Celebrating Highlights Issue #500 – And Unveiling a New Design

October 16, 2020

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

Celebrating Highlights issue #500 – this is a landmark achievement, we will say, for this is also the tenth anniversary year of publishing the G&A Institute’s weekly newsletter (G&A Institute’s Sustainability Highlights).  As you will see in reading #500, we are also introducing an enhanced format intended to make the newsletter easier to read or scan as well.

Our G&A Institute’s Sustainability Highlights newsletter is designed to share timely, informative content in topic/issue “buckets” that we think will be of value to you, our reader. So much is happening in the sustainable investing and corporate sustainability spaces these days – and we are working hard to help you keep up to date with the important stuff!

Publishing the Sustainability Highlights newsletter is a team effort here at G&A.

Our company was formed in late 2006 and among our first efforts, Ken Cynar, then and now our Editor-in-Chief, began the daily editing of the then-new “Accountability Central” web site with shared news and opinion. The focus was (and is) on corporate governance, environmental matters, a widening range of societal and corporate-society issues, SRI investing, and more.

Two years later we created the “SustainabilityHQ” web platform – Ken manages content for both platforms today.

Back in those early days there was not the volume of ESG news or opinion pieces that we see today. Whenever we “caught” something of note the rest of the G&A team would quickly share the item with Ken.

Our team had worked together (some for a number of years) at the former Rowan & Blewitt consultancy, specialists in issue management, crisis management and strategic communications for the fortunate Fortune 500s.

That firm was acquired by Interpublic Group of Companies and after 7 years the New York City team created G&A Institute to focus on corporate sustainability, responsibility, citizenship and sustainable & responsible investing.  All of us came equipped with a strong foundation of issue management, risk management, critical issues managements, and corporate communications experience and know-how.

“ESG” had just emerged as a key topic area about the time we began our publishing efforts and soon we saw a steady flow of news, features, research reports, opinions & perspectives that we started sharing.

We had worked on many corporate engagements involving corporate governance, environmental management, a range of societal issues, public policy, and investor activism.  Here it was all coming together and so the G&A enterprise launch to serve corporate clients!

By 2010, as we emerged from the 2007-2008 financial markets debacle, then-still-small-but-solid (and rapidly expanding) areas of focus were becoming more structured for our own information needs and for our intelligence sharing, part of the basic mission of G&A from the start. And so, we created the weekly Highlights newsletter for ease of sharing news, research results, opinion & perspectives, and more.

It is interesting to recall that in the early issues there were scant numbers of corporate CSR or sustainability etc. reports that had been recently published (and so we were able to share the corporate names, brief descriptions of report contents, links of those few reports).  That trickle soon became a flood of reports.

But looking back, it was interesting to see that at the start of the newsletter and our web sites, there were so few corporate sustainability / responsibility reports being published we could actually post them as news for readers. Soon that trickle of corporate reports became a flood.

A few years in, The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) invited G&A to be the data partner for the United States and so our growing team of ESG analysts began to help identify and analyze the rapidly-increasing flow of corporate reports to be processed into the GRI’s global reporting database.

Hank Boerner and Lou Coppola in the early days worked closely with Ken on the capturing and editing of content.  Lou designed the back end infrastructure for formatting and distribution.

Amy Gallagher managed the weekly flow of the newsletter, from drafts, to layout and then final distribution along with the coordination of a growing body of conference promotions with select partner organizations.

And now with a solid stream of content being captured today, all of this is a considerable effort here at G&A Institute.

Ken is at the helm of the editorial ship, managing the “AC” and “SHQ” web platforms where literally thousands of news and opinion are still hosted for easy access. He frames the weekly newsletter.

Today Ken’s effort is supported by our ESG analysts Reilly Sakai and Julia Nehring and senior ESG analyst Elizabeth Peterson — who help to capture original research and other content for the newsletter.

Hank and Lou are overall editors and authors and Amy still manages the weekly flow of activities from draft to distribution.  Our head of design, Lucas Alvarez, working with Amy created this new format. As you see, it is a team effort!

There is a welcome “flood” — no, a tidal wave! — of available news, research and opinion being published around the world that focuses on key topic areas: corporate sustainability, CSR, corporate citizenship, ESG disclosure & reporting, sustainable investing, and more.  We capture the most important to share in the newsletter and on our web sites.

We really are only capturing a very tiny amount of this now-considerable flow of content, of course, and present but a few select items in the categories below for your benefit.  (The target is the three most important stories or items in each category.)

Much more of the ongoing “capture effort” is always available to you immediately on the SustainabilityHQ web platform (see the “more stories” links next to each category of headlines).

We hope that you find Sustainability Highlights newsletter of value. It’s a labor of love for us at G&A, and we would like to get your thoughts and feedback …including how we can continue to improve it. Thanks for tuning in all of these years to our long-term readers!

TOP STORIES

As example of the timely news of interest for this week we offer these (two) commentaries on the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).  We are five years in/with 10 years in which to make real progress…where do you think we are headed?

As students and faculty head back to campus – there’s discussion about “sustainability” and “campus”:

 

Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

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

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories

The Financial Sector and Corporate Universe – the “ESG Factors” Are Now Everywhere When Companies Seek Capital

September 8 2020

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

The roots of today’s “sustainable investing” approaches go back decades; the organizing principle often was often around  what investors viewed as “socially responsible”, “ethical”, “faith-based” and “values” investing, and by other similar titles.

“SRI” over time evolved into the more dominant sustainable or ESG investing in the 21st Century — with many more mainstream investors today embracing the approach.

And busily shaping trends, there is a universe of ESG ratings agencies and information distributors providing volumes of ESG ratings, scores, rankings and opinions to institutional investor clients and a broad base of asset managers, index creators and more.

Recently, the three major credit risk agencies increased their focus on ESG factors for their investor and lending clients.

Access to and cost of capital for companies is a more complicated situation today for financial executives  — and the steady flow of “sustainable investing” products to asset owners and asset managers increases the importance of a publicly-traded firm “being in” the sustainable product for institutional and retail investors.

Such as having the company being present in an ever-wider range of ESG indexes, benchmarks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and now even options and futures.

All of this can and does increase pressures on the publicly-traded corporation’s management to develop, or enhance, and more widely promote the company’s “public ESG profile” that financial sector players will consider when investing, lending, insuring, and more.

The latest expansion / adoption of ESG approaches for investable products are from Cboe Global Markets.

The new “Cboe S&P 500 ESG Index”(r) options (trading starts September 21) will align with investor ESG preferences, says the exchange.

The traditional S&P 500 index is a broad-based equity benchmark used by thousands of investment managers and is the leading equities benchmark representing about 85% of total USA publicly-traded equities (all large-cap companies).  Availability to investment managers of the S&P 500 ESG Index is a more recent development.

The S&P 500® Index (equities) measures the stock performance of 500 large-cap companies whose issues are traded on US stock exchanges.  It was created in 1957.

The newer S&P 500 ESG Index targets the top 75% of companies in the 500 universe within their GICS® industry group.(Exclusions include tobacco, controversial weapons and UNGC non-compliance.) Asset managers link sustainability-focused products for investors to this index, including Invesco and State Street (SPDRs) for their ETFs.

Note that the S&P 500 ESG Index uses S&P DJSI ESG scores and other data to select companies for inclusion —  increasing the importance of the Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA) that for two decades has been used to create the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (“DJSI”). (The CSA is managed by SAM, now a unit of S&P Global.)

