Expanding Public Debates About the “What” & “How” of Corporate ESG Disclosure

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

March 2, 2021

Corporate sustainability / ESG reporting — What to disclose? How to frame the disclosures (context matters!)? What frameworks or standards to use?  Questions, questions, and more questions for corporate managers to consider as ESG disclosures steadily expand.

We are tuning in now to many more lively discussions going on about corporate ESG / sustainability et al public disclosures and structured reporting practices — and the growing complexity of all this disclosure effort, resulting often in disclosure fatigue for corporate practitioners!

Corporate managers ponder the important question:  which of the growing number of ESG frameworks or standards to use for disclosures? (The World Economic Forum (WEF) describes some 600 ESG guidelines, 600 reporting frameworks and 360 accounting standards that companies could use for reporting.  These do vary in scope, quantity, and quality of metrics.)

In deciding the what and how for their reporting, public companies consider then the specifics of relevant metrics and the all-important accompanying narrative to be shared to meet users’ rising information needs…in this era of emergent “stakeholder capitalism”.

Of course, there is the question for most companies of which or what existing or anticipated public sector reporting mandates will have to be met in various geographies, for various sectors and industries, for which stakeholders.

We here questions such as — how to get ahead of anticipated mandates in the United States if the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) does move ahead with adoption of new rules or at least strong guidance for corporate (and investor) sustainability reporting.

The European Union is today ahead in this area, but we can reasonably expect the USA to make important moves in the “Biden Climate Administration” era.  (The accounting standards boards are important players here as well as regulatory agencies in the sovereign states.)

Company boards, executive committees, professional staff, sustainability team managers wrestle with this complex environmental (for ESG disclosure) as their enterprises develop strategies, organize data flows, set in place data measurement protocols, and assemble the ESG-related content for public disclosure. (And, for expanded “private sharing” with ESG ratings agencies, credit risk agencies, benchmark/index managers, to meet customer ESG data requests, and more).

The list of issues and topics of “what” to disclose is constantly expanding, especially as institutional investors (asset owners and their managers) develop their “asks” of companies.

Climate change topics disclosure is at the top of most investor lists for 2021. Human Capital Management issues have been steadily rising in importance as the COVID-19 pandemic (and spread of variants) affects many business enterprises around the globe.

In the USA, SEC has new guidance for corporate HCM disclosures.  Political unrest is an issue for companies.  Anti-corruption measures are being closely examined.

Diversity & Inclusion (including in the board room and C-suite) is growing in importance to investors.

Also, physical risk to corporate assets in the era of superstorms and changing weather patterns – what are companies examining and then reporting on?  Exec compensation with metrics tied to performance in ESG issues is an area of growing interest.

We are monitoring and/or involved in multiple discussions and organized initiatives in the quest to develop more global, uniform, comparable, reliable, timely, complete, and assured corporate sustainability metrics, and accompanying narrative.  And, to provide the all-important context (of reported data) – what does the data mean?  It’s a complicated journey for all involved!

This week we devote the content of this week’s Highlights newsletter to various elements of the public discussions about the many aspects of the journey.

Here at G&A Institute, our team’s recommended best practice:  use multiple frameworks & standards that are relevant to the business and meet user needs; these are typically then disclosed in hybridized report where multiple standards are harmonized and customized for the relevant industries and sectors of the specific company’s operations and reflect the progress (or even lack of) of the enterprise toward leadership in sustainability matters.

This approach helps to reduce disclosure fatigue for internal corporate teams challenged to choose “which” framework or standard and the gathering of data and other content for this year’s and next year’s ESG disclosures.

We shared our thoughts in a special issue of NIRI IR Update, published by the National Investor Relations Institute, the important organization for corporate investor relations officers:


Here are our top selections in the content silos for this week that reflect the complexity of even the public debates about corporate ESG disclosure and where we are in early-2021.

TOP STORIES

The ever-evolving world of ESG investing from a few different points of view. What are the providers of capital examining today for their portfolio or investable product decision-making?  Here are some shared perspectives:

Game Changing News on Climate Crisis Actions – President Biden Announces “Whole of Government” Plans

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

What a time to be a sustainability advocate – January 2021 is it!  There was significant news in the USA on matters related to meeting climate change challenges. Start with the Biden-Harris Administration bold moves on addressing the climate crisis…

President Joseph R Biden, in his first days in office signed Executive Orders to commit the “whole of government” to addressing the climate crisis in the USA — and around the world.

The President of the United States of America has broad, sweeping powers as the elected head of the Executive Branch of government.  Presidential EO”s must be anchored in the existing laws of the land (such as the Clean Air Act), be within the powers of the presidency as set out by the Constitution of the United States, and serve as the “directives” and instructions (as well as memoranda and “findings” and more) from the head of the Executive Branch to the organs of the Federal government of the United States of America.

The American Historical Institute explains the EO serves to deliver direct orders, intrepretation of law, provide guidance for future regulatory actions, structure government institutions or processes, and make political statements (foundations of policy). This is an often-used approach creating policy.

American heads of state have used the EO process at least 20,000 times dating back to the days of President George Washington – these orders can be challenged by the other two branches of the U.S. government (Judicial and Legislative).

The Biden Executive Orders are assembled in “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” – the EOs issued “take bold steps” to combat the climate crisis at home in the USA and throughout the world with many elements included (starting with rejoining the Paris Agreement). Consider:

  • The climate crisis will be “centered” now in U.S. foreign policy and in national security considerations.
  • There will be a climate leaders’ summit in the USA on Earth Day (in April 2021).
  • The Major Economies Forum will be re-convened.
  • A new Special Presidential Envoy is appointed (former Secretary of State John Kerry).
  • The USA’s process to address the “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC) called for in the Paris Accord is now underway.
  • The National Intelligence Estimate on security implications of climate change is to be prepared by the Director of National Intelligence for the White House.
  • The White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy is established (headed by former US EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy).
  • Important: the National Climate Task Force is created; this brings the top leaders of the Federal government across 21 agencies (all Cabinet officers) to implement the president’s climate agenda.
  • Clean energy job creation is an important objective – this to be part of the “Build Back Better” initiatives.
  • “Made in America” for manufacturing is a pillar; the Order directs all agencies to buy “carbon-pollution-free” electricity for all government facilities and clean, zero-emission vehicles to help create good paying, union jobs and stimulate clean energy industries.

There’s more – rebuilding infrastructure (focus on “green” here); advancing conservation; reforestation; revitalizing communities left behind as the transition to clean energy displaced workers in fossil fuel extraction and processing; developing approaches to secure “environmental justice” for communities; spurring economic growth; bringing science back into climate change discussions; creating a Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The White House is now reviewing more than 100 of the Executive Orders of the prior administration to reinstate protections for air, water, land and communities.

This is sweeping and presents abundant opportunities and risks for both the corporate community and the capital markets. (As the EOs were being announced, General Motors unveiled its plan to “go all electric” in vehicle manufacture by 2035!)

We have prepared a Resource Paper to explain and explore the many implications for the Biden-Harris Administration moves to address the climate crisis. You can download the paper here: https://www.ga-institute.com/research-reports/resource-papers/biden-harris-white-house-actions-a-ga-resource-paper.html

In the days ahead we will be preparing numerous commentaries for this blog on the many (!) developments aligned with, and supporting, the presidential moves of this week. Stay Tuned!

Turmoil in the USA / Washington Capitol Terror Attacks – Corporate Sector Responses to Threats to the Nation

Prepared January 20 2021 – Inauguration Day in the USA

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

These are troubled times in the United States of America. After the national elections in November 2020, political and social rhetoric became even more heated and widepread sharing of rumors and lies intensified than even in the weeks leading up to the ballots being cast by well more than 155 million citizens in the 50 states of the Republic.  (There are more than 200 million registered voters in all of the states.)

Moving toward the inauguration of the new president the major social media platforms unfortunately served as rioter assembly stations and important [negative] information sharing tools that helped to spread lies, rumors, and volumes of false and dangerous information.  The large platforms stand accused now of having helped to enable many thousands of protestors to travel to and assemble in Washington, D.C. for a January 6 rally that quickly spun out of control.

There will likely be short- and longer-term fallout here: What was a growing public debate on the role of social media and the focus on tech companies at the center of controversy (think of Facebook, Twitter, Google, others) quickly became a public ranting from all sides of the political spectrum.

The tempo of the public policy debate has sharply increased:  What actions should be taken to address concerns about the tech leaders and their role in spreading false and dangerous-to-democracy content? (Stay tuned to this important public policy debate in 2021.)

To recap what happened:  On January 6th, 2021 a mob of an estimated 8,000-plus men and women attended a rally and then took the point to travel with an even larger group behind them, along the major thoroughfares that lead from the White House and nearby National Mall to the Capitol Hill complex that houses the U.S. Congress (the House of Representatives and US Senate) -– ranting slogans and waving their flags along a brisk and angry 3.6 mile march (4.8 kilometers).

By the time the government complex on the hill was reached the point of the mob was out of control. The “tip of the spear” leadership group quickly pierced the Capitol Hill ramparts and the mob poured in behind to do their damage inside the halls of Congress.

The mob -– characterized by many now as being in fact domestic terrorists -– swarmed the complex, confronted a police force numbering about 1,400, swept past those guardians and into the Capitol Building to wreak havoc, steal items such as the Speaker of the House’s office laptop, and destroy government property.

They were there for hours. And much of this was broadcast live, on various news platforms and including on social media — by participants!

The mob even seemed to be threatening the very lives of the Members of House and Senate — and it seems, the well-being and maybe the life of the Vice President of the United States (Michael Pence) who also served as presiding officer of the US Senate during the crucial vote to accept the 2020 Presidential voting results. (The mob’s intention was to overthrow Congress and change the vote outcome to make Donald Trump the winner.)

The  widespread criticism of these actions was immediate; much of the American public was outraged. Anger was directed at the mob, at the social media platforms helping to spread the messages of the insurrection leaders and participants, at the President of the United States and his political allies for encouraging the unrest.

24/7, major news media published, broadcast and telecast news and the volumes of criticism — and, indeed the collective outrage of most of the nation – out to all of the nation and world.

A Day of Infamy for the USA – and Corporate Response

In Utah, the Deseret News described this in its headline as “Jan. 6, 2021: Another day that will live in infamy for Americans”.

An important sea change:  The corporate community, including major players in financial services sector industries, quickly became very visible among the critics. For some companies the silence about the “Steal the Vote” protests was a form of diffidence or even support. That changed!

Prominent corporate leaders and their trade associations blasted the actions, of both rioters and supporters, and took (and continue to take) actions in response to the horror that they witnessed. We bring you highlights of some of this initial response this week.

Following the attack there was dramatically expanding news of what was to come as a new legislative and executive branch was taking shape  -– the days after January 6th were climaxed by the inauguration of the new president and vice president on January 20th (done!) and the convening of a new US Senate leadership team (in process as we write this).

All of this news and opinion was being shared in the context of the continuing threat posed to the American nation by homegrown, domestic terrorists.

This is usually a time of great celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, a 200-plus year tradition in the USA that occurs every four years following the presidential elections.  Instead, these January days became a time of sorrow and sadness and disappointment.  All that was being reported out to the world as well.

The days leading up to the January 20th inaugural event had most Americans very jittery, with media reports of continued threats (such as possible physical harm to the national and state capitals, more heated partisan political talk, even the possibility of threats to human life posed by armed citizens in so-called ragtag “militias”).

There were more U.S. military members present in Washington DC on Inauguration Day  to protect our capital city than were present in the Middle East conflict zones.

The ongoing turmoil poses a serious threat to the American Experiment in Democracy as well as to the long-term symbolism of the Capitol Hill complex that many citizens of America (and even many in the world) consider to be a shining city on a hill, the citadel of democratic rule.

With this commentary we bring you some highlights of the immediate corporate sector response, and what some see as the responsibility of the corporate leadership to help move the nation forward.  The tempo of the corporate response is quickening and we’ll share more with you in our G&A Institute’s Sustainability Highlights newsletter and in this blog. 

TOP STORIES

Here is some of the immediate Corporate Sector responses to the mob’s January 6 attack on the US Capitol – with specific corporate responses that target the financial of candidate campaigns. The corporation’s role in society is in even sharper focus now.

Looking forward:  The news media is now also focused on the future – there is a new administration in place now, led by President Joseph Biden, VP Kamala Harris, and a  House and Senate led by the Democratic Party.  The focus on ESG issues is intensifying:

We will be sharing considerably more news along these lines in the days ahead. Stay Tuned!

Looking to 2021- Michael Bloomberg Advises: What President Biden Should Do

December 31, 2020

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

This is my last post of 2020 – indeed, a chaotic, challenging and tumultuous year for corporate managers and investment professionals.  And the rest of us!

At this time last year we were looking forward to continued peace and economic growth. That new virus spreading infection inside China was a blip on the horizon for many people. 

Most of us did not foresee the rapid spread of this dangerous virus to all corners of the globe, and the resulting tragedy of the immensity of deaths, as many families lost loved ones,  We were not adequately prepared for the resulting economic upheaval posing serious challenges to leaders in the private sector, public sector and capital markets.  At year end we are still working our way through the mess. 

And so we come the start of a new calendar year — 2021! — with all of humanity wishing for better days! 

Many eyes are on the United States of America, the world’s largest economy, which will soon have new leadership in the White House and the important arms of the federal government, the cabinets. Those are State, Treasury, Defense, Interior, Energy, Labor, Commerce, and other departments as well as in key agencies such as the Securities & Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).

The better days could start on January 20th when a new President and Vice President are sworn in and a new Congress will already be in office (the 117th Congress will convene on January 5th with 100 Senators and 435 Members of the House of Representatives). 

And there is much work for all of those leaders to do!  There are especially high expectations of soon-to-be President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris…and the men and women they will appoint or nominate (for U.S. Senate confirmation) to help in leading the USA forward, working in cabinet offices or federal agencies. .

President Biden has said that his will be the “climate change administration” and that meeting the challenges posed by climate change is a top priority.

What should / can be done as these leaders settle into the office?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, head of the Bloomberg LP organization — he with the loudest megaphone to reach and influence capital markets players, government leaders, NGOs, climate activists, multilateral organizations leaders, and many more leaders and influentials — has some specific suggestions for the Biden-Harris team as they assume office.

Here are some of the highlights of Mayor Mike’s suggestions:

  • “Biden Needs to Lead on Climate Reporting” (the headline of the editorial with the suggestions – there’s a link below).
  • Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement should be carried out and this will send a strong signal to the world. But that will take us back four years (when Secretary of State John Kerry led the US delegation in joining the agreement).
  • To move forward President Biden on his first day in the Oval Office should begin the effort to bring together the leaders of the G-20 nations (the world’s leading economies*)  to endorse a mandatory standard for global businesses to measure and then report on risks all nations face from climate change.

There are mechanisms and players in place to help make rapid progress.

Remember that Michael Bloomberg heads the TCFD – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures — which was formed by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) —  the board a creation of the G20 nations after the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis. 

The concept of the FSB is to serve as a sounding board and think tank for the leading economies of the world to address among critical issues risks to the financial system. 

This is the organization’s official description: “The Financial Stability Board (FSB) is an international body that monitors and makes recommendations about the global financial system.  The FSB promotes international financial stability; it does so by coordinating national financial authorities and international standard-setting bodies as they work toward developing strong regulatory, supervisory and other financial sector policies. FSB fosters a level playing field by encouraging coherent implementation of these policies across sectors and jurisdictions.”

This means that the FSB, working through its member organizations, seeks to strengthen financial systems and increase the stability of international financial markets. The policies developed in the pursuit of this agenda are then implemented by jurisdictions and national authorities.  

Members include the US Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve System, and the Securities & Exchange Commission.  

The TCFD is a creation of these and other members. 

The TCFD issued recommendations for companies to measure, manage and report on risks and opportunities related to climate change — which Mayor Bloomberg sees as key driver in directing capital to companies with smarter, more responsible leadership that protect and company and seize opportunities related to climate change.

The TCFD guidelines have been adopted or endorsed by 1,000-plus companies and organizations in 80 countries on six continents, Michael Bloomberg pointed out in his editorial.  Sovereign members of the G20 are among the endorsers — Japan, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom. 

And so the United States of America — the world’s largest economy — could serve as the catalyst, the unifier, the key player in the drive for adoption of global standards under Biden-Harris leadership. 

This would serve to bring a coordinated effort to deal with the challenges posed by climate change on a global basis, help to develop the right regulations for the world’s family of nations to develop uniform, comparable regulations for climate change disclosure and reporting, and remove uncertainty for corporate leaders and their providers of capital. 

Michael Bloomberg, whose own company’s widely-used platform (“the Bloomberg”) carries volumes of ESG data, tapping his own knowledge of ESG data, advises us that such data must be useful, comparable, and not be confusing (as is frequently now the case). 

Even with the increasing flow of ESG data, the world’s financial markets, Michael Bloomberg points out, operate in the dark today in terms of climate change – which he sees as the biggest risk to the global economy.

Michael Bloomberg is urging the Biden-Harris team to take action “…to help to develop a single global disclosure framework for climate risks that helps drive a faster and more effective response to climate change”.

Or else we will continue “with competing frameworks that make it harder for investors and businesses to identify risks, leading to more economic harm and lower progress”.

Mayor Bloomberg’s summing up his views:  “Climate disclosure is not flashy but it’s one of the important tools we have to speed progress on prevent climate change and economic hardship…which could dwarf the effects of the financial crisis.  The faster we make [disclosure] standard practice globally, the safer and stronger the economy will be.  The US can help lead the way.”

There’s the complete editorial and more perspectives shared at bloomberg.com/opinion.

And so we end 2020 (farewell!) and begin a new year, filled for many people with great hope and promise for better days.  Stay Tuned!  And best wishes to you for the new year.  

#  #  #

P.S. Michael Bloomberg was also the Chair of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Foundation, 2014-2018 and remains supportive of the organization.

You can follow Michael Bloomberg on his web site:  https://www.mikebloomberg.com/

*  The G20 nations are the USA, UK, Germany, France Italy, Japan, Canada (these are the G7); Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey.  Plus “guests” – Spain; two African countries; the International Monetary Fund; World Bank; United Nations; the World Trade Organization; the Financial Stability Board (all attend G20 summits).  

To understand the influence of the Financial Stability Board, here are the members: https://www.fsb.org/about/organisation-and-governance/members-of-the-financial-stability-board/

The members of the Task Force (TCFD) and other information: https://www.fsb-tcfd.org/about/

Watching the Major Stock Indexes – For Strong ESG Signals from the Corporate Sector

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

October 2020

Indexes – Indices – Benchmarks – these are very important financial analysis and portfolio management tools for asset owners and their internal and external managers.

We can think of them as a sort of report card; fiduciaries can track their performance against the benchmark for the funds they manage; financial sector players can develop products for investment (mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds, separate accounts and so on) to market to investors using the appropriate benchmark.

If the investable products are focused on the available equities of the largest market cap companies for investment, the most widely-used indexes will likely be the S&P 500®, created back in March 1957 by Standard & Poor’s and the Russell 1000®, created in 1984 by the Frank Russell Company.

Today the S&P 500 Index is managed by the S&P Global organization.  The Russell 1000 is managed by FTSE Russell, a unit of the LSE Group (London Stock Exchange Group).

There are more or less 500 corporate entities in the S&P 500 Index that measures the equity performance of these companies (those listed on major exchanges).

There are other important indexes by S&P for investors to track:  The S&P Global 1200, S&P MidCap 400, and S&P SmallCap 600, and many more.

Russell 1000® is a subset of the Russell 3000®; it is comprised of the 1000 largest market cap companies in the USA. The R1000 represents more than 90% of the USA’s top publicly-traded companies in the large-cap category.  Both indexes are very important tools for professional investment managers and send strong trending signals to the capital markets.

The G&A Institute team closely tracks the ESG and sustainability  disclosure & reporting practices and each year; since 2010 we’ve published research on the trends, first with the S&P 500, and for 2019 and 2020, we expanded our research into to the larger Russell 1000 index. (The top half of the 1000 roughly mirrors the S&P 500.)

The 500 and 1000 companies are important bellwethers in tracking the amazing expansion of corporate sustainability reporting over the past decade.  Yes, there were excellent choices of select benchmarks for sustainable and responsible investors going back several decades – such as the Domini 400, going back to 1990 — and we tracked those as well.  (The “400” was renamed the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index in 2010).

But once major publicly-traded companies in the United States began escalating the pace of sustainability and ESG reporting, many more investors paid attention.  And media tuned in.  And then the ESG indexes proliferated like springtime blooms!

Those bigger customers (the large cap companies) of other firms began expanding their  ESG “footprint” and considering the supply and sourcing partners to be part of their ESG profile.  So, customers are now queried regularly on their ESG performance and outcomes.

Once the critical mass — 90% of large-cap U.S. companies reporting in our latest S&P 500 research – how long will it be for many more mid-caps, small-caps, privately-owned enterprises to follow the example?  Very soon, we think.  And we’re closely watching!  (And will bring the news to you.)

If you have not reviewed the results of the G&A Institute research on the ESG reporting of the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 for 2019, here are the links:

Note:  Click here for more helpful background on the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 large equities/stock indexes, here is Investopedia’s explanation.

Excellent Wrap up From GreenBiz:
At last, corporate sustainability reporting is hitting its stride

About “Stakeholder Capitalism”: The Public Debate

Here is the Transition — From the Long-Dominant Worldview of “Stockholder Capitalism” in a Changed World to…Stakeholder Capitalism!

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

October 2020

As readers of of G&A Institute’s weekly Sustainability Highlights newsletter know, the shift from “stockholder” to “stakeholder” capitalism has been underway in earnest for a good while now — and the public dialogue about this “21st Century Sign of Progress” has been quite lively.

What helped to really frame the issue in 2019 were two developments:

  • First, CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management firm (BlackRock) sent a letter in January 2019 to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to focus on societal purpose (of course, in addition to or alongside of corporate mission, and the reasons for being in business).
  • Then in August, the CEOs of almost 200 of the largest companies in the U.S.A. responded; these were members of influential Business Roundtable (BRT), issuing an update to the organization’s mission statement to embrace the concepts of “purpose” and further cement the foundations of stakeholder capitalism.

These moves helped to accelerate a robust conversation already well underway, then further advanced by the subset discussion of Corporate America’s “walking-the-talk” of purpose et al during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now we are seeing powerful interests weighing in to further accelerate the move away from stockholder primacy (Professor Milton Friedman’s dominant view for decades) to now a more inclusive stakeholder capitalism.  We bring you a selection of perspectives on the transition.

The annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland this year — labeled the “Sustainable Development Impact Summit” — featured a gaggle of 120 of the world’s largest companies collaborating to develop a core set of common metrics / disclosures on “non-financials” for both investors and stakeholders. (Of course, investors and other providers of capital ARE stakeholders — sometimes still the inhabiting the primacy space on the stakeholder wheel!)

What are the challenges business organizations face in “making business more sustainable”?

That is being further explored months later by the World Economic Forum (WEF-the Davos organizers) — including the demonstration (or not) of excellence in corporate citizenship during the Covid-19 era. The folks at Davos released a “Davos Manifesto” at the January 2020 meetings (well before the worst impacts of the virus pandemic became highly visible around the world).

Now in early autumn 2020 as the effects of the virus, the resulting economic downturn, the rise of civil protests, and other challenges become very clear to C-suite, there is a “Great Reset” underway (says the WEC).

The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window opportunity to “reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”

New ESG reporting metrics released in September by the World Economic Forum are designed to help companies report non-financial disclosures as part of the important shift to Stakeholder Capitalism.

There are four pillars to this approach:  People (Human Assets); Planet (the impact on natural environment); Prosperity (employment, wealth generation, community); and Principles of Governance (strategy, measuring risk, accounting and of course, purpose).

The WEF will work with the five global ESG framework and standard-setting organizations as we reported to you recently — CDSB, IIRC, CDP, GRI, SASB plus the IFAC looking at a new standards board (under IFRS).

Keep in mind The Climate Disclosure Standards Board was birthed at Davos back in 2007 to create a new generally-accepted framework for climate risk reporting by companies. The latest CDSB report has 21 core and 34 expanded metrics for sustainability reporting. With the other four collaborating organizations, these “are natural building blocks of a single, coherent, global ESG reporting system.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, another of the collaborators) weighed in to welcome the WEF initiative (that is in collaboration with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC) to move toward common ESG metrics. And all of this is moving toward “COP 26” (the global climate talks) which has the stated goal of putting in place reporting frameworks so that every finance decision considers climate change.

“This starts”, says Mark Carney, Governor, Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, “with reporting…this should be integrated reporting”.

Remember, the FSB is the sponsor of the TCFD for climate-related financial disclosure.  FSB is a collaboration of the central banks and treasury ministries of the G-20 nations.

“COP 26 was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and was postponed due to the pandemic. We are now looking at plans for a combined 26 and 27 meeting in November 2021.”  Click here for more information.

There is a lot of public dialogue centered on these important moves by influential players shaping and advancing ESG reporting — and we bring you a selection of those shared perspectives in our Top Stories in the Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.

Top Stories On Davos & More

And then there is this, in the public dialogue on Stakeholder Capitalism, adding a dash of “reality” from The New York Times:

Corporate Sustainability Reporting: Changes in the Global Landscape – What Might 2021 Bring?

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

Change is a-coming – quite quickly now – for corporate sustainability reporting frameworks and standards organizations.  And the universe of report users.

Before the disastrous October 1929 stock market crash, there was little in the way of disclosure and reporting requirements for companies with public stockholders. The State of New York had The Martin Act, passed in 1921, a “blue sky law” that regulates the sales and trades of public companies to address fraud issues.  That was about it for protecting those buying shares of public companies of the day.

Under the 100 year old Act, the elected New York State Attorney General is the “Sheriff of Wall Street — and this statute is still in effect. (See: AG Eliot Spitzer and his prosecution of the 10 large asset managers for analyst shenanigans.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected two-term governor of NY before his election to the highest office in November 1932, brought along a “brains trust” to Washington and these colleagues shaped the historic 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Securities Exchange Act to regulate corporate disclosure and Wall Street activities.

Story goes there was so much to put in these sweeping regulations for stock exchanges, brokerage houses, investor protection measures and corporate reporting requirements that it took two different years of congressional action for passage into law in the days when Congress met only briefly and then hastened home to avoid the Washington DC summer humidity and heat.

The Martin Act was a powerful influence on the development of foundational federal statutes that are regularly updated to keep pace with new developments (Sarbanes-Oxley, 2002, updated many portions of the 1934 Act).

What was to be disclosed and how? Guidance was needed by the corporate boards and executives they hired to run the company in terms of information for the company’s investors. And so, in a relatively short time “Generally Applied Accounting Principles” began to evolve. These became “commonly accepted” rules of the road for corporate accounting and financial reporting.

There were a number of organizations contributing to GAAP including the AICPA. The guiding principles were and are all about materiality, consistency, prudence (or moderation) and objectivity like auditor independence verifying results.

Now – apply all of this (the existing requirements to the Wild West of the 1920s leading up to the 1929 financial crash that harmed many investors — and it reminds one of the situations today with corporate ESG, sustainability, CR, citizenship reporting.  No generally applied principles that all can agree to, a wide range of standards and frameworks and guidance and “demands” to choose from, and for U.S. companies much of what is disclosed is on a voluntary basis anyway.

A growing chorus of institutional investors and company leaders are calling for clear regulatory guidance and understanding of the rules of the road from the appointed Sheriffs for sustainability disclosures – especially in the USA, from the Securities & Exchange Commission…and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), now the two official keepers of GAAP.

FASB was created in the early 1970s – by action of the Congress — to be the official keeper of GAAP and the developer of accounting and reporting rules.  SOX legislation made it official; there would be two keepers of GAAP — SEC and FASB.  GAAP addressed material financial issues to be disclosed.

But today for sustainability disclosure – what is material?  How to disclose the material items?  What standards to follow?  What do investors want to know?

Today corporates and investors debate the questions:  What should be disclosed in a consistent and comparable way? The answers are important to information users. At the center of discussion: materiality everyone using corporate reports in their analysis clamors for this in corporate sustainability disclosure.

Materiality is at the heart of the SASB Standards now developed for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors. Disclosure of the material is an important part of the purpose that GAAP has served for 8-plus decades.

Yes, there is some really excellence guidance out there, the trend beginning two decades ago with the GRI Framework in 1999-2000. Publicly-traded companies have the GRI Standards available to guide their reporting on ESG/sustainability issues to investors and stakeholders.

There is the SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA), now managed entirely by S&P Global, and available to invited companies since 1999-2000. (SAM was RobecoSAM and with Dow Jones Indexes managed the DJ Sustainability Indexes – now S&P Global does that with SAM as a unit of the firm based in Switzerland.)

Since 2000, companies have had the UN Global Compact principles to include in their reporting. Since 2015 corporate managers have had the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to report on (and before that, the predecessor UN Millennium Development Goals, 2000-2015). And the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations were put in place in 2017.

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in February 2010 issied “guidance” to publicly-traded companies reminded corporate boards of their responsibility to oversee risk and identified climate change matters as an important risk in that context.

But all of these standards and frameworks and suggested things to voluntarily report on — this is today’s thicket to navigate, picking frameworks to be used for telling the story of the company’s sustainability journey.

Using the various frameworks to explain strategy, programs, actions taken, achievements, engagements, and more – the material items. Profiling the corporate carbon footprint in the process. But there is no GAAP to guide the company for this ESG reporting, as in the example of financial accounting and reporting.

Institutional investors have been requesting more guidance from the SEC on sustainability et al reporting.  But the commission has been reluctant to move much beyond the 2010 risk reminder guidance even as literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies expand their voluntary disclosure.  And so we rely on this voluntary disclosure on climate change, diversity & inclusion efforts, political spending, supply chain management, community support, and a host of other ESG issues. (Human Capital Management was addressed in the recent Reg S-K updating.)

We think 2021 will be an interesting year in this ongoing discussion – “what” and “how” should companies be disclosing on sustainability topics & issues.

The various providers of existing reporting frameworks and standards and those influencing the disclosures in other ways are moving ahead, with workarounds where in the USA government mandates for sustainability reporting do not yet exist.

We’ve selected a few items for you to keep up with the rapidly-changing world of corporate ESG disclosures in our Top Stories and other topic silos.

There are really important discussions!  We watch these developments intently as helping corporate clients manage their ESG / sustainability disclosures is at the heart of our team’s work and we will continue to keep sharing information with you in the Highlights newsletter.

More about this in The Wall Street Journal with comments from G&A’s Lou Coppola: Companies Could Face Pressure to Disclose More ESG Data (Source: The Wall Street Journal)
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Corporate Sustainability Performance – Setting the Stage for ESG Data Analysis by Humans and AI Bots Alike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: UNPRI

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

Data Use

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

Research of Value

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

Important Perspective

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

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

Artificial Intelligence

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

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

The Human Element

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

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

The Final Word

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

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

Advancing Toward a Circular New York

By Kirstie Dabbs – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions.

A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.

What is the Circular Economy?

Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources.

Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources to make products that are used and disposed of before the end of their useful life, a circular economy follows three core principles to extend the value of existing resources and reduce the need to extract new resources:

  • Design out waste.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

These three principles — as put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — create opportunities to reduce and potentially eliminate waste,  from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.

Materials Matter

In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture products with recycled materials, companies will drive demand for more post-consumer feedstock, further reducing waste to landfill which is aligned with the City’s waste-reduction goal.

Companies can also choose to manufacture products using responsibly sourced bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life with the appropriate infrastructure in place.

WinCup and Eco-Products are examples of companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports New York City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.

Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand

In addition to applying material design principles to divert material from landfill, companies can deploy design and marketing strategies to keep their products in use longer.

Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product.

Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation.

According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.

How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.”

A recent press release from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”

New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy

Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles.

According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners — an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy — the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.

The New New York Circular City Initiative

Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month.

One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.

The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.

# # #

Kirstie Dabbs is pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainability with focus on Circular Value Chain Management at Bard College.  She is currently an analyst-intern at G&A Institute working on GRI Data Partner assignments and G&A research projects. In her role as an Associate Consultant for Red Queen Group in NYC she provides organization analyses and support for not-for-profits undergoing strategic or management transitions.

 

Profile:  https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/kirstie-dabbs.html

 

This article was originally published on the GreenHomeNYC blog on September 28, 2020.

 

The United Nations at 75 Years This Week – Corporate CEOs Around the Globe Pledge Support of the Missions

October 20, 2020

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

Three-quarters of a century of serving humanity — the family of nations celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations on October 24th.

After the global conflict of World War Two, with great losses of life, liberty and property, 51 nations of world gathered in San Francisco to put the Charter into force — to collectively explore a better way forward with collaboration not confrontation.  (The Charter was signed as the war was ending in the Pacific and had ended in May in Europe).  We can say that on October 24, 1945, the United Nations “officially” came into existence with the ratification of the Charter by nations and the gathering of delegates.

The United Nations members states — the global family of sovereign nations collaborating peacefully for seven-plus decades to address common challenges — got good news in its 75th anniversary year.

More than one thousand business leaders from 100+ nations endorsed a Statement of Renewed Global Cooperation, pledging to further unite in helping to help to make this a better world…for the many, not the few. Some of the world’s best known brand marketers placed their signatories on the document.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres received the CEOs’ messages of support at a Private Sector Forum during the recent General Assembly in New York (September).

The Statement from Business Leaders for Renewed Global Cooperation was created as the nations of the world are coping with the impacts of the Coronavirus, domestic and global economic slowdown, rising political and civic unrest, wars in different regions, critical climate change challenges, the rising demand for equality of opportunity, and more.

The corporate CEOs’ public commitments included demonstration of ethical leadership and good governance (the “G” in ESG!) through values-based strategies, policies, operations and relationships when engaging with all stakeholders.

Now is the opportunity, the statement reads, to realign behind the mission of the UN to steer the world onto a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable path. We are in this together – and we are united in the business of a better world.

“Who” is the “We”? Leaders of prominent brands signing on include Accenture, AstraZeneca, BASF, CEMEX, The Clorox Company, Johnson & Johnson, Moody’s, Nestle, Thomson Reuters, S&P Global, Salesforce, Tesla, and many other consumer and B-to-B marketers. (The complete list of large-cap and medium and small companies accompanies the Statement at the link.)

There are many parts of the global community’s “meeting place” (the UN) that touch on the issues and topics that are relevant to us, the folks focused on sustainability. Think of the work of:

UN Global Compact (UNGC)
This is a non-binding pact (a framework) to encourage enterprises to voluntarily adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies and report on same; 12,000+ entities in 160 countries have signed on to date (the Compact was created in July 2000).

UN Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI)
Founded 2006, this is a global network of financial institutions and others in the capital markets pledging to invest sustainably, using 6 principles and reporting annually; today, there are 7,000+ signatories to date in 135 countries; this is in partnership with UNGC and the UNEP Finance Initiative.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The SDGs (17 goals with 169 targets) build on the earlier Millennium Development Goals MDGs- (2000-2015).

The Paris Agreement builds on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) plays important roles in protecting the world’s environment.

In all, there are almost three dozen affiliated organizations working to advance humanity through the United Nations System.

 

SHARED PERSPECTIVES: FAYE LEONE
With all of this activity, the UN needs support, and shared ideas, to build even stronger foundations. Our colleague, G&A Institute Senior Sustainability Content Writer Faye Leone, has a decade of experience reporting on the UN.

Her perspectives: “It is exactly right for business leaders to express support for global cooperation– not competition- at this time. This is in the spirit of the UN’s 75th anniversary and critical for the next big challenge for multilateralism and solidarity: to fairly provide a safe vaccine for COVID-19.”

She explains that leading up to its 75th anniversary in September 2020, the UN conducted a year-long ‘listening campaign”. The results, after over one million people around the world participated!

They said they do not want “more of the same” from the UN.  They overwhelmingly called for a more inclusive, diverse, and transparent UN that does a better job of incorporating businesses, cities, vulnerable peoples, women, and young people. They also said the UN should be more innovative.

(View Source)

The Sustainable Development Goals, says Faye, can help with that.  The 17 goals “provide a common language for everyone to combine their strengths. According to the head of B Lab, business’ role is to participate in delivering on the SDGs, use the power of business to solve the world’s most urgent problems, and inspire others to do the same”.

(View Source)

Read more about the UN’s 75th anniversary through Faye’s work with IISD here.

Read more about the UN’s 75th anniversary here.

Mark October 24 on your calendar. That’s the day we commemorate the UN’s official founding after WW II (on 24 October 1945). We invite you to think about how you can support the UN moving toward the century-of-service mark in 25 years (2025) – and what ideas you can share to help this organization of the family of nations to address 21st Century challenges!

TOP STORY