Company in the CSR Reporting Spotlight: Salesforce

By Julia Nehring – Report Analyst-Researcher, G&A Institute

In recent months I have been analyzing many dozens of corporate sustainability, responsibility, stewardship, corporate citizenship, and similarly-titled public reports. Many of these are published by very prominent names with well-known brands attached to the corporate name.

For example, you probably know of Salesforce. As many technology companies have done, the enterprise began humbly in a small West Coast residence in 1999, when several entrepreneurs attempted to re-imagine how businesses could utilize computer software.

Today, the company offers a variety of sales, marketing, analytics, and other business services to its 150,000+ clients, which include startups, nonprofits, governments, large corporations, and anything in-between.

Measuring success, between 2017 and 2019 alone, Salesforce’s employee base increased 44 percent and its billions of dollars’ in revenue increased by 58%.

During this period of significant growth, Salesforce has impressively been lauded as a best workplace for diversity, a best workplace for women, and a best workplace overall, among numerous other types of accolades.

The Company’s Reporting Practices

Salesforce discusses these and a range of other accomplishments in its FY19 Stakeholder Impact Report. However, I am not commenting here to heap praise on Salesforce.

Using my lens as a CSR analyst-intern, I will attempt to highlight several reporting frameworks and concepts Salesforce has chosen to use in its most recent report that provide both transparency and promotional value for the company’s practices and accomplishments.

I also offer my own comments and ideas that come from learning about different reporting guidelines from different agencies, as well as reviewing many dozens of corporate CSR reports as a GRI report analyst.

Clicking on any of the links below will take you to G&A resources mentioned about the topic.

ESG Reporting Frameworks

By far the most commonly-used framework worldwide by companies in G&A’s research is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Salesforce includes multiple references to this framework (formally, the GRI Standards) in its content index. (Best practice: including a content index in your company’s report to help users find information quickly.)

However, the report was not prepared “in accordance” with the GRI Standards. Instead, Salesforce opted to reference only certain disclosures and metrics of the GRI framework, as they apparently deemed applicable internally.

The apparent rationale? Since each framework identified in the report — including the GRI Standards, the Task Force on Financial-related Disclosures (TCFD), and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) — define materiality in different ways, Salesforce did “not attempt to formally reconcile the divergent uses of the term materiality”.

In other words, instead of providing a more complete set of disclosures for one of the frameworks, the company opted to in effect dabble in each.

Along with its GRI references, the report includes some SASB references in the content index, and (positively) mentions its support of and use of the TCFD in conducting a climate-related scenario analysis.

I think investors may find this confusing. While Salesforce is ahead of the majority of companies who do not currently acknowledge SASB or TCFD at all, it is difficult for the report reader to discern which disclosures from each framework have been excluded. This does not help to paint a full picture for the reader.

It appears the company does acknowledge this, as it states that, “Over time we will work to expand our disclosures and align more closely to the leading frameworks, even as the frameworks themselves rapidly evolve.” A good practice, I think.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Salesforce is a supporter of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (the 17 SDGs). In its report, Salesforce lists 12 SDGs that the company closely aligns with.

However, the company does not explicitly state how each SDG aligns with a particular action or initiative. Providing this level of detail — common practice among companies that discuss SDGs in their reports — Salesforce could show the reader that these are not merely ideals for the company, but that in fact Salesforce is actually taking actions in regards to each stated goal.

Regarding External Review

Ernst & Young was retained to review and provide limited assurance for select sustainability metrics in Salesforce’s report.

The items reviewed cover Salesforce’s reported GHG emissions, energy procured from renewable resources, and carbon credits. A limited level of assurance and review of only GHG data or specified sections is very commonly seen in CSR reports.

The companies that tend to stand out among their peers in our wide and deep research of corporate disclosure are those that have decided (strategically) to obtain reasonable/high assurance, or opt to have the entire report reviewed by credible third party auditors.

Salesforce’s awards and growth speak for themselves — the company is undoubtedly providing great value to its clients and doing so in a way that people admire.

While its Stakeholder Impact report overall does an excellent job at showcasing the company’s progress, in my comments here I covered the above areas to encourage and provoke thoughts of striving for even greater completeness and reader comprehension.

Not just for Salesforce, but for public companies in general with Saleforce’s report as one example.

Epilogue: Why did I decide to review Salesforce?

During my time as an analyst-intern for G&A Institute, my intern colleagues and I analyzed dozens upon dozens of CSR reports in depth over the months, many of which are reports of The Business Roundtable (BRT) companies.

Many BRT CEO members signed on to the re-stated “corporate purpose” statement last summer and we researched the companies’ sustainability / responsibility track records and public disclosure practices.