About Futures:  In November 2019 CME Group launched its CME E-mini S&P 500 ESG Index futures as a risk management tools — aligning, it pointed out, with ESG values.

About the CME Group: You probably know the Chicago-based firm by its units, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, New York Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Kansas City Board of Trade, and others.  The organization’s roots go back to 1848 as the Chicago Board of Trade was created. This is the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange trading such things as futures for energy, agriculture commodities, metals, interest rates, and stock indexes.

Investors have access to fixed-income instruments and foreign exchange trading (such as Eurodollars).  The “trading pit” with shouted orders and complicated hand signals are features many are familiar with. Of course CME has electronic platforms.

About Cboe Global Markets:  This is one of the world’s largest exchange holding companies (also based in Chicago) and offers options on more than 2,000 companies, almost two dozen exchanges and almost 150 ETFs.  You probably have known it over the years as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, established by the Chicago Board of Trade back in April 1973.  (The exchange is regulated by the SEC.)

The Cboe offers options in US and European debt and equity issues, index options, futures, and more.  The organization itself issued its own first-time ESG report for 2019 performance, “referencing” GRI, SASB, TCFD, SDGs, and the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE), Sustainable Stock Exchanges (SSE) initiatives. Now ESG is part of the mix.

Considering equities, fixed-income, stock indexes, futures, options, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, financial sector lending, “green bonds” and “green financing” – for both publicly-traded and privately-owned companies the ESG trends are today are very much an more important part of the equation when companies are seeking capital, and for the cost of capital raisedl.

And here clearly-demonstrated and communicated corporate ESG leadership is critical to be considered for becoming a preferred ESG issuer for many more investors and lenders.

Top Stories

Corporate Sustainability Reporting – Frameworks, Standards, Guidance – Summer 2020 Update

Have You Heard? Despite the Global Crises, Corporate ESG/Sustainability Reporting Momentum Continues to Build – Here, Some Updates For You on Focused on Corporate ESG Reporting Frameworks and Standards

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

This has been a challenging year. In January when I do my usual “crystal-balling” for the new year, the coronavirus was fast-spreading in Wuhan, China, and the world outside had not yet awakened to the serious threat the early infections posed to we humans.

The U.S. equities market looked very promising – but the markets would tank in March and then slowly recover. (As we write this the Nasdaq numbers and S&P 500 Index® levels have investors cheering – look at Nasdaq and the S&P 500!)

Despite the upheavals in 2020, Reporting Standards and Frameworks are continuing to evolve and especially to become more investor-focused

Investors, public companies’ executives, and sustainability reporting Standards and Frameworks organizations are not slowing the pace on advancing ESG / Sustainability / Corporate Purpose / Sustainable Investing et al, and advancing the cause by various means in this Summer 2020.

In the event that you have been busy this spring and summer (haven’t we all!) and perhaps missing something here and there, here are news items & developments for you to illustrate the forward momentum and increasing importance of ESG “etc” matters.

This update is focused on ESG reporting frameworks, standards and ESG disclosure guidance – this is the daily work of the team at G&A Institute.

UN Global Compact Celebrates 20 Years – And Builds on the Progress

It is 20 years now since the founding of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and the organization released its look back/look ahead report, “Uniting Business in the Decade of Action”. Each year the Compact surveys its participants to gauge the progress being made (or not).

This year the survey included a review of progress in complying with the Ten Principles of the Global Compact – and – corporate contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2020 Survey Findings:

  • 30% of companies responding believe they have targets sufficiently ambitious to meet the 2030 goals of the SDGs.
  • Fewer than a third of respondents consider their industry moving fast enough to deliver on prioritized goals.
  • Good news: 84% of UNGC corporate participants are taking some kind of action on SDGs.
  • Not-so-good: only 46% are embedding the goals into their core business.
  • Only 37% are designing business models to “contribute” to the 17 goals.
  • 61% say that their company provides some kind of product/service that contribute(s) to the progress of the SDGs (that level was 48% in 2019).
  • 57% measure their own operations’ impact on the SDGs.
  • 13% extend this to their supply base; and only 10% extend this to raw materials and product use.
  • 29% of companies advocate publicly to encourage action on the SDGs (this is a slide down from over half of companies in 2019).

Many companies focus on Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; and Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; less traction was noted for “socially-focused” goals (reducing inequality, gender equality, peace & justice).

The General Secretary of the United Nations has called on corporations to align their operations and strategies with the Ten Universal Principles of the Global Compact.

We are half-a-decade in now since goals adoption – with only one decade to go (years 2020 to 2030) to achieve the objectives.

More than 10,000 companies and 3,000 non-business entities (“signatories”) are participating in achieving the goals in some way, operating in 160 countries — and so, the UNGC has become the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Has your company signed on to the UNGC? Selected SDGs to build into your core business strategy and models? There is guidance for you in the UNGC report. https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/20th-anniversary-campaign

About the SDGs – MSCI’s New “SDG Net Alignment Factors”

MCSI, one of the major ESG rating firms providing significant research and analysis results to its global investor clients, expanded the model for evaluating company-level alignment to the UN SDGs.

The new tools will help capital market players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products. 

Subscribers to the firm’s Sustainable Impact Metrics now have access to the SDG Net Alignment Factors, which measures revenue exposure to “sustainable impact solutions and support actionable thematic allocations in line with impact frameworks like the UN SDGs.”

This approach will help investors to better understand what a company is doing with respect to the SDGs, what progress the company is making (or not), and related metrics that are being disclosed.

Institutional investor clients can use the information provided in developing sustainable investing products and services.

Corporate managers should be aware that the SDGs are getting more attention now as the last decade is upon us for achieving progress on the 17 goals/169 underlying targets.

MSCI’s Approach

The MSCI approach was developed in collaboration with the OECD and takes a “net impact” perspective to evaluate alignments of companies based on product and operations for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and there are 169 underlying targets for these).

The approach to “help institutional investors:

  • Measure and report on the degree of SDG alignment.
  • Develop SDG-themed investment products.
  • Meet rising demand to channel capital toward addressing the objectives of the Goals.
  • Identify companies better aligned with the SDGs based on a well-rounded framework that looks beyond [corporate] disclosure and considers positive and negative alignment.

Corporate board members and C-suite leaders note: In evaluating your company, MSCI’s approach will include qualitative categories indicating the degree of alignment and scores that assess:

  • Each public company’s overall Net Alignment for each of the 17 SDGs.
  • Product alignment – focusing on products and services with positive and negative impacts.
  • Operational alignment – internal policies of the company, operating practices to address SDGs targets, involvement in controversial activities.

The new SDG Net Alignment Framework is built on the MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics; these include:

  • New Sustainable Agriculture and Connectivity categories to provide additional areas where products and services align with the SDGs.
  • Expanded Fixed-Income coverage to align the MSCI ESG Ratings corporate coverage universe, bringing impact coverage to 10,000+ equity and fixed-income issuers.
  • Introduction of more granular “E” impact revenue sub-categories to enable a flexible application of MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics to a broad range of impact and sustainability frameworks.

The new service for MSCI clients began in August.

Note the OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and part of its mission is to establish evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges.

GRI – The Choice of Many Corporate Reporters for Guidance

The Global Reporting Initiative has its roots in the United States, with foundational elements put in place by (in that day) socially responsible investors, a few companies, and some NGOs.

