As the Global Demand for Palm Oil Rises, There is More Focus on the Growing Areas – and on Industry Behaviors Such as Deforestation

By Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

Palm Oil is one of the world’s most popular vegetable cooking oils and in western nations is widely used as prepared food ingredients. Food industry interests promote the benefits: lower cholesterol levels, less heart disease, more Vitamins A and E, and much more, derived from the rich beta-carotene from the pulp of oil palms.

Palm oil also shows up in our detergents, shampoo, cosmetics, pizza slices, cookies, margarine — and even in biofuels. Palm oil is especially used for cooking in Africa, Asia and parts of South America and is growing in favor in other regions such as in North America.

The palm oil plantations are located in such regions of the world as Southeast Asia – and there the industry is linked to the downside of the beneficial consumer product: deforestation, degrading of flora and fauna habitat, abuses of indigenous peoples, and negative impact on climate change as old growth land and tropical forest is cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.

Stakeholder reaction resulted in the creation of “reliable No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” policies – the “NDPE”.

These were developed for certification (to buyers) by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and adopted in 2013 and 2014 by numerous Southeast Asian palm oil traders and refiners.

The policies (spelled out as best practices) are designed to prevent clearing of forests and peat lands for new palm oil plantations. There are 29 company groups, reports Chain Reaction Research, that have refining capabilities and have adopted NDPE policies. (Climate Reaction Research is a joint effort between Climate Advisers, Profundo and Aidenvironment.)

“Un-sustainable” palm oil practices are an issue for investors, customers (buying the oil), companies with sustainable practices, and countries in which palm oil is grown and harvested.

According to a new financial risk report from Chain Reaction Research, major markets with customers that accept “unsustainable palm oil” include India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia.

One of the major centers of production is the huge – more than 3,000-miles wide — Pacific Basin archipelago nation of Indonesia (once known as the Dutch East Indies). Almost half of the world’s palm oil refineries are in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Indonesian government (the Ministry of Agriculture) reacted to the NDPE policies and proposed changes to its own certification program – known as the “Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil Standard” (ISPO) – that would appear to be presenting companies with pressure to adopt one or the other of the certifications.  (The ISPO policy focus is on reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and addressing environmental issues.)

For Indonesia, palm oil is a strategic product that helps the government to meet job creation and export market goals. “Small holders” account for more than 40% of production in the country.

“Evidence suggests that the need for edible oil and energy will continue as populations grow, “Darmin Nasution, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs for Indonesia points out. “Land that can be utilized will decrease, so the question is how to meet those needs in the limited land area. Increasing productivity will be the key.”

Companies using the existing Indonesian ISPO certification were accused of human rights abuses and “land grabs” and so in January the government developed the new certification, which opponents claim weakens protection (the draft changes for the regulation removes independent monitoring and replaces “protection” with “management” for natural ecosystems).

Stranded Asset Risks

CDP estimates that global companies in the industry had almost US$1 trillion in annual revenues at risk from deforestation-related commodities. As the developed nation buyers looked carefully at their global supply chains and sources, “stranded assets” developed; that is, land on which palm oil cannot be developed because of buyers’ NPDE procurement policies. Indonesia and Malaysia have some of the world’s largest suppliers.

Western Corporate Reaction

Early in 2018 PepsiCo announced that it and its J/V partner Indofood suspended purchasing of palm oil from IndoAgri because PepsiCo — a very prominent global brand marketer — is concerned about allegations about deforestation and human rights were not being met.

Institutional Investors are busily identifying companies that source Crude Palm Oil (“CPO”) without paying attention to sustainability requirements, putting pressure on both sellers and buyers and perhaps pushing the smaller players to the sidelines. European buyers import CPO in large quantities to be used in biofuels.

The bold corporate names in western societies show up in rosters of company groups with refining capacity and NDPE policies, including Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Company, Unilever, and Wilmar International. These are large peer companies in the producing countries (like IOI Group, Daabon, Golden Agri-Resources) are aiming for “zero deforestation” in their NDPE policies.

Other companies that source palm oil include Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Mars, General Mills, Mondelez International, and other prominent brand name markets.

Your can check out the Chain Reaction Research group paper – “Unsustainable Palm Oil Faces Increasing Market Access Risks – NDPE Sourcing Policies Cover 74% of Southeast Asia’s Refining Capacity” at: http://chainreactionresearch.com/2017/11/01/report-unsustainable-palm-oil-faces-increasing-market-access-risks-ndpe-sourcing-policies

What About Exercise of National Sovereignty?

This situation raises interesting questions for developed nation brand marketers. If the government of Indonesia presses forward with the country’s own standards, should the purchaser in a developed country ignore or embrace the country standard? Instead of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standard? What about “sovereign rights,” as in the ability for a sovereign nation to establish its own policies and standards governing the products developed within its borders?

As industry groups create their own standards and invite industry participants to embrace these (such as for product certification), corporations may find themselves bumping up against “nationalistic” guidelines designed to benefit the internal constituencies rather than “global norms” imposed from outside the country’s borders.

# # #

Responding to the streams of negative news coming out of Indonesia, Chain Reaction Research on April 26 reported that Citigroup has cancelled loans to Indofood Agri Resources and its subsidiaries. Citigroup will exit its overall relationship with Indofood other than specific financial relationships that are not related to the palm oil business, says the research organization.

The research firm said that labor and environmental violations by Indofood and other companies related to Anthoni Salim and his family have been documented. The web of companies: Salim and family own 44% of First Pacific, which owns 74% of Indofood.

In April a report commissioned by Rainforest Action Network Foundation Norway and SumofUS and prepared by Chain Reaction Research alleged deforestation of almost 10,000 hectares of peatland by PT Duta Rendra – which is majority owned, the report says, by Salim and PT Sawit Khatulistiwa Lestan, which is associated by Salim.

Notes:

As we prepared this commentary, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and The Forest Trust carried out a Labour Rights Assessment of Nestle’s and Golden Agri-Resources palm oil supply chain in Indonesia.  Nestle’s and GAR and going to share their own action plans in response to the findings and recommendations.