In our research, we found that:

  • Twenty-nine (29) BRT companies had upward trends for all Yahoo! platform’s sharing of Sustainalytics scores (including those for environment, social, and governance) since 2017.
  • Of these 29, five had CEOs that were identified on the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs list
  • Of these five, Salesforce was the only company whose Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) score rose between 2017 – 2018 (from “B” to”A” score)

So, while I certainly do enjoy using Salesforce’s tools at my job, it had no bearing on my decision to analyze the company’s CSR report for this project. The company’s growth in spite of (or because of) its commitment to people and planet is very exciting to see.

I hope that my analysis is helpful to Salesforce and other companies that may be following this corporate responsibility leader’s sustainability journey.

* * * * * * * *

Since her internship as a report analyst, Julie Nehring joined G&A as a Sustainability Analyst. She continues her research role as a member of the G&A team. She pursued an MBA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and interned at the Caterpillar Inc Data Innovation Lab. Julie previously worked for several years as a project manager for a national environmental consulting firm and for a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer. As the president of her university’s Net Impact chapter, she enjoyed helping colleagues and classmates get involved and volunteer in the community.

Note the views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Governance & Accountability Institute regarding the company.

Getting Serious About SASB: Company Boards, Execs and Their Investors Are Tuning In. What About Accounting Firms?

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

February 26, 2020

The importance of the work over the recent years of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board in developing industry-specific ESG disclosure recommendations was underscored with the recent letters to company leadership from two of the world’s leading asset management firms.

Corporate boards and/or executive teams received two important letters in January that included strong advice about their (portfolio companies’) SASB disclosures. 

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained to corporate CEOs his annual letter:  “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance. Important progress in improving disclosure has been made – many companies already do an exemplary job of integrating and reporting on sustainability but we need to achieve more widespread and standardized adoption.” 

While no framework is perfect, BlackRock believes that the SASB provides a clear set of standards for reporting sustainability information across a wide range of issues, from labor practices to data privacy to business ethics. 

In 2020, BlackRock is asking companies that the firm invests in on behalf of clients to publish a disclosure in line with industry-specific SASB guidelines by year end (and disclose a similar set of data in line with the TCFD’s recommendations). 

In a thought paper, BlackRock explained that disclosures intended for investors need to focus on financially material and business relevant metrics and include supporting narratives. The recommendations of the TCFD and the SASB (standards) are the benchmark frameworks for a company to disclose its approach to climate-related risks and the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Absent such robust disclosure, investors could assume that companies are not adequately managing their risk. Not the right message to send to current and prospective investors in the corporation, we would say.

State Street Sends Strong Signals

Separately, State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) CEO Cyrus Taraporevala in his 2020 letter to corporate board members explained:  “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is a good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance – a matter of value, not values.” 

The asset management firm [one of the world’s largest] uses its “R-Factor” (R=“responsibility”) to score the performance of a company’s business operations and governance as it relates to financially material and sector-specific ESG issues.

The CEO’s letter continued:  The ESG data is drawn from four leading service providers and leverages the SASB materiality framework to generate unique scores for 6,000+ companies’ performance against regional and global industry peers. “We believe that a company’s ESG score will soon effectively be as important as it credit rating.”

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board

About SASB’s continuing progress:  Recommendations for corporate disclosure centered on materiality of issues & topics were fully developed in a multi-party process (“codified”) concluding in November 2018 for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors by a multi-party process.

The recommendations are now increasingly being used by public companies and investors as important frameworks for enhanced corporate disclosure related to ESG risks and opportunities. 

To keep in mind: A company may be identified in several sectors and each of these should be seriously considered in developing the voluntary disclosures (data sets, accompanying narrative for context).

Bloomberg LP (the company headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination) is a private company but publishes a SASB Disclosure report. (Bloomberg is the chair of SASB as well as the leader of his financial information firm.)

The company published “robust” metrics using the SASB on three industry categories for 2018: Internet & Media Services; Media & Entertainment; Professional & Commercial Services.

Bloomberg LP is privately-owned; this was an example for public company managements. The report explained:

“The nature of our business directs us to consult three industries (above). We provide a distinct table for each…containing topics we have identified as material and against which we are able to report as a private company. Quantitative data is followed by narrative information that contextualizes the data table and is responsive to qualitative metrics.”

Solid advice for company boards and executives beginning the expansion of disclosure using the SASB.

