Corporate Sustainability Performance – Setting the Stage for ESG Data Analysis by Humans and AI Bots Alike

By Pam Styles, Principal and Founder, Next Level Investor Relations, and G&A Institute Fellow

There is an expansive reservoir of ESG data – a.k.a. key performance indicators (KPIs) – across growing corporate ESG disclosure and reporting, commercially advertised metrics and/or data sets subscription access, and proprietary third-party rater, ranker and data provider analytical systems.

While voluntary reporting frameworks and the various third parties jockey for dominance and survival, who is using all this data — and how?

Currently, there are too many ESG-related KPIs and data sets for companies and investors to get a handle on, respond or analyze.  It is impossible to predict how many more KPIs will enter the mix or how soon third-party relationships will naturally consolidate the number of KPI expectations, simply driven by necessity for their own business models’ sustainability.

The corporate disclosure side of this issue is explored in:
The End User Side

Just like corporations, investors have to prioritize which KPIs matter and what reporting framework KPIs, public access information sources, licensed and/or proprietary databases they can rationalize for focus.

CFA-PRI recently joined forces to survey 1100 investment professionals.  Survey results show that fixed income inclusion of ESG in investment decision-making is rapidly catching-up with equity investors.

Source: UNPRI

Analogous to portfolio diversification theory, the number of investments (in both time and money) in ESG data sources has got to naturally reach some optimal number needed to optimize risk/return. Beyond that there is an entire sustainable finance ecosystem too large to address in a simple blog post.

Data Use

There is not an honest person alive who can tell you that they can stay on top of all the current and increasing company ESG data they could analyze, germane to their investment decision-making.

Research of Value

In addition to 90% of S&P 500 companies, Governance & Accountability Institute just announced its annual research update that 65% of Russell 1000 companies also published sustainability reports in 2019 (up from 60% in 2018), including 39% by companies in the smallest half of the index (up from 34% in 2018).

Important Perspective

An article highlighting takeaways from the recent NIRI “Big I – Investor & Issuer Invitational Forum”, quoted speaker Dan Romito, SVP of Business Development & Product Strategy at Nasdaq:

“There is an explosion of non-fundamental data…especially in ESG data…The
SEC found that 90% of data now used in the capital markets has been created during the past two years.”

Artificial Intelligence

AI use as a tool to consume, filter and analyze, huge reservoirs of ESG data is increasingly valuable in investment decision-making. AI providers are jockeying for differentiation and capital.  For instance:

  • AI is being used by investors, such as BlackRock, to not only analyze ESG data that companies are disclosing, but to uncover other information, such as ESG impacts from satellite images of pollution to cars in a parking lot, voice inflection and more.
  • FactSet just announced, on October 20th, a definitive agreement to acquire TrueValue Labs. Founded in 2013, TrueValue is a pioneer in AI-driven ESG data. It applies AI-driven technology to over 100,000 unstructured text sources in 13 languages, to identify positive and negative ESG behavior. Its coverage spans over 19,000 public and private companies.
  • TrueValue LabsTM had previously announced on January 23, 2020, that it was introducing its patent-pending concept of Dynamic Materiality, indicating that every company, industry and sector has a unique materiality signature. The company head of research noted that, “Given how central materiality is to ESG investing and fiduciary duty, it is critical to understand the mechanisms by which ESG factors impact the operational and financial performance of companies.”

The Human Element

“While AI can unearth key data for investors seeking sustainable investments, discerning unreliable information will be a key challenge and humans will not be replaced any time soon.” – as stated in the article titled,  How can AI help ESG investing? –  S&P Global, Sept 2020

“AI is not a replacement for human intelligence, but rather a way to further it… The strategic value of alternative datasets, in particular ESG data, in the financial sector is becoming increasingly visible. As only relevant data has decision-making utility, supervised machine learning is emerging as the most effective mechanism to generate strategic value for businesses.” – Cutting through the noise: demystifying the buzz around artificial intelligence in financial decision-makingRepRisk, Sept 2020

The Final Word

In only the last few years, it became obvious that ESG/Sustainability had finally gone mainstream.  It took over twenty years to catch-on, since the first voluntary ESG reporting framework, GRI, was founded in 1997.  Now it is time to buckle-up for the ride… practically everything ESG/Sustainability-related is advancing at orders of magnitude faster pace than anything we’ve experienced thus far!

Pamela Styles – Fellow G&A Institute – is principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC, a strategic consultancy with dual Investor Relations and ESG / Sustainability specialties.

Looking Back to Look Ahead – The Promise of Biden-Harris Administration to Return to the Hopes of Action on Climate Change Issues

November 9, 2020

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

For almost four l-o-n-g, long years we have been watching – and decrying! – the antics of the Trump Administration in the attempt to roll back vital federal environmental protections that have been put in place (and protected) by elected representatives of both parties over five decades.

