaging with ESG Investor Data Providers.”  You can watch the interview here and email Lou at lcoppola@ga-institute.com if you have questions or would like to discuss the ESG review process.

KEEP IN MIND:
Improving the ratings, rankings, scores etc is a journey, not a sprint.

It’s important here to stress that whether or not a company chooses to answer queries, respond to data provider inquiries or attempts to correct some public information that service providers are sharing with investors, there is a public sustainability profile out there and it is making an impression on investors.

As the flow of this year’s queries reaches corporate managers, it is important to understand who some of the key third party ESG players are — and what their work is about – and how they can impact the corporation.  We provide some recent news updates about leading players below for your information.

FOR YOUR FURTHER INFORMATION: NEWS ABOUT KEY ESG / SUSTAINABILITY DATA PROVIDERS

The Universe of ESG Rankers Serving Institutional Investor Clients Expands…
Source:G&A Institute’s To the Point! Management Briefs (January 2018)
ISS’ Traditional Corporate Governance Focus Expanding to Encompass Environmental & Social QualityScores for Roughly 1,500 Public Companies Coming in January…And Expanding to 5,000 Issuers in Q2…

ISS Unveils New Corporate “E” and “S” QualityScores for 1,500 Companies
Source:G&A Institute’s To the Point! (February 2018)

Oekom Research to Join Institutional Shareholder Services
Source: oekom research news (March 2018)
oekom research, a leader in the provision of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings and data, as well as sustainable investment research, today announced it will join Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”). Reflecting the strength of both brands, oekom research will be renamed ISS-oekom…

Sustainalytics’ New Research Report Offers Insight into ESG Risks Facing 10 Sectors
Source: Sustainalytics (February 15, 2018)
Sustainalytics, a leading global provider of ESG and corporate governance research, ratings and analytics, today released a new thematic research report – “10 for 2018: ESG Risks on the Horizon”.  The report examines critical ESG risks facing 10 sectors, which are classified under four broad themes, including: Water Management / Stakeholder Governance / Consumer Protection / Climate Change..

Morningstar & Sustainalytics Expand Sustainability Collaboration
Source: Sustainalytics (July 2017)
In a continuing and growing commitment to helping investors integrate sustainability considerations into portfolio decisions, Morningstar, Inc. (NASDAQ: MORN), a leading provider of independent investment research, and Sustainalytics, a leading global provider of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) research and ratings, today announced that Morningstar has acquired a 40 percent ownership stake in Sustainalytics. The direct investment represents an important milestone in Morningstar’s long-term sustainability strategy and intends to support Sustainalytics’ ability to deliver high-quality, innovative ESG products and services to the global investment community…

Bloomberg ESG Function for Sustainability Investors Adds RobecoSAM Data
Source: Bloomberg (September 2016)
Bloomberg recently expanded its offering of ESG (environmental, social, governance) data by incorporating information from RobecoSAM’s percentile rankings on the Bloomberg Professional service at ESG<GO> —  a Bloomberg Terminal function that provides sustainability investors with data about a company’s environmental, social and governance metrics…

RobecoSAM Publishes “The Sustainability Yearbook 2018”
Source: RobecoSAM (February 2018)
RobecoSAM, the investment specialist that has focused exclusively on Sustainability Investing (SI) for over 22 years, today announced the publication of “The Sustainability Yearbook 2018”.    The Yearbook showcases the sustainability performance of the world’s largest companies and includes the top 15% per industry, which are awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze Class medals. RobecoSAM has analyzed the corporate sustainability performance of the world’s largest listed companies every year since 1999…

Results Announced for 2017 DJSI Review
Source: RobecoSAM (September 7, 2017)
S&P Dow Jones Indices (S&P DJI), one of the world’s leading index providers, and RobecoSAM, an investment specialist focused exclusively on Sustainability Investing (SI), today announced the results of the annual Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) review. The three largest additions and deletions…

MSCI:  2018 ESG Trends to Watch
Source: Commentary by Linda Eling-Lee, Global Head of ESG Research, MSCI  (January 2018)
Bigger, faster, more.  Whether due to policy, technological or climatic changes, companies face an onslaught of challenges that are happening sooner and more dramatically than many could have anticipated.  Investors, in turn, are looking for ways to position their portfolios to best navigate the uncertainty. In 2018, these are the major trends that we think will shape how investors approach the risks and opportunities on the horizon. In 2018, investors will…

Has ESG Affected Stock Performance?
Source: Commentary by Guido Giese – ED, Applied Equity Research, MSCI
Are ESG characteristics tied to stock performance? Many researchers have studied the relationship between companies with strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) characteristics and corporate financial performance. A major challenge has been to show that positive correlations — when produced — explain the behavior. As the classic phrase used by statisticians says, “correlation does not imply causation.”Instead of conducting a pure correlation-based analysis, we focused on understanding how ESG characteristics have led to financially significant effects…

CDP:  The Disruptors:  Paul Simpson, the Atypical Activist Who Awoke C-Suites to Climate Risk
Source: Ethical Corporation (November 2017)
The founder of CDP tells Oliver Balch how the organization he started 17 years ago has helped transform corporate and investor attitudes to climate change  The phrase “task force” is hardly one to get the heart racing. Expand it to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, and you’re into catatonic territory. So it’s little wonder that when the TCFD (as insiders call it) issued a suite of recommendations over the summer, it didn’t trouble the headline writers much. Not so Paul Simpson, who met the news with huge excitement…

Our Governments Have Committed to Keeping Global Temperature Rises to Well Below 2-Degrees – What Can Companies and Cities Do…
Source: CDP Campaigns
The Paris Agreement sends a clear signal that the shift to a low-carbon economy is inevitable, and everyone must play their part. To facilitate this transition, CDP and its partners have developed campaigns that seek to highlight and spur meaningful action on tackling climate change from the private sector and sub-national governments…campaign information…. committed to keeping global temperature rises to well…

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