SASB Guidance

SASB provides a Materiality Map for each sector (SASB uses its SICS® – The Sustainability Industry Classification System) and provides a Standards Navigator for users. There is also an Engagement Guide for investors to consider when engaging with corporates; and, an Implementation Guide for companies (explaining issues and SASB approaches).

The fundamental tenets of SASB’s approach is set out in its Conceptual Framework: Disclosures should be Evidence-based; Industry-specific; Market-informed.  The recommended metrics for corporate disclosure include fair representation, being useful and applicable (for investors), comparable, complete, verifiable, aligned, neutral, distributive.

Accounting and Audit Professionals Advised: Tune In to SASB

Separate of the BlackRock and SSgA advice to companies and investors, accounting and auditing professionals working with their corporate clients are being urged to “tune in” to SASB.

Former board member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Marc Siegel shared his thoughts with the New York State Society of CPAs in presenting: “SASB: Overview, Trends in Adoption, Case Studies & SDG Integration”.  The Compliance Week coverage is our Top Story in the newsletter this week.

Marc Siegel is a Partner in E&Y’s Financial Accounting Advisory Service practice, served a decade on the FASB board (managers and shapers of GAAP) and was appointed to the SASB board in January 2019.

He was in the past a leader at RiskMetrics Group and CFRA, both acquired by MSCI, and is recognized as a thought leader in financial services – his views on SASB will be closely followed.

With the growing recognition of the importance of SASB recommendation for disclosure to companies and the importance of SASB’s work for investors, he encouraged the gathered accountants to get involved and assist in implementing controls over ESG data, suggesting that SASB standards are a cost-effective way for companies to begin responding to investor queries because they are industry-specific. 

Accountants, he advised, can help clients by putting systems in place to collect and control the data and CPA firms can use SASB standards as criteria to help companies that are seeking assurance for their expanding sustainability reporting.

This is an important call to action for accounting professionals, helping to generate broader awareness of the SASB standards for those working with publicly-traded companies and for internal financial executives.

The G&A Institute team has been working with corporate clients in recent years in developing greater understanding of the SASB concepts and approaches for industry-specific sustainability disclosure and helping clients to incorporate SASB standards in their corporate reports. 

We’ve also been closely tracking the inclusion of references to “SASB” and inclusion of SASB metrics by public companies in their reporting as part of our GRI Data Partner work. ‘

The G&A Institute analyst teams examine and assess every sustainability report published in the USA and have tracked trends related to how companies are integrating SASB disclosures into their reporting. 

What began as a trickle of SASB mentions in corporate reports several years ago is now increasing and we are capturing samples of such inclusions in our report monitoring and analysis.

Over the past four+ years we’ve developed comprehensive models and methodologies to assist our corporate client teams incorporating SASB disclosures in their public-facing documents (such as their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reports, in Proxy Statements, for investor presentations and in other implementations).

Our co-founder and EVP Louis Coppola was among the first in the world (“early birds”) to be certified and obtain the SASB CSA Level I credential in 2015.

If you’d like to discuss SASB reporting for your company and how we can help please contact us at info@ga-institute.com

There’s information for you about our related services on the G&A Institute web site: https://www.ga-institute.com/services/sustainability-esg-consulting/sasb-reporting.html

Top Story

Benefits of sustainability reporting: takeaways for accounting 
Source: Compliance Week – According to former Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) member Marc Siegel, companies are being asked for sustainability information from many sides and are facing a bumpy road because they are under pressure due to pervasive… 

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… 

Brief Updates on Corporate Audit Committee and Auditor Oversight

Guest post by Daniel L. Goelzer
Board Member, Sustainable Accounting Standards Board and Co-Founder, The Audit Blog

When it Comes to the Ability to Deal with Risk, Boards are More Confident, But Less Well-Informed, Than Management

A new study from the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) raises questions about how well-informed boards are about the risks facing their company and whether directors tend to be unrealistic about the company’s ability to handle those risks.

In OnRisk 2020: A Guide to Understanding, Aligning, and Optimizing Risk, the IIA concludes that “Boards are significantly overconfident when it comes to addressing the thorniest issues facing organizations today. Board members have greater confidence in their organizations’ ability to manage key risks than members of management.”

The IIA attributes this over-confidence to the “incomplete or misleading” nature of the information concerning risk that boards receive information from management, along with the failure of directors to ask critical questions.

Sustainability Reporting Continues to Grow—Both Inside and Outside SEC Filings

Two recent reports provide snapshots of the growth of public company sustainability or ESG disclosure:

  • From NACD: ESG Risks Trickle Into Financial Filings, an October 21 item in BoardTalk, the blog of the National Association of Corporate Directors, analyzes ESG disclosure in the Risk Factors and MD&A sections of Form 10-K filings of companies in the Russell 3000 index.