In 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil in the waters over several days. In response, in Boston, Trillium Asset Management under the direction of Joan Bavaria worked to create a new organization — the “Coalition for Environmentally Responsible EconomieS” (now, known simply as Ceres) and created the Valdez Principles for companies to sign (to pledge to be more environmentally-responsible).

These became the Ceres Principles and over time contributed to the creation of the GRI and its first framework (“G1”).

The framework was continually evolving, becoming G3 and G4 and what would be G5 (Generation 5) are now the GRI Standards, a powerful guide for public companies to use to examine and decide on “what” to disclose against the Standards.

Companies can choose to report against “Core” or “Comprehensive” levels.

GRI has also aligned the Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that publishing a “GRI Report” becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

Note: G&A Institute is the designated Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In this role, we gather and analyze every report published in these countries and provide the analysis to GRI for inclusion in its comprehensive, global report database.

This is the largest collection of corporate sustainability reports going back to the first issued using “G1” in 1999-2000.

What’s happening now:

In June GRI announced an update to the “Universal Standards”. These are planned revisions such as address concerns in Human Rights reporting to move GRI Standards “closer” to inter-governmental instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Materiality” will be “re-focused” so that companies will report the importance of issues to stakeholders – rather than the customary approach of disclosing the results of a materiality assessment with focus on the company’s view of issues (regarding the economy, environmental matters, and people or human assets).

This will mean much more engagement with stakeholders to determine their perspectives to guide disclosures using the Universal Standards.

In the past, part of the guidance from the GRI was focused on “sectors”. Now, the organization is reviving Sector Guidance, which will support the Universal Standards. The sector guidance will link where possible with other frameworks and initiatives.

These steps are in the “disclosure draft” stage, with GRI gathering input to move to final adoption in 2021. GRI is inviting organizations – including companies – to be part of a “Global Standards Fund” to “safeguard and increase GRI’s to deliver the leading sustainability standards that encourage organizations to embrace responsible business practices.” It hopes to raise 8 million euros by 2022.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board – Guidance Issued

The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in their “mainstream” reports. (That is, “the annual reporting packages required to audited financial results under the corporate compliance or securities laws of the country in which they operate.”)

Think of the 10-k in the United States or annual report in the United Kingdom, and similarly required filings.

The guidance is similar to that of the TCFD  recommendations – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (organized by the Financial Stability Board, an arm of the G-20 nations, with the Task Force headed by Michael Bloomberg).

Important note: CDP advises that connecting CDP data with the CDSB Framework will help companies to successfully fulfill the TCFD recommendations.

The CDSB has been working on the Standards since 2007, and over time reflected on such developments as the 2015 Paris Agreement (or Accord) on climate risk.

In discussions with company managers and in our monitoring of corporate disclosure as the GRI data partner in the U.S.A., we see a wide range of opinions on just what “integrated reporting” should look like.

For some companies (not to be cute here) it boils down to have a 10-k and ESG report at the same time, often combined. Side-by-side, stapled in effect for a printed report.

Other firms may put financial/economic information up top and then build out a sustainability report with volumes of ESG data. We don’t see a lot of tieing the implications of that data to financial results, with top and bottom line impacts clearly spelled out.

Bloomberg – Launching E, S & G Scores – Oil & Gas Sector First Up, Along With Board Composition Scores for Thousands of Firms

This month Bloomberg announced it was launching new, proprietary ESG scores for 252 companies in the Oil & Gas Sector – and Board Composition scores for more than 4,300 companies. The scores are available in the professional services terminals service.

For the “E” and “S” scores of the companies in the Oil & Gas Sector, Bloomberg is highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to the sector.

For the Board Composition scoring, Bloomberg says it is assisting investors with information to assess how well a board is positioned to provide diverse perspectives, supervision of management, and assess potential risks in the current board structure.

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services – New Data Points For Investors

The long-time governance ratings and proxy guidance organizations were originally focused on “G” – governance practices – and expanded its work into “E” and “S” scoring and evaluations two years ago. (The “G” work goes back four decades.)

Now, “ISS ESG” (the responsible investment arm) is providing “best in class” fund ratings that assess the ESG performance of 20,000-plus firms around the world.

The new ratings will draw on ISS’s ESG ratings, governance data, norm-based research, energy and extractives’ screens, SDG impact ratings, carbon emissions analysis, shareholder voting outcomes, and more…resulting in a composite, holistic picture of a fund’s ESG performance.

Funds will be rated on a relative scale of “1” (bottom” to “5”, based on the fund’s standing within the Lipper Global Benchmark class.

The service is intended to have broad utility for investment professionals, such as fund managers and investment advisors.

This is still one more layer to add to the complexity of the capital markets competition for public companies.

G&A Institute Perspectives:
Inside the publicly-traded company, there may be a lively discussion going on among participants as the sustainability disclosures are prepared – for example, legal teams may frown certain ESG data revelations at times.

“Who is asking for this” may be a determinant in “what” gets disclosed. Lots of negotiations go on, we can tell you. 

But every year, more and more ESG data sets and narratives are published and corporate leaders in sustainability reporting set the pace for industry and sector.

The various reporting frameworks, guidance, standards that are available to corporate managers are a positive – here, including the framework (guidance) presented by the Standards of the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board. Information: https://www.cdsb.net/

G&A Institute closely monitors the corporate sustainability reporting arena and will share with you more updates as we see the need.  

Lots going on in Summer 2020 — be in touch with us if you have questions about any of this!  We’d like to be your sherpas and guides and navigators on the corporate sustainability journey!

Publicly-traded Companies Have Many More Eyes Focused on Their ESG Performance – And Tracking, Measuring, Evaluating, ESG-Linked-Advice to Investors Is Becoming Ever-More Complex

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

Some recent developments for consideration by the boards and C-Suite of publicly-traded companies as established ESG ratings agencies up their game and new disclosure / reporting and frameworks come into play.

The “Global Carbon Accounting Standard” will debut in Fall 2020. Is your company ready? Some details for you…

Financial Institutions – Accounting for Corporate Carbon

The Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF) was organized to help financial institutions assess and then disclose the Greenhouse Gas emissions (GhGs) of their loans and investments to help the institutions identify and manage the risks and opportunities related to GhGs in their business activities.

Think: Now, the companies in lending or investment portfolios should expect to have their carbon emissions tracked and measured by those institutions that lend the company money or put debt or equity issues in their investment portfolios.

The financial sector kimono will be further opened. This could over time lead to a company lagging in ESG performance being treated differently by its institutional partners, whether the company in focus discloses their GhG emissions or not.

For companies (borrowers, capital recipients), this is another wake-up call – to get focused on GhG performance and be more transparent about it.

This effort is described as the to be the “first global standard driving financial institutions to measure and track the climate impact of their lending and investment portfolios.”

As of August 3, 2020, there are 70 financial institutions with AUM of US$10 trillion collaborating, with 16 banks and investors developing the standard…to be a common set of carbon accounting methods to assess and track the corporate emissions that are financed by the institutions’ loans and investments.

Significant news: Morgan Stanley, Bank of America (owners of Merrill Lynch) and Citi Group are all now members of the partnership and Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are part of the PCAF Core Team developing the Standard.

The institutional members of the Core Team leading the work of developing the PCAF Standard are: ABN AMRO, Access Bank, Amalgamated Bank, Banco Pichincha, Bank of America, Boston Common Asset Management, Credit Cooperatif, FirstRand Ltd, FMO, KCB, LandsBankinn, Morgan Stanley, Producanco, ROBECO, Tridos Bank, and Vision Banco.