For The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil information: https://www.rspo.org/

There is information from a recent conference in Jakarta for you at: https://www.scidev.net/asia-pacific/forestry/news/science-can-keep-palm-oil-industry-sustainable.html

The Indonesian Government ISPO information is at: http://www.ispo-org.or.id/index.php?lang=en

General Mills Statement on Responsible Palm Oil Sourcing is at: https://www.generalmills.com/en/News/Issues/palm-oil-statement

Rainforest Action Network information is at: https://www.ran.org/palm_oil?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuJyBg97i2gIVE1mGCh3A-QMYEAAYASAAEgKZePD_BwE#

The Union of Concerned Scientists information is at: https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/stop-deforestation/drivers-of-deforestation-2016-palm-oil#.WudvOKjwbAw

A U.S. Corporate Leader Shares His Thoughts on Sustainability – EDF’s Fred Krupp Interviews Tom Linebarger of Diesel-Maker Cummins Inc.

By Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

Fred Krupp is head of the two-million-member Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading global not-for-profit that creates “transformational solutions” to address environmental problems by linking economics, law, science and innovative private-sector partnerships.  Since the mid-1980s he has been a very vocal thought leader, activist, and champion for change on various climate change issues, striving to use the power of the marketplace to protect the global environment.

Krupp has worked with many business leaders over the years and today characterizes Tom Linebarger – the Chair and CEO of Cummins, Inc. (leaders in diesel engine manufacturing) – as one of the forward-thinkers on sustainability and environmental innovation.  Krupp interviewed the CEO for Forbes, our Top Story for this issue.

Cummins Inc. has publicly committed to set science-based targets for reducing GHG emission across the company’s supply chain, which would help to address stakeholder concerns and help contribute to the future well-being of communities in which the company operates.

Cummins’ innovation efforts will also help to make a difference in terms of the company’s products (such as vehicle and stationary engines), its facilities and the supply chain.  Diesel power is central to the progress of the economy, says Linebarger, moving vast amounts of products and supplying power just about everywhere — and is a factor in driving wealth creation.  While doing this, the Cummins’ products also impact the environment and so the intense focus on corporate sustainability for the company.

Here are some welcome words for us in the Trump/Pruitt era of tearing up environmental rules and regulations and denying the impacts of climate change:  “Regulations play an important role in protecting the environment, and we’ve worked to make sure we’re a positive contributor to the effort,” the CEO explains.

Cummins also pushes industry peers and its suppliers to support tough, clear, science-based, enforceable regulations that are good for the industry.

Also, welcome to other champions of corporate sustainability – this making the business case statement:

“There’s no question that our focus on environmental innovation and leadership has caused our company to grow, to become more profitable, and to increase our appeal with big companies that would like to partner with us because of our leading technologies.”

Cummins (NYSE: CMI) is headquartered in Columbus, Indiana; the company designs manufactures, sells and services diesel and natural gas power engines; and, alternative-fueled electrical generates sets, “emission solutions”, and components for electronics and fuel systems. The company has 58,600 employees and serves customers in 190 countries – sales are US$20 billion (2017).

Disclosure:  The G&A Institute team members were instrumental in 2000 in assisting diesel power and vehicle manufacturers in organizing the Diesel Technology Forum, a not-for-profit advocacy dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of clean diesel engines, fuels and technologies.  Cummins was instrumental in the concept of and the founding of DTF and over the years since has been active in advancing the mission. Our former colleague Allen R. Schaeffer is the organization’s Executive Director.

You’ll want to read and share our Top Story this week with very encouraging comments about sustainability from a respected U.S. corporate sector leader.

Top Stories

Cummins CEO Says Innovation, Sustainability, And Regulations Are Good For Business
(Thursday – April 19, 2018) Source: Forbes – As head of the largest independent maker of diesel engines and related products in the world, Tom has set lofty environmental goals for Cummins, including cutting energy intensity from company facilities by a third by 2020.

Dispatch From London and The Economist Sustainability Summit 2018

Guest Post By Juliet Russell – Sustainability Reporting Analyst, G&A Institute

The Economist’s third annual Sustainability Summit was convened in London on March 22nd, 2018. I attended as a representative of G&A Institute.

The discussions focused on how to shift from “responsibility to leadership”: how to lead and encourage co-operation on the path to progress.

I was impressed that significant players from a diverse range of sectors attended the conference, including representatives of Government, NGOs, Business and Academia. Panelists ranged from the CEO of Sainsbury’s, to Google’s Lead for Sustainability, to the Chair of the Board of Directors for Greenpeace and to a Deputy Mayor of London.

Each provided their own views and experiences of sustainability leadership and how to really see actions, instead of ‘just talk and promises’.

The key themes from the day centered around the need for collaboration, communication, shared responsibility, disruptive innovation, combatting short-termism and internalizing sustainability into core strategy and business models.

 

One of the most poignant messages for me was the need for understanding the urgency of the issues we are facing today, particularly in relation to climate change – “we are behaving as though the delta is zero and the delta is clearly not zero” (Jay Koh, The Lightsmith Group).

An attendee told a story of new LEED Platinum Certified buildings in Seattle that everyone is of course proud of — but in 30 years these super energy-efficient buildings will be underwater because we’re too busy focusing on small wins and continual growth, failing to act fast enough or understand the urgency when it comes to climate change and sea-level rise.

As quoted from Baroness Bryony Worthington of the Environmental Defense Fund – “…winning slowly with climate change is the same as losing!”

The conference was incredibly insightful, with such a breadth of timely and interesting topics, which highlighted different areas of debate and offered up potential solutions. Four of the panel discussions I feel are particularly worth highlighting:

1)    ‘A TALE OF THREE CITIES’
Discussion led by Mark Watts, Director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group
and featuring three city government representatives: Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London (Environment and Energy); Solly Tshepiso, Mayor of Tshwane, South Africa; and,  Karsten Biering Nielsen, Deputy Director of Technical and Environmental Administration for the City of Copenhagen.

The lack of adequate and strategic government action is failing so far in preventing climate change and also in reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).

Mayor Solly discussed as example how slow progress on Paris Agreement targets were partly due to the lack of communication from top Government-level down to the city-level in South Africa. City-to-city communication and partnerships were touted as solutions to these kind of problems, as well as being vital in reaching the SDGs.

The C40 Cities Group facilitates this kind of partnership and network through the sharing of best-practice and successful innovation among their 92 affiliated cities around the world.

2)    ‘PIECES OF THE PUZZLE’
Discussion led by Christopher Davis, International Director of Corporate Responsibility and Campaigns from The Body Shop International.

This panel discussion focused around how to “do good and do well,”; Chris suggested that we need to be gearing business to be truly sustainable based on what the planet needs – not the economy or the shareholders – and creating benchmarks against planetary and societal needs.