This research found that, in 2019, 66 percent of companies in the Russell 3000 Index discussed ESG risks in their Form 10-K.

  • Separately, a report issued by the Governance & Accountability Institute found that, while 60 percent of the Russell 1000 published sustainability reports in 2018, only 34% of the smallest half of the Russell 1000 issued such a report.

The “second 500” sectors with the highest percentages of companies that release a sustainability report are Utilities (82%, Materials (63%), and Consumer Staples (53%).

The analysis is at: https://www.ga-institute.com/press-releases/article/flash-report-60-of-russell-1000R-are-publishing-sustainability-reports-ga-2018-institutes-in.html

# # #

Note:  These items are highlights from the Audit Blog. Daniel Goelzer is co-founder; see https://medium.com/the-audit-blog

Recent posts on the blog include –
• The Impact of Disclosing Engagement Partner Identity: No Clear Answer (Dan Goelzer, November 7, 2019)
• Would Auditing Improve if the PCAOB Brought More Enforcement Actions? (Dan Goelzer and Tom Riesenberg, September 16, 2019)

# # #’

Daniel Goelzer is a retired partner of the Baker McKenzie Law Firm (in Washington DC offices) and Board Member, SASB, serving as Chair of the Service Sector Committee. He was Acting Chair and Board Member, PCAOB for almost a decade (appointed by the SEC as founding member).

Contact information:
Daniel L. Goelzer – Bethesda, MD 20816

301.775.8692 (cell)
dangoelzer@gmail.com
@dgoelzer (Twitter)

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.

S&P 500® Index Companies’ ESG/Sustainability, Responsibility Reporting Hits 86% For Year 2018 – Latest G&A Institute Research Results…

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

The G&A Institute’s S&P 500 Index(r) analysis for the constituent companies’ 2018 reporting is complete.

For the eighth year, the G&A Institute research team has examined the ESG, Sustainability, Responsibility & Citizenship disclosure and reporting practices of the S&P 500® Index companies — and determined for year 2018 that 86 percent of the almost 500 public companies were publishing reports in various formats for public viewing.

This is a 1% increase over the 85% reporting trend determined by G&A researchers for year 2017. When the research effort began eight years ago (for 2010 reporting, in the 2011 examination) the number of companies among the 500 was just below 20%.

In the beginning of January each year, the current team of G&A analysts begin their examination of the prior year’s reporting trends. 

The S&P 500 companies (not always an exact number) are closely examined to determine public disclosure and reporting practices for activities that may be branded “corporate sustainability, or responsibility or citizenship, or even environmental” that appear in print, web or hybrid versions.

The initial results are double checked by other analysts and by EVP Louis Coppola, the architect of G&A’s research efforts since 2011.  G&A Institute Senior ESG Analyst Elizabeth Peterson assists as team leader in the coordination of the analysts’ research (she has been involved in the effort for several years now).

G&A’s team report analysts who contributed to the research this year are: Minalee Busi, Jessica Caron, Emilie Ho, Jess Peete.

The S&P 500 Index research results are widely cited by investors, analysts, company managers and other stakeholders in their own work and have become a standard reference for those citing the dramatic increase in corporate sustainability reporting. 

Institutional investors cite the results in urging non-reporting companies to begin reporting to shareholders on their sustainability journey.

You can see the full report in the news release that is linked as the Top Story this week.

FLASH REPORT: 86% of S&P 500 Index® Companies Publish Sustainability / Responsibility Reports in 2018
(Thursday – May 16, 2019) Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. – Highlights from Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. Research: “Sustainability reporting” rose dramatically from 2011, when roughly 20% of companies published reports, to 72% just three years later in 2013. From 2013 to…

Today, We Have Corporate ESG Comparisons Galore – The Institutional Investor Has Access to Volumes of ESG Data Sets & Information – Where Can Others Find Scores, Rankings and Ratings of Public Companies?

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

These days the comparisons of companies ESG strategies and performance in sectors and industries and among investment peers (those companies chasing similar sources of capital) are continuing to gain momentum. 

There is a sizable universe of third party players — ESG raters, rankers, scorers — busily analyzing, measuring and charting company ESG performance.

These organizations assign proprietary scores, rankings, ratings and various kinds of comparisons (company-to-company, company to industry etc) for their investor-clients. (The institutional asset owners and their asset management firms.)

Companies typically get to see how they are doing when they inspect their ESG service provider profiles…but those data and information sets are not always publicly available. They are the secret sauce provided to investors — institutions holding equity or bonds or researching candidates for investment.