The work of the PCAF will feed into the work of such climate initiatives as the CDP, TCFD, and SBTi (Science-based Target Initiative).

The work in developing the “Standard” includes an open comment period ending September 30, 2020. The final version of the Standard will be published in November.

Morgan Stanley, in its announcement of participation, explained: MS is taking a critical step by committing to measure and disclose its financial emissions…and those in its lending and investment portfolio. As other institutions will be taking similar steps.

(Morgan Stanley became a bank during the 2008 financial crisis and therefore received federal financial aid designed for regulated banking institutions.)

Tjeerd Krumpelman of ABN AMRO (member of the Steering Committee) explains: “The Standard provides the means to close a critical gap in the measurement of emissions financed by the financial industry. The disclosure of absolute financed emissions equips stakeholders with a metric for understanding the climate impact of loans and investment…”

Bloomberg Announces Launch of ESG Scores

Bloomberg LP has launched proprietary ESG scores – 252 companies are initially scored in the Oil & Gas Sector and Board Composition scores have been applied for 4,300 companies in multiple industries.

This approach is designed to help investors “decode” raw data for comparisons across companies; Bloomberg now presents both (raw data and scores) for investors.

This offers “a valuable and normalized benchmark that will easily highlight [corporate] ESG performance, explains Patricia Torres, Global Head of Bloomberg Sustainable Finance Solutions.

There is usually stronger data disclosure for the Oil & Gas Sector companies, says Bloomberg (the sector companies account for more than half of carbon dioxide emissions, generating 15% of global energy-related Greenhouse Gas emissions).

Governance scoring starts with Board Composition scores, to enable investors to assess board make up and rank relative performance across four key areas – diversity, tenure, overboarding and independence.

Bloomberg describes the “E, S” scores as a data-driven measure of corporate E and S (environmental and social) performance across financially-material, business-relevant and industry-specific key issues.

Think of climate change, and health and safety, and Bloomberg and investor clients assessing company activities in these against industry peers.

This is a quant modelling and investors can examine the scoring methodology and company-disclosed (or reported) data that underly each of the scores.

Also, Bloomberg provides “data-driven insights” to help investors integrate ESG in the investment process. This includes third party data, access to news and research content, and analytics and research workflows built around ESG.

Sustainalytics (a Morningstar company) Explains Corporate ESG Scoring Approach

The company explains its ESG Risk Rating in a new document (FAQs for companies). The company’s Risk Ratings (introduced in September 2018) are presented at the security and portfolio levels for equity and fixed-income investments.

These are based on a two-dimension materiality framework measuring a company’s exposure to industry-specific material ESG risks…and how well the company is managing its ESG risks.

Companies can be placed in five risk categories (from Neglible to Severe) that are comparable across sectors. Scores are then assigned (ranging from 9-to-9.99 for negligible risk up to 40 points or higher for severe risk of material financial impacts driven by ESG factors).

The company explains: A “material ESG issue” (the MEI) is the core building block of Sustainalytics’ ESG Risk Rating – the issue that is determined by the Sustainalytics Risk Rating research team to be material can have significant effect on the enterprise value of a company within an sub-industry.

Sustainalytics’ view is that the presence or absence of an MEI in a company’s financial reporting is likely to influence the decisions made by a reasonable investor.

And so Sustainalytics defines “Exposure to ESG Risk” and “Management of ESG Risk” and applies scores and opinions. “Unmanaged Risk” has three scoring components for each MEI – Exposure, Management, Unmanaged Risk.

There is much more explained by Sustainalytics here: https://connect.sustainalytics.com/hubfs/SFS/Sustainalytics%20ESG%20Risk%20Rating%20-%20FAQs%20for%20Corporations.pdf?utm_campaign=SFS%20-%20Public%20ESG%20Risk%20Ratings%20&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93204652&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–uiIU8kSu6y0FMeuauFTVhiQZVbDZbLz18ldti4X-2I0xC95n8byedKMQDd0pZs7nCFFEvL172Iqvpx7P5X7s5NanOAF02tFYHF4w94fAFNyOmOgc&utm_content=93203943&utm_source=hs_email

G&A Institute Perspectives: Long established ESG raters and information providers (think, MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Bloomberg, Refinitiv, formerly Thomson Reuters) are enhancing their proprietary methods of tracking, evaluating, and disclosing ESG performance, and/or assigning ratings and opinions to an ever-wider universe of publicly-traded companies.

Meaning that companies already on the sustainability journey and fully disclosing on same must keep upping their game to stay at least in the middle of the pack (of industry and investing peers) and strive harder to stay in leadership positions.

Many more eyes are on the corporate ESG performance and outcomes. And for those companies not yet on the sustainability journey, or not fully disclosing and reporting on their ESG strategies, actions, programs, outcomes…the mountain just got taller and more steep.

Factors:  The universe of ESG information providers, ratings agencies, creators of ESG indexes, credit risk evaluators, is getting larger and more complex every day. Do Stay Tuned!


Corporate ESG Stakeholders – Materiality Matters – Quality Over Quantity to Have Compelling Reporting

August 10 2020

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

Will ESG/Sustainability be more or less in the forefront as economies attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?  Survey results vary, but a common theme is that materiality and quality of a company’s strategic sustainability focus and reporting will be expected.

Sustainability in Economic Recovery
A recent survey of publicly listed U.S. company executives by the Conference Board™ suggests that well over half (59%) believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have little or no negative impact on growing interest in company sustainability programs overall, while a majority within these results believe the pandemic may shift the focus of sustainability, e.g. more to people, supply chain, etc.

A survey of recent company announcements related to sustainability formed the basis for the article, Is sustainability undergoing a pandemic pause?  by Joel Makower, CEO of GreenBiz. He concludes that, “Unlike previous economic downturns, sustainability isn’t being jettisoned in the spirit of corporate cost-savings. It’s being kept alive as part of a pathway back to profitability.”

These are challenging but exciting times, and there is every reason to believe that ESG/sustainability can and will be in the forefront as companies, communities and countries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Materiality Matters
That said, heightened emphasis on materiality in sustainability reporting has gained traction, in response to perceived “greenwashing” by companies in sustainability communications.  The trap of greenwashing has been prevalent enough to frustrate many third-party stakeholders and gain attention across the field.

Most major voluntary frameworks for corporate sustainability reporting guidance now separately and collectively encourage companies to pay attention to the materiality of reported content. This includes GRI, SASB, IIRC, TCFD, CDP and others.

The Chartered Financial Association (CFA), the Big Four accounting houses, law firms and others are also stepping-up the pressure on corporations to bring sustainability reporting to a next level of materiality focus and quality.

Governance & Accountability Institute succinctly captures the breadth of concern,

“Materiality is an important cornerstone of an effective corporate sustainability process…Without an effective materiality process (and mapping) companies can waste time, effort, human resources and financial investment on issues that will provide little or no benefit in sustainability and responsibility reporting — or may even serve to further cloud and confuse the company’s stakeholders and shareholders…Companies committed to position themselves as recognized leaders in sustainability require the materiality determination process to be thorough, accurate, and effective to implement their Sustainability program.”

Compelling Reporting
Less-is-more… your company sustainability report need not be lengthy!  It needs to focus the reader on, where and how your particular company can effectively prioritize its sustainability efforts.