It was President Richard M. Nixon – a Republican and conservative leader – who signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) into the law of the land. NEPA was established by the 91st Congress and became law on January 1, 1970.

This also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. What flowed thereafter was important…

…the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was created;
The Clean Air Act was enacted into law;
The Clean Water Act soon followed; and then
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA);  and 
…”Superfund” for clean up of contamination (actually, CERCLA-Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act);  and
Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act;  and 
Endangered Species Act;  and
Federal Insectiside, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; and 
Energy Policy Act; and
Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act;
…and much more!

Beginning almost immediately as the Trump Administration took charge of the EPA and other cabinet agencies, these historic legislative achievements were being undermined and protections whittled away.

There will be new environmental overseers coming to town in 2021 and the great hopes pinned on the Biden-Harris Administration include rebuilding the important rules, oversight mechanisms and enforcement of the laws/rules by EPA, Interior, Energy and other agencies.

The New York Times today outlined the first steps that could be taken – issuance of presidential Executive Orders (EOs) and President Memoranda that would undo the same mechanisms employed by President Trump and EPA political leaders to undermine environmental protection measures.

We read in — “Biden Will Roll Back Parts of the Trump Agenda With Strokes of a Pen” – that on Day One, we can expect action on climate change, writes Michael D. Shear and Lisa Friedman.

That starts with notice to the United Nations that the U.S.A. will rejoin the Paris Agreement.

The move to revoke Trump era EOs and re-issue Obama-Biden Administration orders can be immediate; or, President Joe Biden in 2021 can issue new orders along the same lines of prior EOs addressing climate change issues.

Important: The new Executive Orders would create important policies for the heads and rank and file members of the departments – Defense, EPA, Labor, Commerce, Interior, SEC, and many others that in some way directly or indirectly are affected by climate change.

Attitudes do matter – and Presidential Executive Orders to heads of agencies really matter!

2021 is looking like climate change matters will move to front-and-center on the public policy agenda. The Financial Times today pointed out that candidate Joe Biden set a policy of having a target to reach zero carbon

While Donald Trump led the effort to isolate the United States from world affairs, China moved to pledge net zero by 2060 and Japan and South Korea set net zero targets.

With the USA back on board, real progress can be made toward meeting Paris Agreement goals. Exciting to consider: The United States of America as once again a leader in the drive to make the world a safer, healthier place for billions of us!

For a reminder of the Trump moves in 2017 to reverse a half-century and more of environmental protection, here’s my March 2017 look at what was underway just two months into the new administration, with a new leader (Administrator Scott Pruitt) at the helm of the EPA.

Let’s go back to March 2017 – Just two months into the Trump Administration – with bad news on climate change all around!

http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/climate-change-nah-the-deniers-destroyers-are-work-white-house-attempts-to-roll-back-obama-legacy/


Cradle-to-Cradle: Method Case Study

Guest Column by Lama Alaraj – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

We live in a world where our society is run through consumerism and capitalist gains. As a result, this system has had adverse effects on the health of our environment.

One of the major industries in our economies is cleaning products, where demand is unlikely to decrease. Consumer behavior influences the supply of cleaning products in our economy, and as a result there is a rise in demand for the ‘green products’.

As consumers it is important for us to know what hazardous chemicals we are bringing into our homes. In this industry transparency is not enough, as the average human cannot understand chemical labels (citation, Grotewohl, 2018 – see bibliography at end).

I believe that we need more companies to shift their business model to be more of a commitment towards achieving holistic sustainability.

There are many different strategies and business models that companies can apply to experience financial growth, with sustainability and the environment in mind.  The focus of this essay will be on the cradle-to-cradle approach — a more sustainable business model that has proven to work in the cleaning products industry.

The cradle-to-cradle approach is a system that moves away from the conventional linear manufacturing process, which focuses on taking raw materials to produce products that will end up disposed, towards a circular approach by closing the loop in production and eliminating waste.

• This process requires businesses to change their business model towards one that incorporates conscious sustainable thinking at the core (Brennan et al, 2015).

• The approach talks about two types of metabolism: biological and technical (Severis et Rech, 2019).

• Each has corresponding nutrients — ‘biological nutrients’ — are materials that can be safely returned to the biosphere, and ‘technical nutrients’ are manmade materials that can be reused (Severis et Rech, 2019).

Goal: Reuse or Return to the Environment

The goal of this approach is to create products that can either be reused or return to the environment (such as though composting) and therefore eliminating the concept of waste at the end of the life cycle of a material which is related to the common cradle-to-grave operation (Severis et Rech, 2019).