So how should the person without access to the major ESG service providers’ confidential output understand where the public company sits in the views of the analysts (at least the highlights, such as scores assigned)? 

Slowly but steadily some of the volumes of information provided to investor clients by the major ESG ratings agencies are making their way into public view. 

For example, you can see a public company’s Sustainalytics highlights on Yahoo Finance. For Apple Inc. / NASDAQ: AAPL “ESG Total Score” information, click here.

Our colleagues at CSR Hub® share a number of Ratings & Rankings and other CSR and ESG highlights on their web site and their “ESG Hub” information (which is available on the Bloomberg Terminal®)  CSR Hub is at: https://www.csrhub.com/

Now a neat presentation comes our way from Visual Capital, authored by Jenna Ross.  This is a mapping of “The Countries with the Most Sustainable Corporate Giants”. 

Remember BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s letter to corporate CEOs urging them to serve a social purpose to deliver not only financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society? 

Following on that theme, Corporate Knights “2019 Global 100 Report” data and ranking of the “most sustainable corporations in the world” is presented in visualization format.

Corporate Knights scores companies on a mix of metrics after screening for those with at least US$1 billion in revenues and sufficient sustainability reporting:  resource management; employee (or human capital) management; financial management; “clean” revenue; supplier performance. 

The United States comes out at the top of the charting with 22 of the 100 companies on the list, followed by France (11), Japan (8), Finland and United Kingdom 7), and Canada (6).  No company in China or India made the list.

Of the “Top 10-star players” only one is from the USA – the REIT Prologis Inc.  Denmark has two companies; the rest are one-off listings from other countries.

Author Jenna Ross sums up: “It’s clear that sustainability is a strong differentiator in the business community.  The world’s largest – and smartest – companies are leading the charge towards a greener, more equitable future.” 

We think you’ll find the charting of this Global 100 fascinating and very useful – and there are many other clever and useful visual presentations on the web site.  Check out our Top Story for this week.

This Week’s Top Stories

Mapped: The Countries With the Most Sustainable Corporate Giants   
(Wednesday – May 08, 2019) Source: Visual Capitalist – Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. 

EDF Report Offers Perspectives on the Current State of Sustainability Ratings and Rankings — and Has Suggestions for Improvement…

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

Ratings, rankings, scores, best of lists – these are increasingly important to corporate issuers and for investors

The popular CBS TV Network nighttime host David Letterman for many years provided us with periods of laughter with his well-known top 10 list segments. (Example: The Top 10 Stupid Things Americans Say to Brits.)

There’s long been a spirited competition in the corporate sector along the lines of the popular “top of” or “best of” lists (with rankings) that companies are awarded, and/or that companies pursue in the effort to garner more third party recognitions and awards. 

In recent years, there’s been a steadily-increasing number of such contests focused on governance, social and environmental issues.

Popular audience “top 10” awards seem to proliferate overnight (like mushrooms in the forest) coming forth from publishers, NGOs, conference organizers, trade associations, professional membership organizations, academia, and others.  All are welcome to some degree by investors and stakeholders and can add luster to the company reputation and brand.

Indeed, here at G&A Institute we have well beyond 400 “corporate awards and recognitions” related to ESG / Corporate Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, et al…identified and profiled to help client companies round out their third party awards roster with relevant, suitable recognitions of different kinds. 

The competitive kinds that we’re all familiar with include Best in industry. Best workplace for women. For LGBTQ employees. Best business sector economic development contributors in the state (the Governor’s Award). Best companies for Hispanic or African-American engineers…and on and on.

Some of these types of recognitions are well known and for investors and stakeholders, welcomed signals of third party recognitions of a company’s citizenship, responsibility or sustainability / ESG progress and achievements.

Many awards began as editorial features of magazines. (In past years, members of our team worked with Fortune on a “Best Places” annual award.)  Forbes is another well-regarded business and finance publication with much-followed awards for companies (the Best Employers List; Best Employers for Diversity; Top Companies to Work For, and more).

Investor-Focused Ratings / Rankings / Scores / Leadership Lists

And then there are the all-important ratings, rankings, scores, index/benchmark selections that many more public companies are receiving from such service provider organizations as MSCI, Sustainalytics and Institutional Shareholder Services.

There are many robust corporate ESG profiles in the Bloomberg platform or on Thomson Reuters’ Eikon (now, “Refinitiv” branded); and coming forth from a host of other ratings organizations in the U.S. and Europe. 

These ESG data sets, and rankings / ratings are also used by many third parties in the methodology to create other awards, recognitions, indexes, and so on.  This is why it’s critical for companies to engage with and improve these key ESG investor data sets and rankings as they flow down and are used by many investors and many other stakeholders.

At the top – in the board room, C-suite — these are indeed critical recognitions and independent (to a large degree) profiles of a company’s ESG strategy, actions, achievements, and recognitions.  Of course there’s grumbling from companies about the efforts to keep up and the independent views of the raters, and how the company may be presented in the ratings work.

So how do the best of these ratings pay off for the public issuer?

Consider:  In terms of ROI for their awards efforts, sustainability rankings can help companies define internal performance measures, attract top talent and link executive comp to corporate sustainability efforts…so write the authors of an essay in Forbes.

Victoria Mills and Austin Reagan of the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) then add:  Unfortunately, there’s a significant problem with these sustainability lists.

The authors point to a new report – “The Blind Spot in Corporate Sustainability Rankings: Climate Policy Leadership” – produced by EDF+Business — which posits that: “Environmental problems like climate change will never be solved through voluntary corporate actions alone. Public policies are critical to reduce environmental impacts across the economy in an efficient and equitable manner, and on a scale commensurate with the challenges.”

The missing link, thinks EDF, is [corporate] public policy advocacy; companies can be doing more than just addressing their own ESG issues (and winning third party recognition for leadership and admirable rankings and scores from ESG raters).

EDF thinks the most powerful tool companies have to fight climate change is their political influence.

The report explains EDF views on rankings vs. ratings; analysis of rankings (“all have a major blind spot”, explains EDF); the challenges of integrating climate policy advocacy into sustainability rankings; and, a series of recommendations.

The EDF opinions are sure to stimulate debate now among asset owners and managers, and within the corporate community. 

We’re all hooked on sustainability / ESG rankings, ratings, scores and other opinions; they’ve become ever-more important in the decision-making of key asset managers.  So, in this brief report, EDF shares its perspective on the way forward to make corporate reporting on ESG more robust.

Click here to view the 12-page report.

This Week’s Top Story

The Good, The Bad And The Blind Spot Of Corporate Sustainability Rankings
(Thursday – March 21, 2019) Source: Forbes – No matter the industry, business stakeholders care about lists – who’s on them and who’s on top. Consider this small sampling: Fast Company’s “50 Most Innovative Companies” list, Fortune’s “Change the World” list, Forbes’ “The…

Question for Corporate Leaders: Is Your Company’s Sustainability Journey Based on Key Strategies? Is There Clear Alignment of Foundational Strategies with Sustainability?

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

HBR Authors Share Some Research Findings Of Importance to Corporate Leaders and Asset Managers…

Strategy – the familiar word comes down to us over the eons from the language of ancient Greece. The roots of the original word (translated to the more modern “stratagem”) mean “the work of the generals, or generalship” which is to clearly say:  to lead from the front..or the top!

In 2019, “strategy” and “sustainability” should be clearly linked, right?  In the corporate sector, setting strategies is at the heart of the work of the men and women at the top, in the board room and in the C-suite.  So what does that mean to us in terms of the intensive focus today on corporate sustainability and ESG performance? (And, the impacts positive and negative in the capital markets?)

The corporate enterprise that is seeking to excel among its peers, and clearly demonstrates leadership in sustainability matters (that encompasses a broadening range of ESG issues today) surely has the leaders at the top crafting, innovating and sharpening the leadership strategy…and driving the foundational elements down into the depth and breadth of the enterprise.  Typically, universal understanding helps to drive competitive advantage and creates a moat more difficult for peers to cross.

And so in this context, what about the “corporate sustainability laggards”?  Often in our ongoing conversations with a wide range of corporate managers – and with investment managers evaluating corporate ESG performance – the companies not yet well along in the journey or perhaps not even started on the journey, lack of sustainability strategy sends a signal of “silence” from the top ranks.

What this says to stakeholders:  ESG and strategy = not connected yet, there is a lack of quality in our management and board.  Don’t look to our firm for signals of sustainability leadership.

We find that most large-caps “get it” and it is the resource-challenged small-cap and mid-cap firms that are not yet started or not far into the sustainability journey.

The topic of corporate sustainability strategy gets a good overview in the pages of the Harvard Business Review by the outstanding ESG / sustainability experts, George Serafeim and Ioannis Ioannou.  Their post is based on their new 45-page paper (“Corporate Sustainability: A Strategy?”) and their co-authored HBR management brief is the topic of our Top Story for you.

They recently published the paper using data from MSCI ESG Ratings for 2012-to-2017 (looking at 3,802 companies); among the approaches was to separate “common practices” (across many companies) and “strategic” (those not so common to most companies).

Your key takeaway from their work:  “Our exploratory results confirm that the adoption of strategic sustainability practices is significantly and positively associated with both return on capital and market valuation multiples, even after accounting for the focal firm’s past financial performance.”

And…”the adoption of common sustainability practices is not associated with return-on-capital, but is positively associated with market valuation multiples.” There’s more for your reading in the Top Story below.

You could share these findings upward in your organization if your firm’s executives are not quite tuned in yet to the importance of having a clear strategy that factors ESG factors and sustainability into account.

Notes:  George Serafeim is Professor of Business Administration at Harvard B-School and Ioannis Ioannou is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School.  They frequently collaborate and both write extensively on topics related to corporate sustainability and sustainable investment. And both are frequent speakers and panelists at trade and industry conferences and workshops.

This Week’s Top Story

Yes, Sustainability Can Be a Strategy
(February 11, 2019) Source: Harvard Business Review – In recent years, a growing number of companies around the world have voluntarily adopted and implemented a broad range of sustainability practices. The accelerating rate of adoption of these practices has also provoked a debate about the nature of sustainability and its long-term implications for organizations. Is the adoption of sustainability practices a form of strategic differentiation that can lead to superior financial performance?

Or, is it a strategic necessity that can ensure corporate survival but not necessarily outperformance?

4th in Series: The Food Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

By Jessica Caron –  G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

A comparison of the SASB Meat, Poultry & Dairy Standard — which is designed for use by companies involved in the raising, slaughtering, processing and packaging of animal food product — to the GRI Standards must start with the observation that the GRI Standards are general and not industry-specific, asking about topics that apply to most business organizations (such as employee benefits).

The SASB industry standards focus on industry-specific ESG information — such as animal welfare.

The GRI Standards also, in being of value in generating a general portrait of any type of organization, suggest disclosure of a wide range of basic information — such as legal form and markets served as well as significant amounts of content with information directly related to corporate ESG strategies and performance.

The only basic information SASB Standards suggest in the category is information about the number of processing and manufacturing facilities, amount of animal protein produced by category, and percentage of animal protein production that is outsourced.

We should keep in mind SASB is investor-focused, and GRI is stakeholder focused (of course, including investors). And so the information suggested for disclosure by the reporter (the company disclosing) has different end users in mind when using either or both of the standards for corporate reporting.

The GRI Sector Disclosure:

The SASB suggested industry standards are more similar to the Sector Disclosures from the GRI G4, the predecessor of the GRI Standards. Each Sector Disclosure consists of additional disclosures and guidance for answering general GRI disclosures tailored to a certain industry, and thus attains the level of industry focus that the SASB standards have.

The GRI Sector Disclosure most similar to the SASB Meat, Poultry, and Dairy Standard is the Food Processing Sector Disclosure, which is designed for food processing companies rather than farmers, but including questions about a company’s supply chain, which does include farmers. The G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosure is discussed in more detail at the end of this commentary.

Being Prepared for Reporting:

In general, my advice is that corporate reporters should be prepared for using the GRI Standards to disclose much more information than the SASB Standards suggest.

For example, the GRI Standards by design suggest that a company should expect to report on every material ESG issue that affects the company, and the reporting in accordance with “Comprehensive” level reporting option prescribes a management approach (DMA) for every risk, opportunity, and topic mentioned in the issuer’s report. In comparison, SASB suggest a well-defined and narrower set of [material] data and suggests management approaches for just a few topics, such as water management risk.

Other Differences to Note:

The GRI Standards Disclosures have an entire section on economic issues; the SASB Standard does not. These issues are focused on the economic value generated, financial assistance received from the government, and benefit plan contributions. The GRI Standards also ask about anti-corruption practices and anti-competitive behavior (in the “Society” subcategory), which the SASB Standard does not.

The GRI Standards suggest more detailed information in general than the SASB Standard on environmental topics, but the SASB Standard’s suggested disclosures are at times more specific and are on the whole more industry-specific. The main environmental topics both standards deal with are energy, water, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, waste, and biodiversity.

The GRI Standards suggest information on an organization’s energy consumption, energy intensity, and reduction in energy consumption and requirements — in addition to the suggestion that at least one or all, depending on individual company’s materiality assessments, of the ESG issues — be discussed and a management plan provided for it. including energy issues.

In contrast, the only energy information the SASB standard asks for is how much total energy is consumed, and suggests a breakdown of that energy by grid electricity and renewable energy (where the GRI Standards do not).