Those who read a lot of sustainability reports can quickly distinguish between sustainability platitudes and substantive content. The former can be perceived as a possible sign that the reporting company has not truly integrated sustainability into its business.”

As John Friedman writes in his newly-released book, Managing Sustainability, First Steps to First Class,

“For this reason, it is important, always, to adopt and use the language of business rather than advocacy or philanthropy when integrating sustainability into any business…too often sustainability professionals speak in terms of “doing well by doing good’ and the “Sustainable Development Goals” rather than the more compelling arguments that link sustainability programs to the established (and more familiar) business imperatives such as “improving business processes,” “implementing best practices,” and “return on investment.”

 A recent joint report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness report on ESG Reporting Best Practices, makes other relevant observations including:

“… materiality determination may differ based on the diverse characteristics of different companies…”

“… while the word “materiality” is used by some constituencies to connote different meanings, the term has a well-established definition under the U.S. federal securities laws”

 “Issuers preparing ESG reports should explain why they selected the metrics and topics they ultimately disclose, including why management believes those metrics and topics are important to the company.”

 “Disclosure should not be a tool for advancing interests that are not aligned with the company’s ability to create value over time”

 Company leadership may find that…

  • renewed attention to materiality can help streamline internal efforts and strengthen the basis of information that Company corporate communications and spokespersons rely on.
  • having a clear materiality basis enables your communications team to clearly indicate ‘n/a’ or ‘not material’ in some fashion, where applicable, as opposed to not responding or to staying silent within external sustainability reporting and questionnaire responses (obviously seek legal counsel as warranted).
  • having a clear ESG materiality basis can help avoid frustration, confusion, and misunderstanding in external communications – and, yes, minimize guessing or interpolation by third party stakeholders.
  • Renewed attention to materiality helps everyone focus on the substance of your company’s sustainability efforts, strategic positioning and reporting.

Ensuring the company’s sustainability and survival and contributing to the economic recovery post-pandemic are too important to waste time or money communicating trivial metrics.

Final Word
Sustainability is more important now than ever, as we urgently work together to lift our companies, economies and stakeholders up in the wake of the devastating pandemic.

This urgency will require every company to play to its strengths, stretch where appropriate and produce compelling sustainability reports (website and other collateral communications too).  It will require strength of conviction that materiality matters – courage to clearly communicate when particular large or small performance elements of sustainability framework guidelines do not apply to your company and are simply not material for a framework response or third-party consideration.

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

The S&P 500® Universe — Setting the Pace for Corporate Sustainability Reporting: 90% Mark Reached!

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

The popular corporate equity “baskets” including the Dow Jones Industrial Index, Nasdaq 100, S&P 500, the Russell 1,000 – 2,000 – and 3,000– in essence consist of the underlying value of the corporate shares in each basket (or benchmark for investors).

Today, there is an ocean of stock indexes for asset managers to license from the creators and then apply process and approaches for keeping track of the companies in the fiduciary portfolio, or to analyze and pick from the underlying issues for their portfolio.

Alternative benchmarks and indexes may be dependent on market cap size and have variations in the index family to fine tune the analysis (think of the varieties of Wilshire, Russell, S&P Dow Jones, etc.).

There has been a steady move by many asset managers from “active management” to passive investment instruments, with this transition key benchmarks become an important tool for the analyst and portfolio manager.

One large-cap index really dominates the capital markets:  The S&P 500.

G&A Institute’s Annual S&P 500® Research
Almost a decade ago, the team at G&A Institute began gathering corporate reports to build our models and methodology for guiding client’s corporate disclosure and reporting — and focusing especially on the structured reports of U.S. publicly-traded companies, we selected the universe of companies that the index creators include in the S&P 500 Index®.

Here’s why:  The S&P 500 Index is the most-widely-quoted index measuring the stock performance of the 500 largest investable companies listed on American stock exchanges.  Asset managers licensees like State Street, MCSI, Invesco Capital and London Stock Exchange Group use this index for their constructing ETFs and other investable products.

This universe of public companies provided for our team a solid foundation for tracking and analyzing the activities of these 500 companies as they began or expanded their sustainability reporting. In 2011, that first year. we found just about 20% of the 500 were publishing sustainability reports.

And here’s the dramatic news:
G&A’s just-completed report shows 90% of the S&P 500 companies produced a sustainability report in year 2019!

Tracking the Trends
Over the decade of close tracking and analysis of the 500 companies in the index, the good news is we saw the number of reports steadily grow.

We charted the broad impact of these market-leading enterprises on such reporting frameworks and standards as the GRI and SASB as those standards evolved and matured and were adopted by the companies in the 500.  We saw…

CDP disclosure steadily expanded in structured reports and (stand alone) corporate responses to CDP on carbon emissions, water, supply chain, forestry products.

The adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by companies as they were in some way conceptually a part of a company’s sustainability strategy (and subsequent reporting).

And more recently, there was the adoption of TCFD recommendations by corporate issuers in the U.S. – that began to show up in reports recently.

Starting with 2010 reporting, the first G&A analysis, we’ve shared the highlights of the research efforts.

Teams of talented, passionate and bright analyst-interns developed each year’s report (you can see who they are/were in G&A’s Honor Roll on our web site).  Most of the team members have moved on to career positions in the corporate, investment, public sector and NGO communities.

Download this year’s report, examining 2019 corporate sustainability reporting by the S&P 500 companies.

We’ve organized the deliverable for both quick scanning and concentrated reviewing.  Let us know if you have questions about the research results.

Stay tuned to G&A’s upcoming Russell 1000 Index® analysis of 2019 reporting.

This second important index/benchmark was created several decades ago by the Frank Russell Company and is now maintained by FTSE Russell (subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange Group)

The largest companies by market cap companies are available as benchmarks for investors in the S&P 500 (largest cap) and for the next 500 in the Russell 1000.

The ripple effects of the S&P 500 companies and more recently some of the Russell 1000 companies on corporate sustainability disclosure and reporting is fascinating for us to track.

Many mid-cap and small-cap companies are now adopting similar reporting policies and practices.  Privately-owned companies are publishing similar reports.  All of this means volumes of ESG data and narrative flowing out to investors – and fueling the growth of sustainable investing.  We find this all very encouraging in our tracking of corporate reporting.

Here are the details for you:

Top Stories

90% of S&P 500 Index Companies
Publish Sustainability Reports in 2019,
G&A Announces in its Latest Annual
2020 Flash Report

Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. – G&A Institute announces the results of its annual S&P 500 sustainability reporting analysis. 90% of the S&P 500 published corporate sustainability reports, an all-time high!


Adding Important Perspectives to G&A’s S&P 500 Research Results

What is Greenwashing? The Importance of Maintaining Perspective in ESG Communications
Source: AlphaSense, Pamela Styles principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC – “Greenwashing” can generally be described as ‘the practice of only paying lip service to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors with token gestures.’ In practice, greenwashing occurs when an organization presents…

New report measures boardroom diversity at top S&P 500 companies
Source: CNBC – There’s a renewed focus on diversity in the boardroom, but a new report shows not much is changing. CNBC’s Seema Mody reports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

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

Reporting and Disclosing Corporate ESG & Sustainability Results– Key Resources Roundup

By Kelly Mumford – Sustainability Reporting Analyst Intern – G&A Institute

Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, and Environmental Social Governance (ESG) – these are some of the key buzz words circulating in capital markets’ circles that have become increasingly more important to both investors and corporate leaders as the risks of climate change to business organizations steadily increase.