An important term that was a prelude to the birth of the cradle-to-cradle approach is the strategy of being eco-effective. This strategy is defined as using resources that maximize the benefits of a product or a service in order for the material to have a continuous life cycle (Brennan et al., 2015).

For the cradle-to-cradle approach to be successful and sustainable in its application by a business, it needs to adhere to three guidelines: waste equals food, use renewable energy, and celebrate diversity (Brennan et al, 2015). For example:

(1) Waste equals food is essentially where the concept of upcycling comes from. By not creating more waste, companies can look at resources that have already been used and recycled, and utilize these materials to their maximum potential.

This guideline pushes businesses to be creative and innovative, enabling them to design a product that has multiple life cycles, and does not lose its value or superiority when it is recycled into something different (Brennan et al, 2015).

(2) The second guideline, use of renewable energy, pushes firms to switch from fossil fuels and to generate clean energy through the use of solar, wind, hydro or biomass technologies. This fits the framework of using what is naturally present and contributes to a holistic approach (Severis et Rech, 2019).

The final approach is about incorporating diversity within the business, through innovation. As part of this guideline firms are required to design products that “support biodiversity, socio-cultural diversity and conceptual diversity” (Ankrah et al.,2015).

This encourages business leaders and their firms to look outside the box and design products that avoid environmental pollution and strive for maximum material reutilization.

Cradle-to-Cradle Certification

To encourage and enable business to apply the cradle-to-cradle approach, the Cradle-to-Cradle certification was established in 2005. Since then, 200-plus companies have produced products that are certified (Source: Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, 2020).

The rise in Cradle-to-Cradle certified products is influenced by increased environmental awareness, growing consumer demands for green products and business financial savings.

According to research through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, businesses in the European Union could save up to US$630 billion a year by switching to a cradle-to-cradle model and operating through a circular production system (Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute, “CCPII” – 2020).

For instance, Shaw industries, a global carpet manufacturer, switched to a cradle-to-cradle business model in 2007 and as part of this switch, Shaw achieved a 48% increase in water efficiency, and improved energy efficiency, both of which have major environmental benefits (CCPII, 2020).

Financial benefits of this approach allowed Shaw to save US$2.5 million in 2012 alone (CCPII-2020). The benefits of this approach can be vast and are realized through economic, social and environmental gains.

One economic benefit is cost reduction — savings achieved through the reuse of materials, and resource efficiency by saving on water and energy spending (CCPII-2020).

Moreover, these benefits are eliminating toxic waste and pollution, and giving more than one life cycle to a product, through upcycling the material and creating something different in order to operate through environmental awareness and positive sustainable practices (Brennan et al, 2015)

Looking at Cleaning Products

Cleaning products typically contain many hazardous chemicals that can contaminate our groundwater, lakes and oceans, and lead to the formation of algal blooms which threaten marine life. Not only do these chemicals harm our ecosystems, they can also have adverse effects on humans, if exposed to high levels of these chemicals (Grotewohl, 2018).

This is where Method — a United States-based company — decided to take matters into their own hands. They are the “People against dirty”, their infamous slogan is an homage to their commitment against traditional cleaning products that are harmful to our environment, and us.

Method is one of the first green cleaning companies to have a full line of cradle-to-cradle certified products. The company uses non toxic, and full biodegradable formulas, ensuring their products adhere to the unique process of cradle-to-cradle for maximum reutilization (Ryan et al, 2011).

This sophisticated and innovative company values renewable energy at the core of their production process, ensuring to me the renewable energy guideline of cradle-to-cradle fundamentals.

The firm has even opened the first LEED-platinum -certified plant in their industry (Chow, 2015). Everything at this factory is made on site, a one-stop shop approach. The plant runs on wind and solar energy; they have utilized the space in an environmentally-conscious way by allowing Gotham Greens to use the plant’s entire rooftop as a greenhouse in order to harvest organic produce for the local markets and communities (Chow, 2015).

In this way Method demonstrates that the management thinks beyond profitability of the end product, and also looks to maximize every space in their factory and seek inclusivity and to benefit society through their community centered approach, meeting both the renewable energy and diversity guideline of the cradle-to-cradle approach.

The process of recycling actually produces toxins and pollution, so companies encouraging their consumers to recycle is not enough because they are not breaking the system of waste, just contributing to it (Ryan et al., 2011).

Competitors in the cleaning industry typically use white PET to package their goods, as a way to brand their green commitment. However, this type of plastic does not filter through recycling plants and so ends up in landfills (Ryan et al., 2011).

Method’s leaders did their homework, and rather than sticking to traditional industry trends, they designed packaging that is 100% recyclable and made from Post Consumer Recycled PET (Ryan et al., 2011).

In addition to Method’s cleaning materials being sustainably sourced, their packaging is made of 100% recycled bottles, reducing waste in their production process. By upcycling its waste, Method uses up to 70% less energy to manufacture its products (Ryan et al., 2011). Moreover, the plastics used are carefully chosen to ensure they can be recycled and reused, operating a closed loop production system.

For Method, waste is truly fuel, upholding the first guideline in the approach.

Looking at Laundry Detergents

Laundry detergent on the commercial scale is typically water intensive (“80% of detergent is water”), and causes a lot of waste (Ryan et al., 2011). Conventionally, it is packaged to make consumers believe that more is better, so consumers use more detergent than needed (like an optical illusion of sorts).

The first breakthrough in innovation a better detergent was in 2004, when Method launched their ‘three times concentrated’ formula, which uses a lot less water and a lot less energy to clean, making it more environmentally friendly than conventional detergents (Ryan et al., 2011).

This sparked a competitive race in the industry, and major names in the game launched their own versions of concentrated detergents (Ryan et al., 2011). Method creators did not patent their formula, rather they wanted to encourage their competitors to produce more environmentally-friendly and cleaner detergents (Ryan et al., 2011).

In 2010 Method made waves again, and launched their eight times concentrated detergent, and this time it became the first detergent to receive an official cradle-to-cradle certification for its innovative design, non toxic, biodegradable and reduced water formula (Gittell et al., 2012).

Moreover, because it does not require the same amount of energy to clean clothes, it does not require the same amount of detergent either — proving to be resource efficient.

The product is dispensed through a pump, is a lot smaller, and weighs less. This demonstrates the diversity aspect of cradle-to-cradle, because the product used design as a way to reduce excessive and wasteful amounts of detergent that we as consumers have mindlessly done, and by reducing we are benefiting the environment (Gittell et al., 2012,).

Looking Beyond Traditional Business Models

The cradle-to-cradle approach aims to push beyond traditional business models that lean on eco- efficiency policies and towards eco-effective strategies. Typically eco-efficiency relies on the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and operate on zero waste strategies (Brennan et al., 2015).

With this mindset there are some problems that can arise, as this is still adhering to a linear business model. For instance, with recycling, the product loses its value, and hence its life cycle is significantly shortened. We need to do better than that as businesses and go from downcycling, to upcycling, from eco-efficient, to eco-effective.

Method in my view is a cradle-to-cradle success story and I think it is a role model for companies to take that plunge. Since its conception, as a small two person company, Method has grown to be a US$100 million dollar company (Gittell et al., 2012).

Management has never broken the commitment to true sustainability, and has proved that having a cradle-to-cradle business strategy can result in positive environmental impacts & commercial growth. From breaking conventional trends in the industry, to pushing their giant competitors to adopt the three times cycled detergent, i see Method as a force to be reckoned with.


# # #

Lama Alaraj is a graduate of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada) with double major in economics and international development studies. She is a marketing consultant for Web.com. She was an analyst-intern with G&A Institute and was a key member of the team producing the S&P 500 Index annual research on sustainability reporting, and was very much involved in the G&A Institute’s GRI Data Partner duties.



Link: https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/lama-alaraj.html

Bibliography

Ankrah, N. A., Manu, E., & Booth, C. (2015, December). Cradle to Cradle Implementation in Business Sites and the Perspectives of Tenant Stakeholders. Elsevier, 83(Energy Procedia), 31-40. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876610215028581#abs0005

Brennan, G., Tennant, M. and Blomsma, F. (2015). Chapter 10. Business and
production solutions: Closing Loops & the Circular Economy, in Kopnina, H. and Shoreman-Ouimet, E. (Eds). Sustainability: Key Issues. Routledge: EarthScan, pp.219-239

Chow, L. (2015, July 29). Gotham Greens + Method = World’s Largest Rooftop Greenhouse Coming to Chicago. EcoWatch. Cradle to cradle products innovation institute. (2020). Impact Study Executive Summary. www.c2ccertified.org. https://www.c2ccertified.org/impact-study

Gittell, R., Magnusson, M., & Merenda, M. (2012). The Sustainable Business Case Book (Vol. Chapter 6). Saylor Foundation. https://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/sustainable-business-cases/index.html

Grotewohl, E. (2018). Chapter 830: Cleaning Products Are Coming Clean. University of Pacific Law Review, 49(2). Scholarly Commons. https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1161&context=uoplawreview

Ryan, E., Lowry, A., & Conley, L. (2011). The Method Method: Seven Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside Down. Penguin.

Severis, R., & Rech, J. (2019). Cradle to Cradle: An Eco-effective Model. In Earth and Environmental Science Reference Module Physical and Materials Science. Springer, Cham. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-71062-4_62-1