Essential consideration for creating a sustainable business:  when sustainability is not an add-on function but embedded in the strategy and business model and thus integral to all activities. The Body Shop International management will know that they have been successful in their sustainability mission when sustainability is ingrained in everything the company is doing and they no longer have a need for a separate sustainability team.

3)    ‘CHANGING MINDS’
Discussion led Dr. Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge and Prerana Issar from the UN World Food Programme.

This discussion revolved around the relevance of ‘nudging’ in changing behaviour (a behavioral economics approach) to push progress in sustainability. Dr. Simone discussed the concept of ‘nudging’ – creating a choice architecture, which is set up so that people are more inclined to go for the ‘beneficial’ option, gently pushing people to do the right thing.

An example of this might be in putting the recycled paper products at eye-level, with the products made from less sustainable materials at a more awkward height to see and reach.

Essentially, using nudging, we bypass the attempt at changing minds but still change the behaviour.

This can help to reduce problems such as ‘moral licensing’, where people feel licensed to do something ‘bad’ if they have just done something morally good (and vice versa). For example, when using energy efficient products, some people then feel they are able to use them more often because they are doing a ‘good’, which actually negates the positive efficiency benefit.

Nudging may be more and more necessary as actions towards sustainability become more urgent, as we can’t generally rely on society to make the best and informed decisions all the time. Though as nudging still relies on choice, is this enough to make us change? In reality, society may need more guidance and regulation and here, there’s a role for stricter governance and policy.

4)    ‘PIECES OF THE PUZZLE’
Discussion led by Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer for Kering.

Touching on the themes of innovation, partnerships and collaboration, Marie-Claire discussed a tool that Kering developed and are using: their Environmental Profit and Loss (“E P&L”).

Many people around the world and across sectors acknowledge that over-exploitation and degradation of the environment and our resources are partially due to the fact that these resources, our ‘natural capital’, have not been accounted for in economic decision-making and cost-benefit analyses.

Because of this, we are failing to internalize the negative externalities, which is crucial if we are to properly be accountable and responsible for our actions in society today, thus failing to understand the true environmental consequences of our actions.

Many businesses would fail to acknowledge the environment as a stakeholder unless it explicitly showed up on their profit and loss accounting.

Kering, a first-mover in their field, created and proposed an E P&L accounting tool as a way to do this and it can be applied throughout the entire value chain. This tool allows identification of impact areas and thus increases ability to reduce it.

Kering also provide their E P&L methodology open-source, to encourage other companies to follow and increase their accountability. This hones in on the knowledge-sharing and sharing of best-practice theme.

During the final session of the day, editors from The Economist newspaper came up with their main takeaways, the “four Ps”:

  • Pragmatic – that is, moving from debating who is responsible and asking, ‘is it really happening?’ to understanding that the situation “is what it is” — and we need to just get on with it. For this, collaborations at all levels will be key.
  • Persistent – sustainability needs to be talked about and implemented persistently, in order to become deeply embedded – not something that has the ‘fickleness of fashion’ – being ‘in’ the one day and passé the next. Persistence can help to bring a necessary sense of depth to the issues and challenges we are facing, in order to trigger action.
  • Problem – understanding reality and assessing our achievements: if we add up all of our efforts today, is it anywhere near enough? I’m sure you’ll all agree that the answer is most definitely not. How do we scale up these efforts effectively? We need to be mindful of the scale of the threats the planet and society face – increasing measurement and transparency can help to uncover this.
  • Prioritization – at present, we can’t robustly value different externalities, which is necessary for internalizing them and dealing in the most efficient and effective way. We must remember to be aware that each trade-off has consequences and consider alternative actions.

Coming away from this wonderful conference, it was clear to me that the main takeaway was of the potential of collaboration – within companies, within industries, between industries, and across sectors. This was picked up on in nearly every talk.

We need a whole ‘ecosystem’ featuring collaboration (involving business, NGOs, government, academia and citizens) in order to win with the current challenges we’re facing; to really progress in sustainability and work towards meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The conference was undoubtedly a timely and powerful call for action.

Feeding 9 Billion People in 2050? Challenging!  – A Leading U.S. CEO in the Food & Agriculture Business Has Important Perspectives to Share

by Hank Boerner -Chair, G&A Institute

The CEO of one of the nation’s leading food and agriculture companies has important messages for us:  “To move the planet forward, farmers must lead the charge. But they cannot do it alone. Coordinated action on sustainability across the food supply chains is the only way to achieve lasting progress.”  He tells us how and why in his commentary in a Top Story in our Sustainability Highlights newsletter.

BackgroundThe Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat in the 2017 revision of the World Population Prospects (the 25th version of this report) says: the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100.

More than 80 million people are added to the world’s population each year. One of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) is to end poverty and hunger – how do we achieve this will depend in large measure on the success of growers in the USA and many other lands.

Looking at global agriculture moving towards 2050, there are serious challenges posed; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2009 described some of these:  much more food and fiber must be produced; there will be a smaller rural labor force to help do this; there will be increased demand for more feedstocks for a potentially huge bioenergy market; adapting to climate is  necessary; and, ag producers must be more efficient and sustainable.

Demand for cereals, as example, could almost double from today’s production (for animal feed and human food). Almost all of the land expansion for ag could be in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

The CEO of Land O’Lakes, Chris Policinski writing in Agri-Pulse explains that while the discussion about climate change and other challenges seems to be focused on developments being a generation away, American farmers are dealing right now with such things as harsh drought, severe weather and more pests…the challenges to the food supply are happening right now.

And it is time to start talking about sustainability differently…to include (for example) the reality of what farmers face, acre-by-acre/field-by-field. And then, “farm-to-fork” issues.

Bringing together big-picture, company-level sustainability commitments and acre-by-acre conservation efforts makes both more effective. The great example used by the CEO is Wal-Mart’s Project Gigaton, which aims to remove one billion metric tons of GhGs from the company’s supply chain by 2030.  (Land O’Lakes was one of the first supply partners to sign on.)

There’s much more for you in the Land O’Lakes CEO’s message in one of our Top Stories this week.  There are related items “up top” for you – this week we have ag and food in focus in the Highlights.

Note:  Land O’Lakes, Inc. is a member-owned cooperative agribusiness and food production company based in Minnesota, with $13.7 billion revenues in 2017. The cooperative is almost 100 years in operation and ranks #215 on the Fortune 500® roster.

Top Stories – Ag & Food In Focus

Opinion: To Move Our Planet Forward, Food and Agriculture Must Think about Sustainability Differently
(Friday – April 06, 2018) Source: Agri-Pulse – In many ways, the sustainability story of the American farmer mirrors that of every other American. Farmers genuinely care about doing their part to protect our planet, for all the same reasons as anyone else. They want to leave…

Smallholder farmers are key to making the palm oil industry sustainable
(Monday – April 02, 2018) Source: Eco-Business – Smallholder farmers play an increasingly prominent role in Indonesia’s growing palm oil industry and could be the vanguard of sustainability, say WRI researchers.

A few surprising industries affecting the concept of sustainability in a positive way
(Tuesday – April 03, 2018) Source: Augusta Free Press – In the last ten years, sustainability has become a very important element in the business processes in many industries. For instance, all-natural and organic have become trendy terms in the food industry. Companies which are part…

Opinion: To Move Our Planet Forward, Food and Agriculture Must Think about Sustainability Differently
(Friday – April 06, 2018) Source: Agri-Pulse – In many ways, the sustainability story of the American farmer mirrors that of every other American. Farmers genuinely care about doing their part to protect our planet, for all the same reasons as anyone else. They want to leave…

Don’t Believe In Global Warming? Just Ask A Tuscan Winemaker
(Wednesday – April 04, 2018) Source: Forbes – “Have you seen the effects of climate change and global warming in your region?”

Hershey is investing in more sustainable cocoa for its chocolate treats
(Wednesday – April 04, 2018) Source: LA Times

G&A Institute Research Results: 85% of the S&P 500® Index Companies Published Sustainability / Responsibility / CR / Citizenship Reports in 2017

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

One of the world’s most important benchmarks for equity investors is the S&P 500 Index®, a proprietary market-value weighted “basket” of the top stocks that represent about 80% of the U.S. equity markets according to the index owner, S&P Dow Jones Indices/McGraw Hill Financial.

Market Clout:  There are about US$8 trillion in Assets Under Management benchmarked to the index  – companies included in the index have a market-cap of US$6 billion or more (ticker:SPX).

More than six years ago the G&A Institute team decided to focus on the companies in the index to determine their level of (or lack of) ESG / Sustainability / CR / Citizenship disclosure and reporting.

Our first look-see was for year 2011 corporate reporting activities and after scouring the known sources  — each of the corporate websites, IR reports, printed reports, search engines results, connecting with companies and more —  we found just about 20% or about 100 of the large-cap index 500 companies were doing “something” along the lines of what we can describe today as structured reporting.  There were numerous brochure-type publications that did not qualify as a structured report of value to investors and stakeholders.

The GRI Was a Favored Framework – Then and Now
A good number of the early reporting companies were following the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework for reporting guidance (that was for G3 and G3.1 at the time), and some perhaps had some other form of reporting (such as publishing key ESG performance indicators on their website or in print format for stakeholders); GRI’s G4 was later embraced by the 500.  And now we move on to the GRI Standards, which we are tracking for 2018 reporting by the 500.

This initial research effort was a good bit of work for our analyst team because many of the companies simply did not announce or publicize the availability of their sustainability et al report. (Some still do not announce, even in 2017 and 2018!)

The response to our first survey (we announced the results in spring 2012) was very encouraging and other organizations began to refer to and to help publicize the results for stakeholders.

We were pleased that among the organizations recognizing the importance of the work was the GRI; we were invited to be the data partner for the United States, and then the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  That comprehensive work continues and is complementary to the examination of the 500.

The 2011 Research Effort – Looking Back, The Tipping Point for Sustainability Reporting

Looking back, we can see that the research results were early indications of what was going on in the corporate and investment communities, as more asset owners and managers were adopting ESG / sustainability approaches, investment policies, engagement programs — and urging more public company managements to get going on expanded disclosure beyond the usual mandated financials (the “tangibles” of that day).

Turns out that we were at an important tipping point in corporate disclosure.

Investor expectations were important considerations for C-suite and board, and there was peer pressure as well within industries and sectors, as the big bold names in Corporate America looked left and right and saw other firms moving ahead with their enhanced disclosure practices.

And there was pressure from the purchasing side – key customers were asking their corporate supply chain partners for information about their ESG policies and practices, and for reports on same.  There was an exponential effect; companies within the 500 were, in fact, asking each other for such reports on their progress!

We created a number of unique resources and tools to help guide the annual research effort.  Seeing the characteristics and best practices of sustainability reporting by America’s largest and for the most part best-known companies we constantly expanded our “Sustainability Big Data” resources and made the decision to closely track S&P 500 companies’ public reporting — and feed the rich resulting data yield into our databases and widely share top-line results (our “Flash Report”).

The following year (2013) we tracked the 500 companies’ year 2012 reporting activities – and found a very encouraging trend that rang a bell with our sustainable investing colleagues:  a bit more than half of the 500 were now publishing sustainability et al reports.  Then in 2013, the numbers increased again to 72%…then 75%…then 81%…and now for 2017, we reached the 85% level.  The dramatic rise is clearly evident in this chart:

Note that there are minor annual adjustments in the composition of the S&P 500 Index by the owners, and we account for this in our research, moving companies in and out of the research effort as needed.

Louis Coppola, EVP of G&A Institute who designs and manages the analysis, notes:  “Entering 2018, just 15% of the S&P 500 declined to publish sustainability reports. The practice of sustainability reporting by the super-majority of the 500 companies is holding steady with minor increases year after year. One of the most powerful driving forces behind the rise in reporting is an increasing demand from all categories of investors for material, relevant, comparable, accurate and actionable ESG disclosure from companies they invest in, or might consider for their portfolio.

“Mainstream investors are constantly searching for larger returns and have come to the conclusion that a company that considers their material Environmental, Social, and Governance opportunities and risks in their long-term strategies will outperform and outcompete those firms that do not. It’s just a matter now of following the money.”

Does embracing corporate sustainability in any way impact negatively on the market performance of these large companies?  Well, we should point out that the annual return for the SPX was 22% through 12-13-18.   You can read more in our Flash Report here.

Thank you to our wonderful analyst team members who over the years have participated in this exhaustive search and databasing effort.   We begin our thank you’s to Dr. Michelle Thompson, D.Env, now a postdoc fellow supporting the U.S. Department of Energy in the Office of Energy Policy Systems Analysis; and her colleague, Natalia Valencia, who is now Senior Research Analyst at LAVCA (Latin American Venture Capital Association).  Their early work was a foundational firming up of the years of research to follow.

Kudos to our G&A Research Team for their significant contributions to this year’s research report:  Team Leader Elizabeth Peterson; analyst-interns Amanda Hoster, Matthew Novak, Yangshengling “UB” Qui, Sara Rossner, Shraddha Sawant, Alan Stautz, Laura Malo Yague, and Qier “Cher” Zue.

We include here a hearty shout out to the outstanding analyst-interns who have made great contributions to these research efforts in each year since the start of the first project back in 2011-2012.  It’s wonderful working with all of these future leaders!

The reports from prior years are posted on the G&A Institute website: https://www.ga-institute.com/research-reports/research-reports-list.html

Check out our Honor Roll there for the full roster of all of the talented analysts who have worked on these reports and numerous other G&A Institute research that we broadly share with you when the results are in.  Their profiles (which we work with our valued colleagues to keep up to date as they move on to great success in their careers) are on the G&A website: https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll.html

Footnote:  As we examine 1,500 corporate and institutional reports each year we see a variety of titles applied:  Corporate Sustainability; Corporate Social Responsibility; Corporate Responsibility; Corporate Citizenship (one of the older titles still used by GE and other firms); Corporate Stewardship; Environmental Sustainability…and more!

If you would like to have information about G&A Institute research efforts, please connect with us via our website.

The Media – And Sustainability & CR Thought Leadership, For Both Topic-Focused and Mainstream Media Coverage

by Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

The “media” that we choose to get our news, commentary, research results, even crossword puzzles, movie reviews, the latest scientific papers and maybe information about what our friends are up to (such as “social media”) are usually self-selected.  

We tune in to what we want to read or watch or listen to…for information / education / entertainment…and it also helps to define us in many ways.

So here at G&A Institute as we broadly monitor for content related to both our day-to-day and long-term focus areas (the list of topics and issues is long), when we see these things pop up in “not-the-usual places,” we are cheered.

This weekend, for example, we picked up on the following, which were encouraging in that senior management publications are read beyond the folks involved in sustainable investing and corporate sustainability or ESG issues and topics.

In Focus:   MIT Sloan Management Review

This is the publication of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Sloan School of Management.  “Share Your Long-Term Thinking” was one feature article. Companies need to be more forthcoming about their strategies for long-term value creation when they communicate with investors — especially about ESG issues, write authors Tim Youmans and Brian Tomlinson.

Their observation is that over the past five years, CEOs have faced mounting pressure to produce short-term profits. CEOs do think about the long-term, have long-term plans (detailed and extensive) and these typically are closely held.  Result: corporate strategy and practice are not captured in investor communications.

They then offer six reasons why long-term plans should be disclose and how to do that.  One of these is to help investors understand ESG issues through the eyes of management — because a majority of investors see ESG factors as financially material and expect sound management of material ESG factors to deliver better performance over the long-term. 

Tim Youmans is engagement director for Hermes Equity Ownership Services and Brian Tomlinson is research director for the Strategic Investor Initiative at CECP.

They conclude for the magazine’s audience (aimed at corporate executives and senior managements in the main): “The long-term plan is a new tool in the regular sequence of periodic corporate-shareholder communications and represents an unprecedented opportunity for leading companies and investor together to drive sustainable value creation and help to clarify the role of the corporation in a sustainable society.”

That is not all for the MIT Sloan Management Review audience in the Spring 2008 issue.

“Why Companies Should Report Financial Risks From Climate Change” is another feature — this from Robert Eccles and Michael Krzus.  They  focused on the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Disclosures [recommendations].

“Investors and the rest of the world is watching to see how companies will respond to the TFCD recommendations” — the ask here is that company managements will expand their disclosure to report on the risks and opportunities inherent in climate change in such documents as the 10-k.

Boston Common Asset Management LLC and ShareAction organized a campaign with institutions representing US$1.5 trillion in AUM participating to pressure financial institutions (especially banks) to implement the recommendations.

Companies should follow the recommendations, authors Eccles and Krzus argue, because this could lead to evolving better strategies to adapt to climate change — and be able to explain these strategic moves to the their investors.

They focus on the oil and gas industry, looking at disclosures in 2016 by 15 of the largest industry firms listed on the NYSE.  A few have made good progress in adhering to the TCFD recommendations (so there is not a “blank slate”); there is work to be done by all of the companies in enhancing their disclosures to meet the four top recommendations (in governance, strategy, risk management and metrics and targets areas).

Their article is an excellent summation of the challenges and opportunities presented for such companies as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Sinopec, Statoil, Total, and others in oil & gas.

Bob Eccles is a well-known expert in corporate sustainability and sustainable investing and is visiting professor at Said Business School at the University of Oxford. Mike Krzus is an independent consultant and researcher and was a Fellow of G&A Institute.

Wait, there’s more!

The magazine’s columnists had important things to say as well.

Kimberly Whitler and Deborah Henretta penned “Why the Influence of Women on Boards Still Lags,” applauding the rise of the number of women on boards and offering two important criticisms — the growth rate is slowing and boards do that do have female members often limit their influence.

Although there are measurable positive results of female board inclusion — they cite Return on Equity averaging 53% higher in the top quartile than in the bottom — women still are not making more rapid inroads with fewer reaching the most influential board leadership positions, even with more women on boards than 10 years ago.

The authors set out ways for making more progress in board rooms.  And they advise: “For real, lasting change that wins companies the full benefits of gender-diverse decision-making, boards need to look beyond inclusion — and toward influence.”

Kimberly Whitler is assistant professor of business adminstration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business; Deborah Henretta is an independent board director on the boards of Dow Corning, Meritage Homes Corp, NiScource Inc and Staples (she was a Proctor & Gamble executive).

There is much more for executives and board members in the issue, which has the overall theme of: “In Search of Strategic Agility – discover a better way to turn strategy into results.”

The content we outlined here is powerful stuff (our own technical term) to crank into corporate strategy-setting, and savvy execs are doing just that, as we see here at G&A as we pour through the more than 1,500 corporate reports we analyze each year with titles such as Corporate Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Environmental Sustainability, and more.

And so it is very encouraging when we wander beyond the beaten path of reading the reliable staple of sustainability-oriented and CSR-oriented media to see what the senior management thought leadership media are doing!

We recommend that you read through the Spring 2018 Strategy magazine from MIT Sloan.  Link: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/

Remembering Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Her Rich Sustainability Legacy

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

As we watched the news of the tragic events at the high school in Broward County in South Florida, I wondered how many of us connected the oft-mentioned name of the high school with the woman – and her legacy – behind the institution’s name.

It’s a wonderful story to share with you: Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a valiant and heroic pioneer in so many ways on so many environmental and social issues.

She moved to Florida in 1915 from her early roots in Minnesota and New England (she was a Wellesley College grad) when the Sunshine State was in so many ways actually really a very new state. (Miami on her arrival had but several thousand residents and was a pioneer settlement).

Shortly after WW I ended there was a land boom in South Florida, with the Miami area coming alive with entrepreneurial and land and community development activity.

Some pieces of Miami land changed hands 10 times with the owner not even seeing the property “they owned.” The Miami Herald –her father was the founder and publisher — carried more classified advertising (buy my real estate!) than any other American newspaper at that time.

Marjory was born in 1890 and died in 1998 – her life spanned almost all of the 20th Century. She was an accomplished newspaper and magazine journalist, a tireless author and playwright and inspiration for female writers; an advocate for women, for civil rights, for human rights, for public health; a fighters for social justice; and a conservation leader who defended the previous Everglades eco-system for much of her life.

She moved to Miami – the new frontier of the American Atlantic coast in the early years of the 20th Century – and wrote for the city’s signature newspaper. She also wrote many short stories about this and that, for national magazines, and a run of good books. And then, in a defining moment in her life, she was invited by the Rinehart & Co. book publishing firm to contribute to the landmark series, “Rivers in America.”

(The 65 books in the series began appearing in 1937 and continued to 1974, with three publishers helming the efforts of local writers providing essays about their local rivers and the communities surrounding them.)

The editors asked her to write about the Miami River, which was not really a river at all, she cheerfully responded.

But then she began to research the ‘Glades” and there focused on the broad “wet” plains and the Biscayne Aquifer, giant Lake Okeechobee, and the role of the Kissimmee River in the fabled Everglades. The water was of the great stretch of wetlands was…well… moving…like a river.

The ‘Glades — not quite a river there, she explained to her readers, at least not like the Rio Grande or the Hudson or the Missouri and Mississippi – but it could be seen as a river of grass.

The result of her years of extensive exploration and research and working with naturalists and conservationists was her 1947 work, “The Everglades: River of Grass”.

She observed that the water did move, ever so slowly, shaping everything around it. That work awakened her interest in things conservation and environmental.

The Everglades was not just some, well, “swamp” – but a very important and vast and vital eco-system.

The Rivers series was very successful for the publishing house. I have copies of some of the book here on my bookshelf. Including River of Grass. Which has sold more than a half-million copies in the 70 years since first appearing in book stores. It is often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in terms of impact and influence and awakening of the public conscience.

Marjory fought for many years to preserve and protect that eco-system and much of South Florida. Woe be to the “official” who stood in her way! She became known in the state as the “Grande Dame of the Everglades,” and a string of governors and other elected officials came into her crosshairs — and eventually under her sway.

I had the privilege to see Ms. Stoneman Douglas in action in Florida on several occasions. She appeared quite tiny and frail in her later days. But then she began to speak…and the sparks would fly! Her tiny voice was a megaphone for protection of the environment in Florida!

When I was an editor and publisher of Florida newsletters, magazines and management briefs, I constantly monitored the activities of the great lady, and came to appreciate the many achievements of her lifetime and way beyond (in the beneficial impacts on society today).

Today, thanks to her efforts, the Everglades National Park is a reality, saved from the relentless expansion and growth of developed areas for which Florida is nationally-known. Open space? Pave it over!

The area is also designated as a Wetland of International Significance and an International Biosphere Preserve.

We can all enjoy the Big Cypress area of the ‘Glades thanks to Marjory. Lake Okeechobee is still threatened by industrial activities but it is in much better shape than it would have been had she not joined the battle to push back on the flow of fertilizers, wastes into the lake, and other impacts that threatened this precious natural resource that helps to define Florida.

Well-Intended But In Turns Out, Boneheaded

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late-1930s and into the 1940s made a number of bone-headed decisions for “improving” the Kissimmee River flow and the effects on the Everglades. A series of floods had caused damage to newly-developed and agricultural areas, and the rising complaints by the increasing population moved government officials to “action”.

The river was “straightened out” in the 1940s and 1950s for much of it meandering course – with disastrous results. The little river flows from Lake Kissimmee, from close by to the well-visited Orlando area resorts, 100 miles south to the expanses of the Lake Okeechobee area through a wide and very flat floodplain.

This is home to a rich and wide variety of natural fauna and flora. In 1948, the Corps began building the “Central and South Florida Project” to move the river to a ditch, the C-38 Canal and installed water control facilities that…destroyed the natural river.

In 1992, the “reversal” began, restoring parts of the old natural river. The US Army Corps of Engineers splits the cost with the South Florida Water Management District – which Marjory helped to organize. (Known locally to some as “swiff-mud”.)

Marjory had strenuously pushed back on such modernization and “progress” — and won support for the restoration of the river; the project is still underway.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:  The high school being named after her was in honor, we could say, of her quest for learning throughout all of her life. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Building in the state capital (Tallahassee) is home to the offices of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In her lifetime she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom – by President Bill Clinton (1993). England’s Queen Elizabeth paid her a visit. The National Wildlife Federation Hall of Fame inducted her, as did the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

When she passed in 1998 – 20 years ago at the age of 108! – President Clinton said: “Long before there was an Earth Day, Mrs. Douglas was a passionate steward or our nation’s natural resources and particularly her Florida Everglades.”

The Hall of Fame said of her book: “Her best-seller raised America’s consciousness and transformed the Florida Everglades from an area that was looked upon as a useless swamp – to be drained and developed commercially – to a national park that is seen as a valuable resource to be protected and preserved.”

And as we all know now, the scene of the February 2018 Parkland high school shooting tragedy took place at the high school named after her in 1990, during her lifetime.

Upon her passing her ashes were made part of the land – dust-returning-to-dust, to become part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area of the Everglades National Park.

And now you know more about the great lady of that name, who was a powerful voice that would very much at home in today’s sustainability movement!

She would be railing (I could picture her doing so) about global warming and the rising seas. She experienced the devastation hurricanes that ripped through South Florida in the 1920s and worried about her little house in Coconut Grove – that might be underwater at some point in the 21st Century (the restored house is a National Historic Landmark).

Her advice (according to a biographer, Mary Jo Breton in 1998): “Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed (and she was at times in her life), discouraged and disappointed at failure but the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up.”

# # #

Graphic:  Wikipedia Commons

To learn more about this extraordinary woman and fighter for our environment, see the well done profile on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjory_Stoneman_Douglas

About her work, “The Everglades: River of Grass”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Everglades:_River_of_Grass

About The Kissimmee River restoration project: http://www.ces.fau.edu/riverwoods/kissimmee.php

How Tariffs Will Affect the State of Solar in the U.S.A. in 2018

Guest Column – By Kyle Pennell

The year 2018 did not start off well for the solar industry in the United States. In January, US President Donald Trump signed into law a 30% tariff on all imported solar panels, sending the entire renewable energy world into a controlled panic.

While the White House has repeatedly stated that this move is intended to help U.S. solar manufacturers who cannot compete with pricing coming out of China and India, there are many industry experts and environmentalists who have expressed a bleak outlook for the next several years of U.S. solar advancement.

What effect will Trump’s tariffs have on an industry that has been steadily growing since the 1970’s? What fortune, good or bad, will come from this ruling throughout 2018?

Trend: Foreign Producers Moving to the US

When signing the tariffs into law, President Trump stated that it was his hope to see foreign solar manufacturers move some of their production efforts to the United States. Jinko, a large Chinese solar company, seemed to take note of that, announcing plans to build a new plant in the US.(Jinko has an American subsidiary.)

Jinko announced in January 2018 that its board of directors have green-lit this U.S.-based plant’s construction, while subtly suggesting that their decision was a result of the tariff. They said in a prepared statement that the company “continues to closely monitor treatment of imports of solar cells and modules under the U.S. trade laws.”

Manufacturing products in the United States would allow Jinko the flexibility to avoid paying the tariff while continuing to affordably supply US installers with their products.

President Trump has been very vocal about his belief that the tariffs he has imposed on both imported solar panels and washing machines will coax more foreign companies into moving production state-side.

Foreign Countries Will Seek Compensation

The Trump Administration’s tariffs seem to have earned the ire of the global solar industry, with countries throughout Europe and Asia making official complaints with the World Trade Organization and seeking compensation from the US for what they believe is a WTO violation.

The Chinese government has filed an official WTO complaint against the United States, citing WTO provisions that they allege the U.S. has violated. It wasn’t long before the European Union followed suit, sending the United States a demand for compensation talks.

While the EU has not officially accused the US government of breaking WTO rules, it is seeking financial compensation on behalf of member-state Germany, a major solar hardware exporter.

There are some who fear that these filings could be the first step in an all-out trade war against the Trump Administration and the United States economy and business sector as a whole.

Thousands of American Jobs Will Be Lost

While the White House has touted these tariffs as a positive move for the American solar manufacturing industry, there are many who believe that this could spell the beginning of the end for the renewable power efforts in the United States — at least for the immediate future.

“Solar” is one of the fastest growing employment industries in the United States. The industry creates jobs at a rate 17% higher than the national average. The solar industry’s growth has been tied for years with the solar learning curve, which tells us that when prices fall by 20%, installations rise by 20%.

The Solar Energies Industry Association spoke out against these tariffs, alleging that increasing the cost of solar installations will slow the industry’s acceleration and lose upwards of 23,000 American jobs.

The SEIA went on to say that large investors will cancel projects that would have injected billions of dollars into renewable energy as a result of price hikes. It stands to reason that huge solar companies would look elsewhere for their expansions, where costs are limited, and incentives abound.

The SEIA was proven correct in their assumption, when the U.S. energy company SunPower postponed a planned $20 million expansion of its factories soon after the tariffs were announced.

Sun Power was seeking to grow its business in the California and Texas markets, but as a company that relies primarily on affordable hardware from the Philippines, this job creating environmentally-friendly expansion became economically-unwise.

“We have to stop our $20 million investment because the tariffs start before we know if we’re excluded,” SunPower CEO Tom Werner said in an interview with Reuters. “It’s not hypothetical. These were positions that we were recruiting for that we are going to stop.”

Those positions that SunPower stopped recruiting for are the first casualties of the Trump tariffs, but if the SEIA is to be believed, they will not be the last.

Questionable Motives, Questionable Future

President Trump has been a huge supporter of the domestic coal mining industry. During his successful 2016 presidential election bid, candidate Trump touted his support of “beautiful clean coal”, going as far as to bring it up once more in his January 2018 State of the Union address.

Many observers are tying this tariff to Trump’s unwavering support for fossil fuel power and are alleging that the president is seeking to wound the renewable industry to protect coal mining and fossil fuel power production.

Time Magazine even went as far as to call it “…the largest blow he’s dealt to renewable energy yet.”

But no matter what the president’s reasoning was, solar is a $28 billion industry which relies on foreign components for 80% of its manufacturing needs. Problems are going to arise.

While the world has benefited greatly from fossil fuel energy, the environment has suffered. It’s important to remember that technological evolution is the forefather or progress.

Examples abound: The rotary wired phone gave way to the cell phone. Blockbuster Video fell victim to streaming services. And we believe that fossil fuel power is destined to fall to renewable energy.

By blocking the advancement of solar, the U.S. federal government and the President of the United States are holding back the real potential of American energy efforts.

Thanks to Kyle Pennell from PowerScout (a home solar marketplace that lets consumers compare multiple quotes for home solar) for contributing this article.

  • Information: powerscout.com
    Email: kyle.pennell@powerscout.com

 

2017’s Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories – HBR Author Andrew Winston Weighs In – What Are Your Top 2017 Stories?

Once again, the authoritative Harvard Business Review weighs in on corporate sustainability with a commentary piece on the top trends of 2017 – with “big leaps both forward and backward” in the year just concluded. And there was some predictability, writes author Andrew Winston in his commentary, as he says he predicted:  “…the context for sustainable business in 2017 may center on the competition between two stories, the election of Donald Trump and significant action on climate change…”

Of course, as we all quickly learned after the January 20 inauguration, the U.S. signaled it would be pulling out of the historic Paris Climate Accord – to become at some point in 2018 probably the ONLY country standing by itself.  At least at the [Federal] governmental level.

And so, Trend #1, writes Andrew Winston, is the “Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction from business, states, and cities – nothing short of amazing – their pushback on policy decisions is my #1 story of 2017.”

Other top stories & trends that he picked:

#2, the deadly costs of climate change became even more obvious.

#3, Trump Administration begins dismantling of environmental protections.

#4, (we can hear the cheers at your end as you read this – “investors woke up about climate risk and benefits of sustainability”).

#5, something to carefully watch from other leading economies (like the USA!) in 2018, China accelerated its cleantech advantage with a series of dramatic moves.

Completing the list:

#6, cleantech continues the relentless mark and coal continued to die (Morgan Stanley predicted an inflection point in 2020 when renewable become the cheapest energy source globally).

#7 is “famous CEOs” took moral stands (Tesla’s Elon Musk, Disney’s Robert Iger and others).

#8, companies took a stand, such as suing to fight the president’s first Executive Order (the poorly-executed and hateful immigration ban).

#9 is the early -2017 event that millions watched on TV, the Super Bowl, as companies touted in their very expensive ads their views on social sustainability and stands taken on the new administration’s policies.

Finally, at #10 author Winston has in focus the global Unilever, “the consensus corporate leader on managing sustainability for business and social value” — fighting off a takeover bid by Kraft Heinz and 3G Capital.

What is your list of top stories and trends for 2017?  Send us your nominations.  And if you have not already read G&A Institute Chair Hank Boerner’s book published at the end of 2016 and looking into 2017 and 2018, the book is available with our compliments. (“Trends Converging! – A 2016 Look Ahead of the Curve” – that is, what’s ahead in 2017 that affects Sustainability & CR managers…sustainable/ESG investing professionals?)

Reading Trends Converging! you can see what is working / what may not work if the policies of the Trump Administration and the Congress intervene on the wrong side of history.  The book is can be downloaded at: https://www.ga-institute.com/research-reports/trends-converging-a-2016-look-ahead-of-the-curve.html

About the HBR essay:  Author Andrew Winston wrote the popular books “Green to Gold” and “The Big Pivot.” His “So What’s Next” look at mega-trends is included with predictions for 2018.

This is a very powerful column and we urge your reading – it’s our Top Story for you this week.

 

Our Top Story For You…

The Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2017
(Wednesday – December 27, 2017) Source: Harvard Business Review – The year 2017 has been a long, strange trip. The definition of sustainability in business evolved quickly — the topic in executive suites now covers a wide range of issues that address how a company navigates environmental and…

Themes of A New Era of Global Business Leadership: What Was Discussed at the Commit! Forum & the Sustainable Brands Conferences

By Matthew Novak, Sustainability Reports Data Analyst, G&A Institute

I recently attended two incredibly inspiring conferences: the CR Magazine Commit!Forum in Washington, D.C. and the Sustainable Brands New Metrics conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  This is my report on the two meetings.

The backdrop of these two popular, well-attended conferences was about moving passed the idea that businesses can only maximize shareholder profits, and moving into the new era that looks at companies as leaders in our global society, with the ability to move mountains.

With issues on the agenda ranging from climate change impacts to anti-discrimination policies, business leaders are using the tools available to them to make a positive change in the world. And this is more than a desire to do good (though, that is a noble goal, in itself); it’s also a better way to do business.

Combating climate change and taking into account the business risk climate change poses, for example, offers an opportunity for enhanced long-term viability and growth potential.  Here’s my update for you on the themes and conversations at the conferences.

The theme of Commit!Forum was “Brands Taking Stands.”

Being held in Washington, DC in 2017, politics was of course an inevitable part of the discussion. A lumber company with a workforce in large part made up of immigrant populations, discussed the decision to make a pointed pro-immigration Super Bowl 2017 commercial — in stark contrast to the current Presidential Administration’s immigration policies.

Following along with the example of football, the NFL protests, being only a week old at the time of the conference, were also talked about by a number of business leader speakers.

There was also an incredibly inspiring story from the CEO of Leidos, who discussed an email he received from an employee, discussing the employee’s son, who recently died from opioid overdose. That story moved the CEO to work with members of various levels of Maryland’s public sector to address the opioid epidemic.

Growing up, I always saw government, along with the non-profit sector, championing public service and making life better for all people. On the other hand, business “was just a place looking to sell products or services and maximize profits”. That concept has radically changed!

Regardless of the difference in political landscapes, business leaders are now looking at the world around them and thinking that business can be a driver of social and environmental change. Even through a strict business lens, this shift in attitude can help push societal change forward. For example, anti-discrimination policies are not just an ethical accomplishment; they can make employees feel welcome, which means the employees will want to come to work, increasing productivity.

The Sustainable Brands New Metrics conference conversations were equally invigorating. Being a confessed data nerd, the idea that businesses are using environmental and social data to make business decisions is quite inspiring to me.

With growing income inequality, increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and political movements that threaten the future of entire countries, using data and evidence-based thinking to drive change is incredibly important and a smart business move.

A major theme of the New Metrics conversations was not just about accessing data, but about utilizing good, reliable data that adequately both tells a narrative of a company — and paints a realistic portrait of the company’s environmental and social impact on the world.

Throughout New Metrics discussions, certain themes became readily apparent: the contextualization of sustainability goals, the importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the movement of the financial markets toward incorporating environmental, social, and governance factors into investments.

These themes have a common thread: looking beyond single causes, and into contextualizing the systematic impacts and interconnectedness of the deeper issues.

Addressing these deeper issues, as well as mitigating future impacts, we must have and rely on the accessibility of adequate and relevant data.

But as discussed earlier, it’s not just about addressing these issues for the sake of society; it’s about increasing the long-term viability of the business.

And with that, having tangible end goals is necessary in creating benchmarks to be reached. For example, during New Metrics, there was talk of the 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius scenarios that have been discussed in literature, as well as in the Paris Climate Agreement.

While not ideal, it provides a realistic goal that businesses can utilize in their greenhouse gas reduction goals and renewable energy targets.

The way the business community is taking on these large-scale megatrends —  like climate change, environmental degradation, poverty levels, and social equality — is inspiring. While not combating these issues for purely altruistic desires, that does not mean that the result of moving literally trillions of dollars of capital toward a more sustainable future is any less of a worthwhile goal.

But, to repeat my own belief and that of the speakers at the conference:  behind the lofty aspirations, reliable, accessible, and contextualized data is required to achieve the future we seek to create.