We are now at the critical tipping point where it is necessary for all businesses to publicly report on and in various ways amply disclose how climate related risks — and related opportunities – and other issues such as Human Rights and Human Capital Management (HCM) might affect their business. And, to disclose what they are doing to address and mitigate such risks.

A recent institutional investor survey report by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance that focused on ESG risk and opportunities found that investors recognize the growing risks of non-financial factors such as climate change, which is at the top of the agenda.

Climate change issues and human capital management were cited in the 2020 survey as the top sustainability topics that investors are focusing on when engaging with their boards.

Regardless of sector, all companies understand the importance of engaging with these topics. With that said, ESG and sustainability topics are playing a more concrete role in the private sector.

The good news is that there are significant resources available to help companies measure and report on sustainability and ESG, promote greater transparency, demonstrate better risk management, talk about improved performance, and in turn better promote the corporate brand value and reputation.

Such corporate disclosure and reporting have been shown to help to create higher shareholder returns and improve corporate economic performance.

With this in mind, standardized frameworks and indices are being used by corporations to provide more accurate and transparent information to their investors as well as all of their stakeholders.

However, as more diverse resources become available (examples are sustainability and responsibility frameworks, indices, and standards) there is also a need for distinctions to be made among them. To group all of these resources together would be inaccurate and misleading as each has unique advantages and distinction for both investors and corporate reporters.

Some of the key resources available in this space include: SASB, MSCI, Sustainalytics, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), Dow Jones Sustainability Index (the DJSI), TCFD, CDP, SDGs, and GRI.

To more easily understand their similarities and differences these can be grouped into broader categories. Such categories include: reporting standards, ESG ratings, indices, disclosure frameworks, investor surveys, and international goals. We’ll explain these in this commentary.

ABOUT CORPORATE REPORTING STANDARDS
The leading reporting standards present an effective way for companies to structure and publicly disclose “non- financial” information — such as strategies, actions, performance and outcomes for governance, environmental, and social impacts of the company. (That is, impacts affecting stakeholders, including investors.)

These important disclosures can be identified in the form of “sustainability, corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship” reporting.  Many such corporate reports explain how a company measures ESG performance, sets goals, and manages programs effectively – and then communicates their impact to stakeholders.

Reporting standards help to streamline the process of corporate reporting and allow stakeholders to better identify non-financial disclosures against widely used and accepted standards.

THE GLOBAL REPORTING INITIATIVE (GRI)
This is a long-established, independent organization (a foundation) that has helped to pioneer sustainability reporting. Since 1997 the organization has been working with the business sector and governments to help organizations (corporations, public sector and social sector organizations) communicate their impact and sustainability issues –such as climate change, human rights, governance and social well-being.

The current GRI sustainability reporting standards evolved out of four prior generations of frameworks dating to 1999-2000 (when the first reports were published, using “G1”) — and today is one of the most commonly-used with diverse multi stakeholder contributions to standards-setting.

GRI has been responsible for transforming sustainability reporting into a growing practice and today about 93% of the largest corporations report their sustainability performance using the GRI Standards.

  • Advantage of use for reporters: corporate reporting using the GRI standards helps to create consistent disclosures and facilitates engagement with stakeholders on existing and emerging sustainability issues. Further, use of GRI standards helps to create a more consistent and reliable landscape for sustainability reporting frameworks for both the reporters and their constituencies, especially including investors.

THE SUSTAINABILITY ACCOUNTING STANDARDS BOARD (SASB)
These more recent standards enable business leaders to identify, manage, and communicate financially-material sustainability information to investors. There are now 77 industry-specific standards (for 11 sectors) available for guidance.  These standards for an industry (and many companies are classified in more than one industry) help managers to identify the minimal set of financially-material sustainability topics and associated metrics for companies in each industry.

SASB standards help company managements to identify topics most relevant to their enterprise, and communicate sustainability data more efficiently and effectively for investors.

  • Can be used alone, with other reporting frameworks, or as part of an integrated reporting process. The G&A Institute team in assisting companies with their reporting activities use a hybrid approach, using both GRI and SASB as best practice.

 

ESG RATINGS/ DATA SUPPLIERS
A growing number of independent third-party providers have created ESG performance ratings, rankings and scores, resulting from assessment and measurements of corporate ESG performance over time against peers for investor clients. These ratings often form the basis of engagement and discussion between investors and companies on matters related to ESG performance.

There are several major ratings with varying methodology, scope, and coverage that are influencing the capital markets. Keep in mind there are numerous ESG data providers and ratings providing information to investors and stakeholders; however, for the scope of this post not all are mentioned.

INSTITUTIONAL SHAREHOLDER SERVICES (ISS) — ESG GOVERNANCE QUALITYSCORES(R)
ISS is a long-time provider of “corporate governance solutions” for institutional asset owners, their internal and external managers, and service providers. ISS provides a variety of ESG solutions for investors to implement responsible investment policies. The firm also provides climate change data and analytics and develops a Quality Score (for G, S and E) that provides research findings on corporate governance as well as social and environmental performance of publicly-traded global companies for its investor clients.

The ESG Governance QualityScore is described as a scoring and screening solution for investors to review the governance quality and risks of a publicly-traded company.

Scores are provided for the overall company and organized into four categories — covering Board Structure, Compensation, Shareholder Rights, and Audit & Risk Oversight.

Many factors are included in this score but overall the foundation of scoring begins with corporate governance, the long-time specialty of this important provider.

  • ISS Advantage: as a leading provider of corporate governance, the ISS ESG Governance QualityScore leverages this firm’s deep knowledge across key capital markets. Further, these rankings are relative to an index and region to ensure that the rankings are relevant to the market that the public company operates in.

MSCI ESG RATINGS
MSCI has a specific ESG Index Framework designed to represent the performance of the most common ESG investment approaches by leveraging ESG criteria. Indexes are organized into three categories: integration, values, and impact.

MSCI also creates corporate ESG ratings by collecting data for each company based on 37 key ESG issues. AI methodology is used to increase precision and validate data as well as alternative data to minimize reliance on voluntary disclosure.

Consider:

  • MSCI is the largest provider of ESG ratings with over 1,500 equity and fixed-income ESG Indexes. The firm provides ESG ratings for over 7,500 global companies and more than 650,000 equity and fixed-income securities (as of October 2019).
  • Advantages for investors: Focuses on intersection between a company’s core business and industry-specific issues that can create risks and opportunities. ESG ratings gives companies a rated score of AAA-to-CCC, which are relative to industry peers. Companies are rated according to their exposure to risk and how well they manage risks relative to peers. Companies are analyzed on calendar year basis and are able to respond to the profile developed for investors by MSCI analysts.

SUSTAINALYTICS
This organization rates sustainability of exchange-listed companies based on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance. The focus is on ESG and corporate governance research and ratings.

What makes them unique: their ESG Risk Ratings are designed to help investors identify and understand material ESG risks at the security and the portfolio level.

The corporate ESG risk rating is calculated by assessing the amount of unmanaged risk for each material ESG issue that is examined. The issues are analyzed varying by industry and depending on industry, a weight is given to each ESG issue.

  • Key: The assessment focuses on most material risks, using a two-dimensional lens to assess what risks the corporation faces and how well leadership manages the identified risks. Absolute ratings enable comparability across industries and companies for investors; corporate governance ratings are integrated into the ESG risk rating, and controversy research is also considered for the risk ratings. The performance is based on both quantitative metrics and an assessment of controversial incidents, allowing for the complete picture to be demonstrated with the ESG ranking.
  • Unique point: Total ESG risk score is also presented as a percentile so it can be compared across industries. This allows for a better understanding of how the industry performs as a whole, so to better assess how well a company is performing relatively.

SOME OF THE LEADING INDICES
Indexes / benchmarks help to make capital markets more accessible, credible, and products or approaches better structured for investors. They allow for performance benchmarks to represent how equity and/or fixed-income securities are performing against peers.

Specialized ESG indices specifically have been gaining in favor over the recent years as investors become more interested in responsible / sustainable investing. This out-performance is evident in the time of the coronavirus crisis with ESG funds inflow exceeding outflow of traditional indexes. Investors see this as a sign of resilience and excellence in risk performance for ESG companies.

It is evident that ESG index funds have been outperforming key core indexes — such as the S&P 500 Index(r). (The new S&P 500 ESG Index has been outperforming the long-established sister fund.)

Also, the growing abundance of ESG data and research has helped to promote the development and embrace of corporate ESG ratings, which in turn allows for the construction of even more such indices.

Because these indexes represent the performance of securities in terms of ESG criteria relative to their peers, it helps define the ESG market and availability of sustainable investing options.

There are now numerous ESG Indices available to investors – to cover them all that would require another blog post. So, for the sake of this brief post only DJSI is mentioned, as it is one of the mostly widely-known and frequently used by global investors.

DOW JONES SUSTAINABILITY INDICES (DJSI)
This is a family of indices evaluating the sustainability performance of thousands of publicly-traded companies. DJSI tracks the ESG performance of the world’s leading companies in terms of critical economic, environmental, and social criteria. These are important benchmarks for investors who recognize that corporate sustainable practices create shareholder value. The indexes were created jointly with Dow Jones Indexes, and SAM, now a division of S&P Global Ratings (which owns the DJSI).

  • This was the first global sustainability index – created in 1999 by SAM (Sustainable Asset Management of Switzerland) and Dow Jones Indices. Today, owned and managed by S&P Global Ratings.
  • Advantage for investors: Combines the experience of an established index provider with the expertise of a sustainable investing analytics to select most sustainable companies for the indexes from across 61 industries. Calculated in price and total return disseminated in real time. This is an important benchmark for many financial institutions.
  • Selection process is based on companies’ total sustainability score from annual SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (the important CSA that results in the corporate profile). All industries are included, and the top 10% (for global indices, top 20% for regional indices, and top 30% for country indices) of companies per industry are selected

CORPORATE DISCLOSURE FRAMEWORKS
Disclosure frameworks are used to improve the effectiveness of financial disclosures by facilitating clear communication about certain criteria. There are long-standing frameworks such as created by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) that establish standards for U.S. corporate financial accounting.

Similarly, there is now a suggested disclosure framework related to the corporation’s financial information but that focuses on climate related risks and opportunities — the Financial Stability Boards’ “Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures” — or TCFD. (The FSB is an organization of the G20 countries; member participants are the securities and financial services administrators and central bankers of the largest economies.  The U.S. members include SEC, the Federal Reserve System and the Treasury Department.  The FSB considers future regulations that could be considered in the member countries.)

As the capital markets players interest in corporate sustainability and ESG grows, and public policy makers recognize the threat of many ESG issues to the health of their nations, it is not surprising that there would be a specific resource developed for corporate climate-related financial disclosures.

Investors have a heightened awareness of the risks that climate change issues poses to their holdings, so it is now considered to be a best practice for company managements to report and disclose on these risks and responses to address them – using among other resources the TCFD recommendations for disclosure.  Here is what you need to know:

TASKFORCE ON CLIMATE RELATED FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES (TCFD)
Developed by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to encourage voluntary, consistent, climate related financial disclosures that could be useful to investors. N.Y.C. Mayor/Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg serves as the chairman and founder of the task force (which has a 32-member board).

The “TCFD” recommendations for corporate disclosure are intended to help both publicly-traded companies and investors consider the risks and opportunities associated with the challenges of climate change and what constitutes effective disclosures across industries and sectors.

This approach enables users of financial information to better assess risk and helps to promote better corporate disclosure. The recommendations call for disclosure around four core areas — governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics and targets.

To keep in mind:

  • The initial recommendations applied to four financial sector organizations (bankers, insurers, asset owners, asset managers). And to four industry categories – oil & gas; food & agriculture; transport; building materials and management.
  • Advantage for companies: following the TCFD recommendations represents an opportunity for companies following the recommendations to bring climate-related financial reporting to a wider audience.

INVESTOR-FOCUSED SURVEYS – CORPORATE RESPONSES
Investor interest surveys — such as those conducted by CDP – can provide an advantage for companies in responding to disclose important ESG data and take part in the movement towards building a carbon-neutral economy.

The information provided to CDP by companies makes up the most comprehensive dataset tracking global climate progress. Investors use these volumes of data on climate change, deforestation, supply chain management and water security to inform decision-making, engage with companies, and identify risks and opportunities.

Corporate response to the annual, global surveys benefits investors and provides companies with ways to inform investor engagement strategies.

CDP
Established by investors 20 years ago as the Carbon Disclosure Project, CDP today is an organization that supports the movement of cities and companies toward greater measurement, management and disclosure of key data and information to promote a carbon neutral economy.

These data helps to manage risks and opportunities associated with climate change, water security and deforestation. More than 2,000 companies in North America and 8,000 globally disclose data through CDP.

Disclosure is key, not only for measuring impact but also for setting goals and targets that enable climate action. CDP has been at the forefront of the disclosure movement to track and measure global progress towards building a more sustainable world.

  • Advantage: reporting to CDP is advantageous because it helps companies get ahead of regulatory and policy changes, identify certain ESG risks, and find new opportunities to manage those risks in a way that is beneficial for both business — and the planet.
  • TCFD Connection: The CDP response questions have been aligned with the TCFD and a good comprehensive CDP response can provide a baseline for a majority of the necessary disclosures for TCFD.

INTERNATIONAL GOALS – THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS (SDGS)
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are unique in that they are a set of widely-accepted international goals. Countries, cities, and companies all over the world and use these goals as a way to inform and inspire action on sustainable development goals. The goals are very broad in aims so it allows for parties to adapt and use the goals that are most relevant. They are non-binding and therefore their implementation depends on local government or corporate polices to be upheld.

These are a United Nations-developed plan to [among the goals] end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet. The SDGs succeeded the Millennium Goals (2000-to-2015) and extend collaborative and independent action out to year 2030 by public, private and social sector organizations.  The goals (17 in all with 169 underlying targets) have been adopted by 193 countries and emerged as a result of the most comprehensive multi-party negotiations in the history of the United Nations.

The SDGs focus on ways to generate impact and improve the lives of all people. The goals are related to themes such as water, energy, climate, oceans, urbanization, transport, and science and technology.

  • The SDGs are not focused on any sector or stakeholder in specific. Instead they serve as a general guidance that can be used at any level.
  • Distinctions: as one of the most widely recognized frameworks for corporate consideration, companies and stakeholders can use the Goals as a way to guide their sustainability initiatives. Many companies recognize them in corporate reports and many align certain aspects of their mission to relevant SDGs.

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AUTHOR’S CONCLUSION
As asset owners and asset managers now expect – and demand – greater corporate disclosure on climate change-related topics and issues, there are numerous resources available for managers to create and inform comprehensive, compelling reports for public access.

It is up to company leaders to identify the category of resources that would best benefit them, whether that be aligning with a disclosure framework, answering a CDP survey, or using ESG ratings. Most leading companies are taking a hybrid approach and utilizing the best features of the most common frameworks to maximize the ROI of their investments in this area.  We’ve identified some of the most-utilized here but there are still many more resources available in each category depending on industry, sector, geography, nature of the business, and other factors.

While the large universe and diversity of sustainability and ESG disclosure and reporting resources might be confusing to make sense of, it is increasingly obvious that investors are relying on ESG factors when making decisions and that the importance of climate change is only growing.

The team at Governance & Accountability Institute are experts in helping corporate clients work with the frameworks, etc. profiled here.  I serve as a reporting analyst-intern at, reviewing literally dozens of corporate sustainability / ESG / citizenship – responsibility – citizenship et al reports each month.

ABOUT KELLY MUMFORD 
Kelly Mumford is a graduate of the Development Planning Unit at the University College London. She graduated with a Master’s of Science in Environment and Sustainable Development (with Merit). Her course focused on environmental planning and management in developing countries and culminated with a month of field work in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She led a group during their research on the water and sanitation practices of a coastal community in the city of Freetown. Her work in preparation for this fieldwork includes a policy brief, published by their partner research organization.

Kelly has been very active in the environmental sector and prior to this interned at Natural Resources Defense Council. She holds a Sustainability Associate Credential from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals and has been an active member of the organization, planning and executing a successful N.Y.C. chapter’s whale watching event. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies and a minor in Spanish studies from the University of Delaware. She plans to pursue a career in sustainability, focusing on ESG and leveraging her research experience and knowledge of sustainability reporting.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Will We Ever See SEC Rules / Guidance For Corporate ESG Disclosure and Reporting? The Question Hangs in the Wind…

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

People have questions about corporate sustainability / ESG / responsibility / citizenship disclosure and reporting.  Such reporting has been on a hockey stick rise in recent years.

Should ESG/sustainability etc reporting be regulated?  How? What would be regulated in terms of disclosure and reporting – what should the guidelines for corporate issuers be?  Does this topic become a more important part of the SEC’s ongoing Reg S-K (disclosure) revamping? What information do investors want?  What do companies want to have covered by regulation?  Many questions!

Some answers are coming in the European Union for both issuers and investors with new and proposed regulations.

And in the main will have to come in the U.S.A. from the Securities & Exchange Commission — at some point.

SEC was created with the adoption of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The agency was specifically created by the U.S. Congress to oversee behaviors in the securities and markets and the conduct of financial professionals.

Publicly-traded company reporting oversight is also an important part of the SEC mission. The 1933 and 1934 acts and other subsequent legislation (all providing statutory authority for rulemaking and oversight) provide the essential framework for SEC to do its work.

As Investopedia explains for us, the purpose of the 1934 act is “to ensure an environment of fairness and investor confidence.”  The ’34 act gave SEC broad authority to regulate all aspects of the securities industry and to enforce corporate reporting by companies with more than US$10 million in assets and shares held by 500 or more shareowners.

An important part of the ongoing SEC’s mission, we should say here, is to protect investors and be open to suggestions “from the protected” to improve the complicated regimes that guide corporate disclosure. So that investors have the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.  Which brings us to S-K.

In recent months, the SEC staff has been working on the steps to reform and updates segments of Reg S-K and has been receiving many communications from investors to suggest reforms, updates, expansion of, corporate disclosure.  (Details are below in the news release from SEC in 2019. The SEC proposed rule changes, still in debate, are intended to “update rules” and “improve disclosures” for investors and “simplify compliance efforts for companies”.)

Regulation S-K provides standard instruction for filing forms required under the 1933 and 1934 acts and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975.

Especially important in the ongoing initiative to update Reg S-K, we believe:  the setting out for SEC staff and commissioners of facts and perspectives so that serious consideration is given to the dramatic sea changes in (1) the growth of sustainable investing and the related information needs; (2)  and, the vigorous corporate response, particularly in the form of substantial sustainability / ESG reports issued.

Most of the corporate reports published in recent years have been focused on the recommended disclosures as advanced by popular frameworks and widely-recognized reporting standards (such as those of GRI, SASB, CDP, TCFD, et al).

Will we see SEC action on S-K rules reform that will draw applause from the sustainable investors? Now, we point out, including such mainstream players as BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard Funds, to name but a few owners found in almost every corporate top holder list.

Ah, Depends.  Political winds have driven changes in rules at SEC. Then again, it is an election year.  (To be kept in mind:  There are five SEC commission members; two are appointed and confirmed Democrats, two are Republicans – and the chair is nominated by the president…right now, a Republican holds that position.)

Investor input is and should be an important part of SEC rule making. (All of the steps taken by the Commission to address such items as corporate disclosure and reporting in adopting or amending the rules have to follow the various statutes passed by the congress related to the issue.  Investor and stakeholder input is an important part of the approach to rule-making.  Sustainable investing advocates have been making their views abundantly clear in this initiative to update Reg S-K.)

The SEC Investor Advisory Committee formally makes recommendations to the agency to help staff and commissioners be aware of investor sentiment and help to guide the process through the advice provided.

Recently the committee voted to make recommendations to the SEC on three topics: (1) accounting and financial disclosure; (2) disclosure effectiveness; and, (3) ESG disclosure.

The committee said they decided that after 50 years of discussion on ESG disclosure it is time to make a move, now that ESG / sustainability are recognizably important factors in investing.  Given the current political environment in Washington, there probably won’t be much movement at SEC on the issue, many experts agree.

But the marker has been strongly set down in the committee’s recent report, one of numerous markers set down by sustainable investment champions.  

Commissioner Hester M. Pierce addressed the Investor Advisory Committee, and shared her perspectives on ESG reporting.  “The ambiguity has made the ESG debate a difficult one…”  She thinks “the call to develop a new ESG reporting regime…may not be helpful right now…”  (She is a Republican nominee, a lawyer in academia.)

We have included her comments in the selection of four Top Stories for you.  Another of the items – the comments of SEC Chair Jay Clayton along the same lines about ambiguity and confusion of ratings etc. (he is also a Republican appointee).

To which sustainable investing proponents might say – if not now, when, SEC commissioners!

While the conversation may at times be focused on “what do investors want,” there is also wide agreement among corporate boards and executives that guidance and standardization in corporate ESG / sustainability et al reporting would be very helpful.

With the current comments of the leadership of SEC we are not quite there yet.

Interesting footnote:  The October 1929 stock market crash helped to plunge the nation into the Great Depression.  The 1932 presidential elections resulted in New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a Democrat) moving to the White House in March 1933 and swiftly taking action to address important public policy issues.  He brought him his “brains trust”, experts in various public policy issues that helped to create sweeping reforms and creation of powerful regulatory agencies — such as the SEC.

The story goes that there was so much to do that the financial markets and corporate oversight legislation had to be divided into two congressional sessions – in 1933 and 1934 (the congress met for shorter periods in those days – the members were part-timers).  Thus, the Securities Act of 1933 and the 1934 act.

Regulation overall was then and today is a very complicated topic!

Top Stories

SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee Makes Disclosure Recommendations  (Source: Cooley PubCo)

SEC Chair Warns of Risks Tied to ESG Ratings 
(Source:  Financial Times)

In addition, see: