So Where Is The Corporate Sustainability Journey a Half-Year Into the Dramatic Impacts of the Coronavirus?

August 19, 2020 — in the midst of a strange summer for all of us

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

The questions may be going around in your universe and the answers offered up, say, inside the corporate enterprise as the senior executives and function, business unit and other managers meet the challenges posed by the virus pandemic, related economic disruption and civil protests on a number of topics.  This is about Quo Vadis, Our Sustainability Journey!

The Conference Board is a century-old, well-regarded business organization founded by corporate CEOs who were focused on “knowledge-sharing” at the beginnings of modern corporate management theories.

Today, 1,200 companies are involved as member organizations, typically with varying managers’ participation in sections devoted to specific topics and issue areas. These include Economy, Strategy & Finance; ESG (including Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Governance); Human Capital Management (including Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) …and other focus areas that fit the functional needs of today’s companies.

At G&A Institute we closely follow the extensive research and insights regularly shared by the Board as part of its foundational mission – sharing knowledge. This week The Conference Board issued its survey results for the question(s) asked of corporate connections: “What impact, if any, do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on your company’s overall sustainability program?”

If we asked our corporate colleagues that question, we could expect the answers to be all over the place. The Board did ask, and the answers were “sharply divided”, staff reported.

The Conference Board conducted two different surveys — one at more than 200 companies, focused on generating responses from general counsel, corporate secretaries and investor relations execs; the other queries, at 40 companies with questions asked of dedicated sustainability executives.

Top line: Three-in-ten sustainability execs expect the current health crisis to increase emphasis on their “E” and “S” efforts – while only one-in-ten of their fellow governance execs agree with that premise.

Example: responding to whether or not COVID-19 “put general sustainability efforts on temporary hold,” only 7% of sustainability executives said yes, while 19% of legal, governance and IR folks felt that way.

The short survey results are available for you in a Top Story.

Says The Conference Board staff: “This divergence of opinions reveals companies need to reach an internal consensus on the crisis’ impact on their sustainability programs and be prepared to communicate [it] in a cohesive and consistent manner.”  Good advice!

Inside the corporate structure, people may have differing views on what is “sustainability,” what their own company’s sustainability programs are about, (Strategy? Actions? Engagements? Achievements? Third-Party Recognitions?) And senior execs may have different opinions about the real impact of the virus on the company’s operations — not all impacts are yet fully understood as the pandemic roars on around the world.

But there are positives being reported. For example, we are seeing reports every day now of increased productivity at some companies because people are at home and not wasting hours commuting.  Emails are being answered early in the morning and way after dark — increasing the firm’s communication and productivity.

What is the outside view of this, beyond the corporate sector?

While inside the corporate enterprise there may be differences of opinion on the direction of the sustainability journey, here’s some important “outside” news from Sam Meredith at CNBC: “Sustainable investment funds just surpassed US$1 trillion for the first time.”

He cited recent UBS research that the global public sector has been stepping up support for green projects. And, he cited a Morningstar report that spelled out factors contributing to the record 2Q inflows to ESG mutual funds.  Investors are putting their money where their “sustainability beliefs” may be, we could say.

Adding some intelligence to the results of our reading of The Conference Board survey results, Morningstar says: “…the disruption caused by the virus highlighted the importance of building sustainable and resilient business models based on multi-stakeholder considerations…”

Of course, there are no easy answers “inside” to harmonize the views of the executives responding to surveys about their company’s sustainability efforts.  But we can offer some advice.  Looking at the almost 2,000 corporate sustainability et al reports our team analyzed over the past year, we are seeing the formulas for success in the corporate sustainability journey.

People at the top (board room and C-suite) are the champions of the corporate sustainability efforts.  Strategy is set at the top and communicated effectively throughout the organization.  (“Strategem” is the root of the work — in ancient Greece, this was the work of the generals.  The leaders inside the company must lead the sustainability journey!)

Goals are to be set (carbon emissions reduction, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of waste to landfill, water usage and water discharge, and much more); progress is regularly measured and managed. And disclosed.

Serious attention is paid to the firm’s diversity & inclusion efforts and results; effective human capital management (HCM) is a priority at all levels, and in all geographies.

Meaningful engagements — internally and with external parties — are top priorities at multiple levels. Supply chain and sourcing efforts are monitored and bad actors and bad practices are eliminated, with management understanding that the firms in their supply network are part of their ESG footprint.

And the periodic public reporting on all of the above and more is based on the materiality of data and information — the stuff the investors want to know more about for their analysis and portfolio management.

Senior leadership understands that corporate sustainability is not about just “feeling good” but an important element of playing to win in the competition for capital and achieving industry leadership and being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.  As Morningstar advises, sustainability is part of the business model.

So in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the resulting economic and financial dislocations, the caring for the firm’s valuable human assets..quo vadis for your corporate sustainability journey?

Interesting conversations going on, for sure.  Read the survey results from The Conference Board survey and see what you agree/disagree.  Thanks to our colleagues at the board for all the management knowledge that they share.

Top Stories

GRI & SASB 2020 Collaborate To Better Understand The Use Of The Two Standards Together In Corporate ESG Reporting

Two heavyweights in the corporate reporting frameworks/standards arena have announced intentions to move closer to help promote “clarity and comparability in the sustainability landscape” – GRI and SASB.

The two organizations just announced a collaborative work plan to demonstrate how some companies have used both sets of corporate ESG reporting standards…together — and lessons to share for reporters.

The common understanding expressed is that “GRI and SASB share a guiding principle” – that greater transparency (in corporate reporting) is the best currency for creating trust among organizations and their stakeholders (Tim Mohin – CEO of GRI).

Notes SASB CEO Janine Guillot:  “In a post-COVID world, companies will increasingly be expected to disclose their performance on a range of ESG Topics.”  The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that non-financial information disclosure can highlight material financial implications, she advises.

In the short-term of the collaboration, the two organizations will develop examples based on reports that demonstrate how corporate reporters can use GRI Standards and SASB Standards together.  Further progress in the collaboration will be decided later this year/into 2021.

The Global Reporting Initiative is the most widely-used corporate reporting framework around the world for companies reporting on their ESG sustainability, responsibility, citizenship (companies select their titles) and related activities.

The GRI Standards for reporting features a set of “universal” and “topic-specific” standards (continuing to evolve) each with one or more disclosures to guide corporate managers in preparing their disclosures — focused on the environmental, economic and social impacts of a company.  The reporting is fashioned for delivery of important ESG information to a range of stakeholders – including investors.

The GRI Standards are the fifth generation of the framework; the first corporate reports were published following “G1” back in 1999-2000. Since then more than 40,000 reports have been published following the constantly-evolving GRI framework (which became standards in 2017).

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards are more recently developed, with investor needs in mind. After an intensive collaborative effort by investors and corporate issuers and other parties, standards were announced for 77 industries in 11 sectors. Using the SASB Sustainable Industry Classification System – SICS®.

SASB standards recommend material ESG disclosure topics and related accounting metrics for the primary SICS industry assigned to a company (often companies operate across more than one industry and should consider guidance from SASB on these as well).  For example, a Primary SICS Sector may be “Extractives & Minerals Processing” and the industry, “Oil & Gas – Exploration and Production”.

SASB recommendations for corporate reporting are reflecting a critical input from institutional investors on what providers of capital are considering to be material for the industry categories.  The intention is to identify a subset of sustainability-related risks and opportunities likely to affect a publicly-traded company’s financials and risk profile.

At G&A institute, our team uses both sets of standards as a “hybridized” approach in working with our corporate clients in preparing their ESG disclosure and structured reporting.

“Best practice” in preparing the corporate sustainability report with ample ESG data disclosures for both investors and a range of stakeholders requires a fulsome content indexes to guide the user (especially the investor and ESG rating agencies’ analysts) to the exact information they are seeking (for example GhG emissions, water used or energy consumption) in an efficient and effective manner.

The GRI Standards content index is one of the most important aspects in assisting these analysts and other users in navigating the content and disclosures.  We help companies cross-reference the SASB standards – as well as (more recently) the TCFD recommendations for disclosures; CDP data; GRESB data where applicable…and more working to create a Rosetta Stone for different users of the report to interpret the disclosures through their lens.

In our work as Data Partner for the U.S.A., U.K. and Republic of Ireland for GRI, we are capturing significant information now on the use of GRI and SASB and other reporting frameworks in one report – a most welcome advance in corporate ESG disclosure.

The trend of using both sets of standards is clearly on the rise for U.S. public companies.

Watch for our announcement (very soon!) with results of the annual S&P 500 Index® analysis.  There is information in the report about the use of GRI and SASB among the S&P 500 – and the use of other reporting frameworks as well.

The S&P 500 universe of corporate issuers continue to set the pace for all publicly-traded – and privately-owned companies – in the disclosure of ESG data and information now expected by key stakeholders.

While our hybridized approach to corporate ESG reporting adds value to the reporting company’s effort to achieve greater disclosure, we advise clients (as do SASB and GRI in their announcement of collaboration) that the two standards organizations prize the independence of their standards-setting processes.  As do the other reporting / standards-setting frameworks (like TCFD, CDP, et al).  There is not yet a “one-size fits all” for corporate ESG reporting, but announcements like the one in our featured story move the needle.

Bottom line:  as stated by SASB and GRI, both provide compatible standards for sustainability reporting that can be used in the same report.  While they are designed to fulfill different purposes, based on different approaches to materiality, there are many ways to use them to create a hybrid report that creates value.

Top Stories

Promoting Clarity and Compatibility In The Sustainability Landscape
Source:  Global Reporting Initiative (July 13, 2020)
Amid rising global demand for clarity in the sustainability reporting ecosystem, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are pleased to announce a collaborative workplan.

Corporate ESG Stakeholders – Supply Chain Management – What’s in Your Supply Chain Mix?

By Pam StylesG&A Institute Fellow

The current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed countless concerns, including (global) supply chain management issues near the top of the list.

Public and private-sector professionals and officials are soon to be attempting to get economies back up and running. Following Herculean and likely imperfect restart efforts, it will be important to debrief supply chain systemic failures and risks that have been exposed during the pandemic crisis.

ESG/Sustainability practitioners may be able to offer unique vantage to assist the debrief in collaboration with company supply chain experts and management teams.

Well-established ESG tracking practices and voluntary reporting frameworks, such as GRI (est. 1997) and CDP (est. 2000), could possibly be used to expand internal information sharing and analysis to augment internal supply chain risk assessments, monitoring and oversight capabilities.

ESG reporting frameworks are not necessarily a perfect fit or infallible, however they could potentially provide existing information platforms from which to add and/or improve accessible reporting, analysis and assessment, and executive leadership observation in a multitude of strategic (multi) sourcing risk assessments and repositioning exercises to come.

As we all try to learn and make important changes going forward, important questions to ask:

What do you know about your company’s suppliers’ supply chain, their suppliers, and so on?

The Business Continuity Institute, Zurich Insurance Company and others have been raising the red flag for years that too many companies do not have full visibility of their supply chain, nor the ability to fully track components through the full vertical supply chain.

Just a few recent examples of how reality has suddenly struck some pharmaceutical, consumer products and electronics companies (the list of other sector impacts can go on):

  • U.S. Pharmaceutical supply chain dependencies on China were well known at high levels prior to COVID-19, but effectively nothing was done about it and consumers were unaware of the looming risk.
  • Consumer Products giant Procter & Gamble indicated 17,600 products could be affected by Coronavirus in China.
  • Apple is dealing with pandemic-driven supply chain and sourcing woes.

Back in 2008 PwC published a fascinating paper about German companies supply chain sourcing practices in China, in which it suggested companies take a closer look at their KPI’s.

Who should raise warning flags and influence corrective supply chain action?

Supply chains can be very complicated with many layers or tiers, all the way down to original raw materials source. Aggregate supply chain geographic risk management is surely challenging.

As a specialist at well-known Gartner Supply Chain observed, “COVID-19 should be a wake-up call to boards of directors, CEOs and supply chain leaders that being well prepared for disruptions, regardless of their cause, is not an optional extra. It is a business necessity.

Companies are learning painful lessons in the shortcomings of legal boilerplate risk disclaimer language in situations like today’s. These lessons should compel executive leadership and Boards to step-up their efforts and investment in overseeing supply chain strategy and active risk management mitigation.

Does your company regularly review and remediate identifiable aggregate risks across the company’s supply chain and associated third-party relationships?

As recently pointed out in a COVID-19 related article by another G&A Institute Fellow, Daniel Goelzer, “Internal auditors are missing key risks.” He went on to observe,

“The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has released its annual survey of Chief Audit Executives. The 2020 North American Pulse of Internal Audit “reveals serious gaps in internal audit’s coverage, with audit plans deficient in key risk areas.”

“For example, the IAA found that almost one-third of respondents did not include cybersecurity/information technology in their audit plans. In addition, more than half did not include governance/culture or third-party relationships, and 90 percent did not include sustainability.”

Postulating that the professional supply chain management tools kit is loaded with granularity to boggle the mind, it is fair to suggest the possibility that the many different tools may inadvertently complicate aggregate risk assessments.

Thus, we should think about whether there might be an opportunity for ESG/Sustainability professionals to constructively share their inherently top-down vantage and tools kit to assist companies with additional angles for risk assessment and oversight.

Brainstorming how the growing mainstream ESG/Sustainability field can help:

One gets a strong sense that professional supply chain experts across the board are now committed to re-engineer their collective body of knowledge and management resources to truly understand–down to the last pharmaceutical raw ingredient source, medical gear and equipment–the geographic and geo-political risks of their companies’ product vertical manufacturing and supplies.

First, let’s acknowledge that professional supply chain experts have a lot of knowledge, skills and complex management tools at their disposal that those outside their discipline know little about.

Second, kudos to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their brilliance and ingenuity. Their recent reminder to all of us that, when a problem is large and complex and a fast solution is needed, it’s worth remembering the “keep it simple” concept.

Their challenge: emergency need to rapidly expand hospital bed and critical care capacity in multiple locations across the country.

Their solution: work with the infrastructure already there – large convention centers, empty hotels, and the like – and quickly retrofit them to meet the hopefully short-term surge capacity needs.

So now let’s apply the “keep it simple” concept, to think about what infrastructure we already have that can be efficiently and effectively adapted to immediate re-purpose, constructive to supply chain risk management.

Pre-dating the world’s awareness of the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) stated in an article published November 15, 2019, that it “recognizes that joining the dots between corporate reporting and the practical changes needed to promote transparent supply chains can be challenging.”

In that same article, GRI announced its new two-year business leadership forum to help businesses work through challenges to bridge the gap between supply chain management and reporting. Your company may already use or be familiar with the GRI reporting framework.

Specific to supply chain, you might take another look at three GRI KPI sub-series: 204 – Procurement Practices, 308 – Supplier Environmental Assessment, and 414 – Supplier Social Assessment.

GRI is the oldest and most widely recognized voluntary ESG/Sustainability reporting framework and provides a wide range of supply chain related leadership interaction. It has alliances and synergies with the ISO certification standards and CDP, among other organizations.

Hence, GRI could be a robust resource to turn to for facilitating internal supply chain risk discussion, brainstorming and improvement.

CDP, originally known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, has grown beyond carbon to include a host of other key sustainability topics including supply chain. Several germane excerpts from the CDP Supply Chain Report 2018-2019:

  • Companies’ supply chains create, on average, 5.5 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as their own operations. (This hints at the veritable iceberg of suppliers beyond the companies’ direct control.)
  • Having a single, common disclosure platform is also proving to be beneficial. Amongst program members, 63% are currently using, or considering using, data from CDP disclosures to influence whether to contract with suppliers or not.
  • Managing supply chain risks, impacts, and capturing opportunities for sustainable value creation is complex. However, the fundamental steps are common across all organizations: understanding, planning and implementing. Learning from outcomes is essential in order to deepen and broaden the value of a Supply Chain strategy.
  • This year a record number of companies submitted disclosures on climate change. CDP supply chain members made requests to 11,692 suppliers, with 5,545 responses received from businesses headquartered across 90 different countries. This is a 14% increase on the 4,858 responses received in 2017.

Taking inspiration from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, a serious question to ask is whether either or both the existing GRI and CDP reporting and data analysis infrastructures could be used (1) ingeniously for a foundation from which to build or expand distance and country concentration inputs to provide additional foundation for sourcing risk analysis and oversight capabilities for companies, as well as (2) to facilitate improved global commerce and public stakeholders supply chain risk awareness?

Concluding Encouragement

To ESG/Sustainability practitioners:

Your reporting frameworks, databases and analytical tools may be well-positioned for collaborative solutions to help companies identify and address deep-tier supply-chain risks — both immediate (public health/safety) and longer-term (climate change) — that can and should now rise to a higher level of scrutiny.

When it comes to Sustainability – climate change is important, but supply chain is urgent.

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.

Is There a Trend of Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

By Reilly Sakai – Sustainability Analyst at G&A Institute

Despite being identified by some as one of the top contributors to impact on society’s environmental and social issues, on close inspection we could say that the fashion industry continues in 2020 to lag behind other sectors when it comes to a close review of the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The positives: Some major apparel industry players have or are attempting to create strategies and initiatives to reduce plastic and improve the sustainability of their supply chain.

However, in reviewing industry performance overall, it can be difficult to parse through which initiatives are actually making a difference — and which are simply an example of greenwashing, especially given the lower rate of disclosure of ESG emissions by prominent companies’ reporting.

Solutions? What Steps To Be Taken?

So, we can ask, what steps must be taken now — both at the company and the consumer level?

We can ask this question: Is it possible for an industry that so depends on continuous consumption of its products (clothing) to become more sustainable?

The fashion industry is reported to be responsible for more carbon emission than all international flights and maritime shipping combined — “producing 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions” (source: UNEP, 2018).

The apparel industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply — after fruit and vegetable farming, which can be very intensive in terms of water use (source: Thomas Insights, 2019).

And, among the challenges, it’s reported that up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills rather than being recycled or upcycled (UNECE, 2018).

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales increased from 50 billion units to over 100 billion units, while utilization of clothing (the average number of times a garment is worn) dropped 36% during the same timeframe (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

These figures are nothing to scoff at as various sectors and industries move toward less water use; less waste to landfill; more recycling and re-use, among many measures adopted throughout industries.

Is the Fashion Industry Drive to Sustainability Slowing Down?

And yet, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from the year 2019, sustainability efforts in the industry appear to be slowing down rather than accelerating to address these issues.

In GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database, there are currently 248 organizations that fall in the textiles & apparel sector worldwide. Put that in perspective of the total 14,476 organizations in the database.

That’s less than 2% of reporting organizations in the textile & apparel sector. In the sector, there are just 80 GRI Standards industry reports, vs 4,089 GRI Standards reports in the database as a whole.

Given the rate at which the global fashion industry has been growing (before the coronavirus emergency) – more people, more apparel, more income, etc) — we might conclude that companies in the industry have simply not been doing enough to offset their well-charted detrimental environmental impacts.

So what to do now? We know that the fashion industry is important in terms of global economic impact and employment, and creativity – while also being a top contributor to waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and an array of other negative environmental factors.

Incentives For Changing – Lacking

Today, there aren’t major economic or societal incentives in place for apparel companies to make real changes.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, not to mention considerable investment, to switch factories in which clothes are produced and polluting or violating human rights and so on (to address key ESG issues).

And it’s also quite difficult to have real transparency at every level of the apparel and footwear global supply chain to help to ensure a more sustainable production process.

Consumer Tastes – May Make a Difference. Maybe.

Moreover, while many consumers are now starting to buy what they believe to be the more sustainable products in many categories including fashion, very few consumers are apparently willing to pay more for them — or have the time or means to investigate every company’s sustainability initiatives and track record before making their purchase (Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2019).

Since it’s so much quicker and cheaper to do, companies instead may turn to marketing messaging that tells their customers that they are working towards a more sustainable future — without actually doing much or even anything in reality.

What Leading Companies Are Doing – the Positives

There is good news.  The “we are sustainable” message has begun to sell well and customers have been moving to certain apparel brands that are promoting a sustainable vision — without the buyer being able to (at point-of-sale) fact-check a company’s claims. That is the reality of at-market sales.

We can begin by taking a look at Everlane, which touts “radical transparency,” but doesn’t actually divulge the name of the factories in which its garments are produced.  So we don’t know what is going on there.

Patagonia, on the other hand, is considered best-in-class, offering repair and buyback programs in order to promote a circular economy, and has a multitude of policies and systems in place to ensure they’re doing everything they can to protect the environment and people who work at or interact with the company.

Nike, similarly, has done a lot to improve their supply chains over many years, using innovation as a driver for sustainability.

Rather than increasing factory audits to ensure that workers are wearing protective gear, Nike engineered a non-toxic glue so protective gear is no longer needed.\

Nike’s flyknit sneaker vastly reduced the amount of material needed to construct a shoe, meaning lower costs and less waste.

Other brands, from Adidas to Puma, have followed suit.

On the luxury end, Eileen Fisher has been a staple of sustainable clothing for decades, sourcing environmentally friendly materials, offering a buyback program, upcycling old materials into new garments, and sharing the wealth with all of her employees by offering a comprehensive ESOP.

Looking to the Future to Protect the Planet

With our Planet Earth’s environmental situation growing ever more dire, it is critical for the fashion industry — now! —  to encourage and make major changes — but convincing individual corporate leadership that this is a worthwhile investment is no small feat.

Because of the higher costs typically associated with implementing sustainability initiatives (or at least the perception of higher cost), overhauling a company’s entire supply chain is quite challenging.

Many fashion companies do not find it feasible in this competitive pricing environment to raise their prices or cut into their margins, especially when they continue to see the industry growing at such a swift pace year-over-year.

Perhaps more and more companies will consider Nike’s successful approach. That is, increasing spending in R&D as opposed to marketing, which has major potential to decrease costs and increase margins in the long-term, while improving their ESG efforts at the same time.

In my opinion, it’s going to probably take some form of public sector intervention or a mass consumer revolution or some similar dramatic action to influence the bulk of the fashion industry to move toward a truly sustainable future – and one of those things might happen sooner than later.

The leaders in corporate sustainability in the industry will be the major beneficiaries when the tide turns.

* * * * * * * * *

Reilly SakaiReilly Sakai is a sustainability analyst at G&A Institute; she began her work with us as one of our outstanding analyst-interns in grad school. She is completing her MBA program in Fashion & Luxury at NYU Stern School of Business, where she is specializing in Sustainable Business & Innovation, and, Management of Technology & Operations. She has been working with NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business on an independent study that explores environmental sustainability in apparel manufacturing.

The Circular Economy is Coming Our Way. Here Are Some Things to Think About for Your Product Development and Product Delivery…

February 13, 2020

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

During your travels, or even going about your usual business and personal activities, do you recall the days when… 

For example, experienced pilots remember having to use cockpit instruments (going “IFR”) when flying over large cities because the “smog” (usually thick yellow) eliminated visibility below. 

That was caused by belching smokestacks as dirty coal was burned for industrial use or for generating electric power. Con Ed in New York City was a prominent “smokestacker” in those days.

Or, you may have seen deep and wide gouges in our good Earth where giant machine scoopers were pulling a variety of minerals out for manufacturing products.  The American west and south (and north and east!) are filled with these gaping holes. Wonderful vistas?

As a young pilot, up there as the “Eye in the Sky” on weekends as a hobby to build flight hours, flying and broadcasting beach traffic to WGBB and WGSM (radio) below, I often had to fly in and out of the yellow mists IFR. With choking effects as the cockpit air filled.

Or as you traveled past a flowing river you may have seen thick flows of rubber or petroleum-based factory discharges…don’t worry, downstream the ocean will take it away, we were told.

(I remember seeing the US Royal plant outflow into the Connecticut River, with the rocks in the river all rubber-covered! The river flowed south to Long Island Sound and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Where the junk disappeared. Or did it!

In many countries, especially in Europe and North America, the good news is we have been moving far away from those days. In the U.S., the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, RCRA, Superfund/CERCLA, and a host of other environmental regulations helped to make this one of the cleanest (relatively) countries by the end of the 20th Century.

That’s the good news!

And as the linear model of many years in old-line production methods continues to recede in many factories – that is, the traditional  take, make, use, dispose – and that model moves farther into the past (as described by Tom Tapper of “Nice and Serious” writing for Sustainable Brands), the “circular model” has been steadily emerging. The positive effects are being felt all along the value chain.

So what does this mean for branded company leadership?  Whose brand out there in the consumer or B-to-B marketplaces signals “we hold these values dear” or “look to us for sustainability leadership” or “corporate and societal responsibility is at our core”?

Tom Tapper cites examples of products and practices new and old from such firms as Unilever, CIG, Haagen-Dazs, Coca Cola, Stella, and Aesop, with a focus on their distinct product delivery (packaging, bottles, capsules, other means).  

He offers us his perspectives in a sometimes whimsical but always firmly- grounded style on what to expect in the coming years in brand marketing.

In a circular economy, the author sees five trends to watch:

  • We’ll be thinking of Bottles as “objects of desire”.  (Remember the classic, dark brown 1890’s voluptuous-evoking stylized Coca-Cola bottle of yesteryear?  And whatever happened to the little plastic Pez dispensers!) These were ions of yesteryear.
  • Product and Story. Or, as story.  The quality of and qualities of the product will be the main story told by marketers.  (The smart brand marketing leaders have been doing this for years!)  The drive to reduce plastics use, as example, gives smart marketers new ways to talk about product and packaging that has plastic workarounds (in product and packaging). Not that plastic will go away; it will be “different” in many ways.
  • “Hermit Crab Branding”.  If the brand does not have that beautiful bottle or packaging to offer consumers, they can offer stickers in packs to enable consumers to do their own packaging customizing. Or to cover over the branding on a competitor’s bottle. That is thinking like the Hermit Crab, which live in other sea critters’ cast-off shells.
  • The Coming of Dispenser Wars.  Push here for soap – the product dispenser becomes the competitive battleground, thinks author Tom Tapper. Will consumers want “memorable refill experiences”? Will marketers entertain the customer as he/she refills their containers?  (With music, sounds?) Maybe.  Non-branded containers may become the choice of the merchant (more profit!), like store brands are today.
  • Refill Truck Revolution.  Push here for the soap. If individual product packaging and products in bottles as today’s primary delivery modes recede into the past, will a fleet of electric vehicles someday be visiting your neighborhood to bring you “a premium refill experience”?  Filling your vat when you run low?

So the opportunities inherent in the coming of the Circular Economy, Tom Tapper tells us, present challenges for us as well, especially in that we have to discard the old ways and adapt to change, as in the relationship of the brand and product to the buyers. 

Progress is always about adapting to change.  Risk and opportunity. Welcoming and forbidding.

Just consider for a moment the work involved in the disappearance of those old belching smokestacks and smog over our heads and junk flowing into rivers from outflow pipes and deep gouges in the Earth.  Pilots don’t need to wear smoke masks anymore as they pass over U.S. cities.

We are certainly more productive as a society today than ever before!  U.S. industry is booming, turning out various goods.

And that presents many challenges as well – which the coming of the Circular Economy could help us deal with.

We’re reminded here of the favorite quote of the late Lee Iacocca (he was a leader of both Chrysler and Ford Motor Company.  Lead, follow or get out the way – good advice today: the Circular Economy is coming our way.

Top Stories for This Week

What Will a Circular Economy Mean for Branding?
Source: Sustainable Brands
While a circular economy will present huge challenges to most brands’ conventional business models, there are huge opportunities for those who embrace and adapt to this change — while those who drag their heels with incremental changes will undoubtedly fall behind.

Which Are the “Best Of” Sustainable Companies in the Important Annual Rankings? Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – What Reflection for Our Company?

February 7 2020

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

Mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the most sustainable company of them all?  (Paraphrasing that most memorable line from the Queen in the Walt Disney Studios’ 1930s big screen classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,)

“Best Of” is being regularly applied now by a ever-widening range of third party players in examining the performance and achievements of U.S., North American and global companies’ sustainability efforts (and applying their methodologies to focus on an ever-widening list of ESG criteria for users of the lists, rankings and so on). 

The results are published for many or all to see – such as this week’s Corporate Knights’ “2020 Global 100” unveiling at the World Economic Forum in Davos — which we are sharing in our Top Stories of the week.

Looking at (or for) the “fairest” of them all, or the best-in-class, or most sustainable, or leading in corporate citizenship rankings, et al — there are now many more ESG ratings organizations, publishers, NGOs, investor coalitions, trade / professional associations, and others in the “ratings, rankings, scores and other recognitions” arena.

And these ratings, rankings, scores, best-of lists are published in many more forms and value-added variations.  Keeping current and in the ESG ratings & rankings game is a full-time job at many companies today.

The third party evaluation approach can be better understood in how they apply their research to arrive at rankings and ratings, and assigning scores, with shared (privately or publicly) rationale to explain the selections of the individual company for benchmark, or the rankings assigned. 

Therein, important stories are being told about companies on the list or assigned a high ranking or in an index. Investors can better understand the why and how of the selection.

(And, we should say, stories are told in the ratings & rankings et al processes about those companies that are omitted or not selected or having a lower rating compared to peers).

For example, look at investable products. S&P Global recently launched an index based on the widely-used benchmark, the S&P 500(R), focused on ESG performance. The bottom 25% — 100 companies! — were not included in the first go-round. Story subtly told – company is in or out.

Besides the welcomed opportunity for corporate leaders to bask in the sunshine of the valued third party recognitions (“look, we got in this year’s best companies list focused on…”), and to admire the reflection in the “best of mirror mirror” on the board room or C-Suite wall, there are very practical aspects to these things.

Such as: As explained, the inclusion of a corporation in a key ESG equity index / investing benchmark or investable product offering and more recently, reflections of the company in the mirror mirror of credit risk ratings and ratings opinions on fixed-income instruments.  

The decision to issue a “green” bond to the market may or will be affected by third party views of the planned issue – green enough or not! That’s beginning to happen in the EU markets.

The Positives

With the many in-depth third party examinations of companies’ ESG strategies and resulting outcomes (considering company’s actions, performance, achievements) now taking place, and with the results becoming more transparent, some of the scoring / ranking / etc results have the effect of enabling a more complete, accurate and comparable corporate ESG profile to be developed by the company.

With better understanding of the ranking & rating etc the issuer’s leadership can assign more resources to improve their public ESG profile, especially those developed by the key ESG rating agencies for their investor clients.

Important to understand in 2020: These close examinations of companies’ ESG performance are becoming more and more decision-useful for portfolio management for asset owners and managers.

And lenders, And bankers. And the company’s insurers. And business partners. And customers. And present and future employees wanting to work for a more sustainable, doing-the-right-thing company.

As board room top leaders better understand the importance of these ratings, rankings etc. exercises (and the importance of engaging with raters & rankers & list makers), with more internal resources allocated to the task of improving the profile — the company will tend to make more information publicly-available for the third party examinations.

The virtuous cycle continues — more information disclosed and explained, better ratings could result, year-after-year. As we always say, it is a sustainability journey.

More ESG information is now being made public by companies for delivery on critical ESG delivery platforms (such as on “the Bloomberg” and the Refinitiv Eikon platforms, in S&P Global platforms).

This in turn leads to better packaging of ESG data and narrative to inform and influence investors; and, leads to improved investment opportunity for being recognized as a leader in a particular space by key investor coalitions (ICCR, INCR, Investor Alliance on Human Rights, Climate Action 100+, and other).

The latter means a multiplier effect — quickly bringing the company’s sustainability news to more investors gathered in a community-of-interest on a topic.

(Think of the volumes of information now being made available by companies focused on GHG emissions, climate change risk, diversity & inclusion, labor rights, human rights, reducing ESG impacts on communities, greater supply chain accountability, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and more,)

Mirror, Mirror 2020: At the recent World Economic Forum meeting Davos, Switzerland, the “100 most sustainable companies of 2020” report was announced. 

Publisher Corporate Knights’ much-anticipated annual ranking of “most sustainable companies in the world” was the basis of the announcement. 

That annual survey looks at 7,400 companies having more than US$1 Billion in revenues, examining 21 KPIs. The stories of the companies from Fast Company and The Hill provide the details for you.  (This is the 17th year of the survey.)

At the Davos gathering this year, participants learned that almost half of the most sustainable companies were based in Europe (49); 17 were HQ in the U.S.A; 12 in Canada; 3 in Latin America, 18 in Asia, and one company in Africa.

For the U.S.A., Cisco Systems is highest ranked (at #4, thanks to $25 billion generated for “clean revenues” from products with “environmental core attributes”). The #1 company is worldwide is Orsted of Denmark (renewable energy).

Our G&A Institute team closely monitors these and many other third party rankings, ratings, scores, corporate ESG profiles, and other critical evaluations of companies. 

This is an example of the knowledge we gain in this [ratings/rankings] arena, which becomes a vital part of the various tools and resources we’ve created to help our corporate clients qualify for, get selected for, and lead in the various “best of lists”.

In sum, achieving better rankings, ratings, scores — so their mirror mirror on the wall question reflects back a very welcoming image! 

In these newsletters, we work to regularly share with you the relevant news items and other content that helps to tell the story of the dramatic changes taking place in both the corporate community and in the capital markets as as the focus on corporate ESG sharpens. Like this week’s Top Stories.

Top Stories for This Week

The 100 most sustainable companies of 2020   
Source: The Hill – A ranking of the most sustainable organizations was unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday. 

These are the most sustainable corporations in the world   
Source: Fast Company – Canadian research firm Corporate Knights releases its annual list of most sustainable corporations in the world, with some new entries in the top 10. 

For a the complete list and important background, go to:
Corporate Kings’ 2020 Global Ranking 

And also from Davos:
World Economic Forum calls on business chiefs to set net-zero targets   
Source: Edie.com – In a letter from the Forum’s Founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab and the heads of Bank of America and Royal DSM Brian Moynihan and Feike Sijbesma, businesses have been urged to respond to climate science through the… 

Purpose – This Was the Buzzword of 2019 for The Corporate Sector & Investment Community. The “Purpose” Debate Will Continue in 2020

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

Another in the series about The Corporate Citizen and Society

As 2019 draws to a close — we look back at a year with a lively discussion about The Corporate Citizen and Society…and “Purpose” discussions…

The year 2019 began with an important challenge to corporate leaders from Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock (with more than US$6 trillion in AUM). 

The very influential investor writes each year to the CEOs of companies that his firm invests in on behalf of BlackRock clients. There are literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies in the BlackRock portfolio (managed and indexed funds).

At the start of 2018, CEO Fink wrote that every company needs a framework to navigate difficult landscapes and it must begin with a clear embodiment of the company’s purpose (in the business model and corporate strategy).

He explained to the many CEOs: “Purpose being not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a reason for the company’s being – what is does every day to create value for its stakeholders.”

Then (in January 2019) Larry Fink explained in his start-of-the-year letter to CEOs as he expanded on the theme, Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.  And, profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose; in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.

This 2019 communication to CEOs pointed out that the world needs their leadership (especially) in a polarized environment. Stakeholders are pushing companies to tackle social and political issues as governments fall short of doing that.

And (very important) Millennials, now outnumbering the Baby Boomers in the workforce, represent a new generation’s focus – on various expressions of, and clear demonstrations of corporate purpose.

The January 2019 letter of course created a buzz in the corporate sector and in the capital markets as people thought about the meaning and weighed in on all sides of the issue.  What many agreed with was that there were now clear signals that the half-century doctrine for the corporate sector of “shareholder primacy” was giving way to “stakeholder primacy.”

As the purpose discussion rolled on, in August 2019 the influential Business Roundtable issued a revision of its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 of the CEOs of the largest of American companies (firms both publicly-traded and privately-owned). 

Important step forward: the CEOs publicly committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.

The Roundtable’s Principles of Corporate Governance has been issued since 1978; from 1997 on this endorsed the principle of shareholder primacy (that corporations existing principally to serve shareholders).  The new statement, said the BRT in summer 2019, outlines a modern standard for corporate responsibility. 

The team at G&A Institute looked at the companies whose CEOs are members of the Business Roundtable (almost 200 in all), examining their public disclosures and structured reporting on “walking-the-talk” of “purpose” and “responsibility to stakeholders” 

What are the companies doing — and how are they telling the story of the doing — the walking the talk?

Our approach was to analyze the means of disclosure and reporting “on corporate purpose” and the focus on any related content of sustainability / responsibility / ESG / corporate citizenship reporting by the BRT member companies.  (The good news to share:  there’s plenty of relevant information on purpose in the leadership corporate reporting. You can read through the respective corporate reports to divine the meaning and expressions of purpose in the pages.)

The analysis is available on the G&A Institute web site – see this week’s Top Story for the headline and link to our Resource Paper. There are relevant links there as well.

What will the purpose of the corporation discussion be in the new year, 2020?  Stay tuned to the perspectives shared that we’ll have in our G&A Institute Sustainability Highlights newsletter and on this blog.

Best wishes to you for the holiday season from all of us at G&A!

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s 2019 letter: https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter

G&A Institute Releases Analysis of The Business Roundtable Companies’ ESG Reporting Practices
Source: Governance & Accountability Institute

Highlights:

 Governance & Accountability Institute’s research team examined the ESG / sustainability reporting practices of the BRT signatory corporations to examine trends and create a baseline for tracking progress and actions going  forward.  G&A released these initial benchmark results in a resource paper available on our website.

Capitalism – Needing Reinventing? Is Corporate Sustainability / Responsibility / Citizenship’s Focus on ESG Part of the Mix of Reinvention?

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

There are many voices raised now, joining in the public dialogues on corporate sustainability, corporate citizenship, corporate responsibility, ethics, good governance…and more.

The perspectives offered fit into the commentary stream on the future of capitalism — and how to make it work for everyone.

There are rigorous companion dialogues going on – and rapidly growing in number — related to the role of sustainable investing as more asset owners and their internal and external managers adopt new approaches, many focused on the analysis of corporate ESG performance and related outcomes.  We see this as further reinventing of capitalism. Do you?

On Corporate Purpose – How, What, Why and more – another public dialogue dramatically expanding since the release of The Business Roundtable’s revised statement on purpose in summer.

There are more voices being added to the expanding public dialogues on all of the above and more, which is what our newsletter’s Top Story focuses on.

A fascinating range of voices will be raised by Fast Company as the publishers spotlight “15 voices” working at the forefront of trying to reinvent our economic system…and together, the pursuit of important structural reforms and ideas to bring about “fairness” (much needed, we can argue, in 2019!).

The first voice “raised” by Fast Company is that of Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president who says in his essay “capitalism is in crisis” and explains why in his essay — “How to Save Capitalism From Itself”. 

As the editors of Fast Company explain, the voices to be raised in the future (that you will want to follow via Fast Company essays) include:

Zeynep Ton, MIT b-school prof who founded the Good Jobs Institute;

Josh Silverman, CEO of Etsy (the artisanal marketplace) whose company’s social-impact initiatives are held to the same standard as financial reporting;

Fashion icon Eileen Fisher (champion of the B Corp movement);

Barry Lynn, founder of Open Markets Institute (who favors more regulation to address today’s monopolies);

Rachel Lauter, ED of Fair Work Center..and others!

Keep in mind Fast Company is a must-read for many GenXers and Millennialls – and so you will want to keep up with the publication’s voices no matter what generation you belong to.

The Ford Foundation’s CEO essay is at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90411391/ford-foundations-darren-walker-how-to-save-capitalism-from-itself

Top Stories

Capitalism is dead. Long live capitalism
Source: Fast Company – For capitalism to thrive, the system needs to evolve to be fair, inclusive, and sustainable. Fast Company highlights companies and innovators leading the change.

And of importance, the public dialogue – and action! – on the SDGs:

Protecting Our Future: Moving from Talk to Action on The Sustainable Development Goals
Source: Forbes 

How an Italian Energy Company Revolutionized Sustainable and Impact Investing in Structured Credit
Source: Forbes 

First SDG-linked bond in the European market raises 2.5 billion euros
Source: UN Global Compact 

Fashion, Style, Brand and Sustainability Are Today’s Coupling Terms Now for a Growing Number of Consumers…

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

We’re all consumers of one type or another.

We buy a variety of food and beverages, the latest electronic products, and an assortment of apparel and footwear products as needed — or desired!. 

So the questions come to mind…

What are you wearing?  Is it fashionable?  Stylish? And sustainable (as a product you want or need)?  Sustainably and responsibly produced?  In a global (mostly invisible) supply chain that you could say with certainty is “well supervised and responsibly managed”?

Do you identify yourself with the brand’s culture, ethos and sustainability and the praiseworthy efforts of the maker or the retailer in their declarations to the marketplace? 

Do you make sustainability a conscious buying decision?

A growing number of apparel & footwear brand producers/marketers are counting on “yes” answers to these questions.

In our monitoring of news and feature content from around the world and many prominent and not-so-prominent sources, we have been seeing a significant amount of content related to “fashion” and “sustainability” being coupled (as it, taken together as a given, like human nature (human + nature – a natural coupling).

The big bold industry and brand marketing names are part of the conversation: Victoria Beckham, Stella McCartney, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, and H&M are focused on sustainability and delivering the fashion + sustainability sales message in the coupling efforts (details in our story selections).

We’re presenting our “capture” of fashion and consumer-buying content this week in our Top Stories in the newsletter. 

In our constant monitoring we are seeing the trend in other consumer-facing areas of industry – in autos, toys, and a variety of food products and ingredients (palm oil, coffee beans, seafood/harvests of the seas).

The good news for society is that many more corporate leaders recognize the timely opportunity for their company to demonstrate that their company’s strategies and processes, and products & services offered in both consumer and B-to-B markets are “sustainable & responsible” … as now more frequently explained in the company’s sustainability report, in the 10-k, proxy statement, on its web pages…and on their products’ labeling. 

In this week’s Highlights newsletter we bring you a selection of the many news and feature stories focused on consumer marketing with a sustainability theme.

The range of coupled content (our product + sustainability) is growing by leaps and bounds and we try to select the most topical and informative content for you.

On coupling:  the best-selling author Malcolm Gladwells’s newest book is “Talking to Strangers”, a great read, we recommend. 

He explains why we are so overwhelmingly trusting of others (the strangers) as a basic human default and the concept of “coupling” — certain circumstances that can make certain assumptions, assertions and claims ring true for us.  

This comes to mind the acceptance of apparel, footwear and other brand marketers’ claims about “sustainability” in product and/or production. 

We are eager to invest belief in the claims. But do the facts support the claim?

Gladwell’s insights are terrific to contemplate as we receive the messages about sustainability from some brand marketers.

Top Stories

Fashion Brands Take Sustainability Further for Spring 2020
Source: Forbes 

Exclusive Q&A: Why Retailers Should Embrace Sustainable Supply Chains
Source: Retail Touch Points 

Why Sustainability Should Be Top of Mind for Retailers This Holiday Season
Source: Yahoo

Consumers want to buy sustainably—they just don’t know how
Source: Fast Company 

How Sustainability Became the Future of Retail
Source: Footwear News

Consumers Want to Buy Sustainably, but They Often Don’t
Source: Architectural Digest 

The Best 11 Brands for Sustainable Vegan Sneakers
Source: Love Kindly 

How can shoppers make sense of sustainable fish labels?
Source: The Guardian 

Dramatic Change Of Direction For The Business Roundtable With Issuance Of “Purpose Statement” Signed By The CEOs Of America’s Largest Companies

The Business Roundtable is an organization of CEOs of the largest companies in the U.S.A. — firms that generate a combined US$7 trillion in revenues, employ 15 million people, invest $147 billion annually in R&D, and provide healthcare and retirements benefits for tens of millions of Americans.

Member companies operate in every one of the 50 states and through the organization top business leaders work to influence major societal issues (tax policy, infrastructure needs, trade and other issues).

This is where many institutional and retail investors place their bets on the economic future and enjoy some of the fruits of the efforts of the enterprises they invest in.  Investors provide much of the capital that make the wheels go ‘round for the BRT companies.  And, investors in the BRT member companies received almost $300 billion in dividends.

And so investors have been a priority concern for the CEO members for the almost half-century existence of the Business Roundtable.  The guiding philosophy traces back to the period four decades ago when influential economists such as Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago advised the CEOs that their duty was to look out for the shareholders…and all else would fall in place.

In 1997, the Business Roundtable issued its statement of the purpose of the corporation:  “The paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders.”

No more.  This week, the Business Roundtable moved beyond the long-term “shareholder primacy” operating principle, releasing its revised “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” — a dramatic course change in the principle operating philosophy of this powerful, CEO-led organization.

The almost 200 CEO signatories pledged to: invest in employees; deliver value to customers; deal fairly and ethically with suppliers; support communities in which they work; and, generate long-term value for shareholders.

Each of stakeholders is essential, the Purpose Statement reads.  We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities, and our country.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase is current head of the BRT and played an important role in the dramatic shift of attitude in the official stance of the organization.  He sees this as “an acknowledgement that business can do more to help the average American.”

Adding to this critical public re-positioning:  “Society gives each of us a license to operate. It’s a question of whether society trusts you or not,” Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM told Fortune.

On its web site, the organization states “as leaders of America’s largest corporations, BRT CEOs believe we have a responsibility to help build a strong and sustainable economic future in the United States.”

ESG and Sustainability basic principles are now “officially recognized” by the members of the CEO association and enshrined in the declaration of the purpose of the U.S. large corporation.

The Purpose Statement does touch on numerous concerns of the sustainable investor – a good step forward for this powerhouse organization.

Our Top Story is the excellent Fortune feature on all of this by veteran business writer Alan Murray. It’s a great summary of the dramatic move by the CEO signatories this week.

Click here to read the Business Roundtable’s “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” and see the list of corporate CEO signatories. 

The Top Story

America’s CEOs Seek a New Purpose for the Corporation
Source: Fortune – For more than two decades, the influential Business Roundtable has explicitly put shareholders first. In an atmosphere of widening economic inequality and deepening distrust of business, the powerful group has redefined its mission…