Overlaps and Differences – E/Environmental:

The water disclosures for GRI and SASB do overlap a great deal – SASB even suggests discussion of water-related risks and management approaches; notably, use of the SASB Standards suggests companies to report water specific non-compliance incidents where GRI Standards has a disclosure which asks for the companies approach for environmental compliance overall.

In terms of the other three topics, SASB only suggests disclosure of Scope 1 GHG emissions, of the amount of animal waste generated, and of the percentage of pasture and grazing land managed to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation plan criteria in the biodiversity section.

GRI suggests much more information for all three of these topics (because the GRI Standards are general, they ask about waste only in general terms, but they do suggest disclosure of types of waste generated).

However, SASB suggests disclosure of management approaches for GHG emissions and waste management, whereas GRI suggests disclosure of management approach for each GRI topic considered to be material to the company. The NRCS conservation plan can also be considered as part of a management approach.

Using the GRI Standards For Reporting – More Detailed

GRI is more detailed – by far – than SASB in its suggested disclosures related to employees and their human rights; GRI Standards ask about benefits, labor-management relations, training and education, gender pay equality, diversity and equal opportunity, non-discrimination, forced or compulsory labor, human rights training for security personnel, and grievance mechanisms in addition to employee health and safety — which is the only employee-related topic mentioned in SASB Standards.

SASB Standards, do, however, suggest a description of how respiratory health conditions (a problem in animal feedlots) are managed and prevented, an issue which is much more industry-specific and not specifically mentioned even in the GRI G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosures.

GRI also asks many questions about a company’s product responsibility and impact on society, whereas SASB does not.

Addressing “S” — Social Issues

The social issues GRI Standards ask about are indigenous rights (in the “Human Rights” subcategory); contributions to and effects on local communities; anti-corruption, anti-competitive behavior; consumer privacy and health and safety; compliance; marketing, labeling; and, grievance mechanisms for effects on society. SASB Standards focus on food safety. (Note that the GRI Standards suggests a discussion of markets that ban imports of the company’s products, which is often a food safety issue for the meat, poultry, and dairy industry. SASB Standards address this under the “Food Safety” section; other food safety topics are covered in the G4 Sector Disclosures.)

About Supply Chain Content

Both GRI and SASB Standards address disclosures on supply chain information — the information suggested by SASB Standards specifically address biodiversity, animal welfare, water stress, and climate change resilience in the meat, poultry and dairy supply chain (including discussion of plans to manage climate change risks and opportunities in the supply chain). These are of course all very important issues in the meat, poultry and dairy sector.

GRI in comparison suggests more general information about screening for environmental and social issues and local suppliers. (The Sector Disclosures address in general terms, supplier compliance with sourcing policies and international standards.)

The G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosures — which are the closest equivalent to the SASB Meat, Poultry & Dairy standards — suggest additional information in many sub-categories, such as product safety, and additional guidance for many aspects. (For example, it is noted that financial assistance from government may marginalize small-scale producers and have negative impacts on public health.)

The GRI Sector Disclosures also add information on sourcing practices to the procurement practices section (as discussed in the previous paragraph) and two new sections in the “Society” subcategory, on healthy and affordable food (which SASB does not mention) and animal welfare.

The GRI Sector Disclosures’ food safety questions relate to markets that ban the company’s products and the percentage of food manufactured in facilities accredited by a third party for food safety. SASB has more questions, including about recalls, and does ask about one third-party certification system, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

Focus on Food Issues

The GRI Sector Disclosures also have sections on nutrition — specifically, on fortified foods and food reduced in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars – and marketing and labeling, especially marketing to vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women.

The SASB Standard does not address these issues. However, other than dairy products, most animal-based foods are not fortified with nutrients or reduced in fat, sodium, or sugar, perhaps making the GRI Sector Disclosures in this area of little relevance to the meat, poultry and dairy industry specifically.

In conclusion, I see the SASB Standard and the GRI Standards + G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosure each covering most of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics relevant to the livestock industry, and together, the GRI and SASB standards fill in each other’s gaps to create a more complete ESG profile for any given company in the industry/sector.

Because some pieces of information are in differently-named categories across the standards, responding in the corporate reporting process to both standards does take a little extra work — but is very much possible and I think beneficial to do if the company seeks to be a sustainability leader in the industry (or industries) in which it operates.

Note:  This commentary is part of a series sharing the perspectives of G&A Institute’s Analyst-Interns as they examine literally thousands of corporate sustainability / responsibility reports.  Click the links below to read the first post in the series which includes explanations and the series introduction as well as the other posts in the series:

1st in Series: The Software / IT Services Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

2nd in Series: The Agriculture Products Industry — GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

3rd in Series: The Electric Utilities & Power Generators Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences