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.  

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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)
TOP STORIES

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

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”:

 

Americans Tuning in to Sustainability During Crises, Expecting “More” from Government and Corporate Sector

August 27 2020

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

According to responses to a June on-line survey of 2,000 adults in the U.S.A. for “clean manufacturing” leader Genomatica, sustainability is now a top-of-mind issue, with an overwhelming majority (85% of respondents) of Americans indicating they’ve been thinking about sustainability the same amount or more…and 56% want brands and government to prioritize sustainability even in the midst of the crises (Coronavirus, economic downturn – plus civil unrest).

According to Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling: “The collective consciousness on sustainability is rising, and certainly faster than most would have expected during these unprecedented times.

While this shift has been underway for decades, and is particularly strong in Europe, many of us in the U.S. have been inspired by the rapid improvement in air quality and traffic that shine a bright light on how our behaviors and decisions impact our environment and quality of life.”

Other interesting survey findings:

  • 59% of Americans say working from home is more sustainable than working in an office.
  • 37% of Americans are willing to pay a little more for sustainable products, even during an economic downturn. Gen-Z is the most willing age group, at 43%.
  • Half of Americans won’t be comfortable using sharing economy services like Uber or Airbnb (53%), riding public transportation (54%) or carpooling (50%) until there is a vaccine, if ever.

There’s more findings in the Top Story link below:

Part of the “sustainability thinking” is about personal investments…and how to do well financially while doing good with one’s financial activities.

A new report published by the foundation of The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) explores the growth of passive ESG investing and the outpace of investor flows into passive vs. active ESG funds.

The report shows that “net flows into passively-managed ESG funds have in recent years outpaced net flows into their actively managed counterparts” — despite the fact that “the vast majority of sustainably-invested assets are in actively-managed ESG funds.”

Meg Voorhes, Director of Research at the US SIF Foundation explains:  “The advent of passive ESG funds provides more options to investors seeking sustainable impact, and we encourage these fund managers to make commitments to comprehensive ESG approaches.”

Follow Up to Last Week
In last week’s Highlights we told you about Morgan Stanley’s pioneering move to join the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (“PCAF”).  The update:  Citi and Bank of America are on board, too.  Great news moving toward the low-carbon economy. 

Citi, Bank of America join Morgan Stanley in carbon-disclosure group

Individual news releases from the banks with the details:

As “Corporate Citizen” Working In Many Lands – This Can Be Challenging, As Corporate Experiences With China Show…

Another in the series The Corporate Citizen and Society – the Dynamics of the Relationship

Started in Autumn 2019 – drafting interrupted – further edited in June 2020 – and posted in September 2020. 

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

Running a multi-national business today is quite challenging, especially for firms with “footprints” of size in countries beyond the homeland.

Recently we have been watching some critical events…at times crisis situations…that senior executives are navigating. 

Of course, corporate leaders are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic – and civil protests in many cities and towns related to equality issues and objections to current methods of policing. – and the economic dislocations of the virus and more.  

For large multi-nationals with a presence in many different nations – sourcing there, or with local facilities in operation, or with products and services extensively used in the countries, with partnerships established with the public sector or NGOs – the challenge of being a “good corporate citizen” is ever-present. And sometimes can be daunting.

Challenges? Think about those related to continuing “freedom to operate” or “social license” or actual regulatory license to operate that may be placed in jeopardy in some way or another. 

Something done, something said (or published or communicated)…with the foreign governments objecting to that “something”.– and threatening to or taking action to limit the freedom to operate. 

When I began drafting this commentary last fall, tiny bits of news about the Coronavirus was just beginning to be reported out of China, with very sketchy details.  By year end, It was a kind of flu. Nothing to worry about. 

In the news headlines at that time (summer into fall 2019) there were more obvious challenges being presented to non-Chinese tech companies as the Hong Kong people protests continued to build momentum, and the Communist government in the mainland began to put pressure on the corporate sector (perhaps pressuring foreign companies’ media that had China news coverage).

An example of this kind of threat came to us in October 2019 involving Apple — concerning its vital relationship with the “two Chinas” – and with significant production and retail stores on the mainland — the People’s Republic of China being the #2 global market for Apple sales.

Other non-China-based companies have also being feeling the pressures as well.  

Just offshore from mainland China, trouble was quite evident to the world in the former British territory of Hong Kong, which is a kind of status aparte of the mainland. (That is similar to the status of Aruba in the Caribbean Basin to parent country The Netherlands.)  China has maintained a “one country-two systems” approach to Hong Kong. Until now. 

China gained re-sovereignty over the Hong Kong territory in 1997 with the execution of a treaty at the end of the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease. The treaty terms were meant to assure separate governance systems for the more advanced Hong Kong economy and territory’s political system of that era.

Early in October 2019, an Apple device software application – Hkmap.live – developed by an outside firm and sold through the Apple Store, was removed from the on-line store. 

The concerns:  Reuters News and Associated Press reported that the Communist Party’s main newspaper (the People’s Daily) had singled out Apple for criticism for having the third party app for sale (and used on smartphones)  that reportedly enabled Hong Kong protesters to track the local police activity.

The People’s Republic of China’s propaganda arm (the publication) said this was a no-no – that is, Apple making the app available — and Apple removed the app because it “violated the rules,” according to the Reuters/AP report at the time.  (Reason: the app could be used to ambush police and by criminals where police were absent – the Apple rules allow for removal when the app is found to facilitate illegal activity.)

Apple had first rejected HKmap.live — then agreed to make it available — and then as the protest mounted (and mainland China responded), the app came off the App Store.

Was it the People’s Daily targeting of Apple and the app…or what the company said (“…many concerned customers in Hong Kong contacted the company…”).

An MSNBC commentator (Kif Leswing) weighed in, pointing out that Apple also removed a news stream (Quartz) because the content is illegal in China. Quartz was covering the Hong Kong democracy protests.

This is/was not a new issue: Back in 2017 several U.S. Senators presciently charged that Apple was enabling the Chinese government’s draconian moves on censorship and citizen surveillance.  (Which moves, according to news reports of today, involves collecting everyone’s DNA and placing cameras everywhere to track everyone – plus developing a “social profile” for tracking the movements of citizens — and meting out punishment where officials think it is merited.)

We note here that Google also quietly removed Hong Kong protest content from the Android store — without creating Apple-type headlines.

But – for those who had downloaded the app, it continued posting locations of police patrols, so said The Los Angeles Times.

MSNBC noted that Apple more than other tech companies has a very close relationship with China (where 200 million-plus iPhones are made each year) and China is an important market as well with tens of billions in revenue in total from the “three Chinas”.  (For Apple, China is the #2 market for iPhones.)

The third China: the separate nation of the Republic of China, more generally known as Taiwan, and persistently claimed by the mainland as part of its territory. “China” is a complicated subject for many company managements. And then there is Hong Kong and nearby Macao, outposts of China mainland.)

Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a memo to Apple’s 130,000 employees to explain the move. And we can assume try to calm nerves internally.

US Senator Josh Hawley (Missouri) quickly posed the question:  Who is running Apple…Tim Cook or Beijing?

If We Don’t Agree — We Will Name & Share – Beware of the China Leadership

Brands targeted by China’s rulers have been subjected to campaigns (name and shame) to alert local customers of issues with a company or organization.

This could become more of a threat to non-Chinese companies as the government continues to develop the “social profile” of its citizens. And captures their imagines on street cameras. Which company’s products they buy could become a major issue in the western democracies!

Further complicating life for execs — we’ve seen the rise of internal protest inside U.S. tech companies, when employees don’t like the work being done for customers –particularly government agencies, police departments, intelligence agencies, military branches, etc. 

Business-society relationships are complicated. Sports is a big business in the USA. The National Basketball Association is a powerful sports enterprise now with global reach and the ownership universe (the key decision-makers) is made up of corporations and wealthy partnerships that own local sports teams. 

So – when the manager of the Houston Rockets briefly voiced support of the Hong Kong protests — the state TV in China stopped the broadcast of NBA games.  Pow!

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R_Kentucky) quickly weighed in: “The people of Hong Kong have risked much more than money to defend their freedom of expression, human rights and autonomy.  I hope the NBA can learn from that courage and not abandon those values for the sake of their bottom line.” (The NBA apologized for the Twitter comment of the Houston team GM. It’s not comfortable being in the middle of intercontinental cat fight.)

Complicating matters: Majority Leader McConnell’s wife – Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao – is a Chinese-American born in Taiwan. She was Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush (and therefore an overseer of U.S. fiduciary investment policy-making at the DOL, affecting decisions of many large investors.) More complications in public and private sectors, we could say.

The Houston basketball team has been very popular in China and a star player (Yao Ming) played for the team.   The U.A. Senate majority leader is a constant critic of China policies. Complicated matters for companies doing business in and with China!

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also weighed in:  “We’re better than this. Human rights should not be for sale and the NBA should not be assigning Chinese communist censorship.”  Remember, his father fled Communist Cuba to come to the U.S.A.

The aggravated condition of U.S.-China trade relations under the Trump Administration is also complicating things. 

One, Two, Three Chinas – It’s Complicated

We should explain that the “ Two Chinas” policy of the United States government should now be considered as “three,” as the identification has traditionally meant the relationship of [mainland] Communist China and the offshore democracy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the USA.

The Nationalist ROC has governed the island nation since the end of civil war of 1949 when many mainland refugees fled to Taiwan as the Communists came to power.

With China moving aggressively toward Hong Kong independence-of-a-sort, the Trump Administration and members of Congress are talking about possible actions to attempt to ensure some independence of the little territory.  

Another dustup:  Hollywood’s Dreamworks and a China production company (Pearl Studio) collaborated to create an animated feature – “Abominable” (about a young girl meeting the Abominable Snowman or “Yeti”).  The film features Asian-American actor and was quickly a hit on release in America.

The film debuted in Vietnam as well – and was quickly pulled from viewing.  A map of China used in the animation showed the “nine dashes” – a no-no in China’s neighboring countries.

The Nine-Dashes – Complicating Matters in the South China Sea

What are the 9 dashes, you might ask?  (I’m sure that question rapidly went ’round in Dreamworks’ Hollywood offices — what the hell!.)  China attempts to impose its authority over the South China Sea with a series of dashes (not firm lines) to imply control or ownership. 

Which angers neighbors — Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other nations with access to the vital sea lanes.  And those nations are trading partners of the U.S. — and American companies have significant presence in them.

How many people in corporate suites are tuned in to the vagaries or subtleties of China’s diplomacy!   

We recommend that you read Foreign Affairs and China-scholar Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent book on all of this — red warning flags flying! — “Asia’s Cauldron:  The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.”  Published in 2014 – available on Amazon. 

Simply stated –  “China” – it’s  a complicated subject for corporate citizens.

The China – United State of America Relationship

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said that the USA-China relationship with shape the international order for the 21st Century and the countries will have to deal with serious cultural differences (like freedom of expression and the right to protest and the freedom to trade etc.).

We saw that the investors in the USA shrugged off the Apple dustup with China over the Hong Kong protests. The share price was up $6.00 (3%) and moving toward an all-time high as the China-Hong Kong-APPL news stories appeared… this is a US$1 trillion-plus company! (Well, after the coronavirus crash of March 2020, we did have to check again and the price is back up in high $300s.)

Challenge: Being a Good Corporate Citizen When You Are a Guest

For large corporations, in general, worldwide, being a “good corporate citizen” in many lands is always a concern and a challenge as well as a competitive advantage (the brand and reputation and consumer favor as a 21st Century moat) — but things can be very complicated in the execution of citizenship on the ground. 

Complicated Challenge: Some companies operate in literally all but three or four nations of the world, excluding Iran, North Korea and perhaps a few others from their operations and marketing activities.

As we first prepared to finally publish this June 2020, dusting off the earlier Fall 2019 draft, we were in the midst of a global epidemic (COVID-19), and U.S. and global civil protests — with the news coverage all but eliminating the news out of Hong Kong on some days.

But China actions focused on western business organizations are very much in focus today. Recently several large news organizations (corporate-owned, of course, and at the top, corporate board and C-suite managed) saw their in-country journalists booted out of China because the Communist leaders objected to their news coverage.

Journalists employed by The New York Times (owned by The Times Company); The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp); and The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon) were told to leave mainland China and the “regulated territories” of Hong Kong and Macoa.

In September 2020 we learned that Australian journalists had fled China to avoid detention. 

The leaders of the People’s Republic of China, it is said, are angered by coverage of the coronavirus (and the Communist government’s response); coverage of Hong Kong protests; and the reporting of “shadowy business dealings” of the country’s government leadership.

In addition, Time magazine (now owned by Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce) and the Voice of America – AND the expelled media organizations — were instructed to turn over information about their operations to the government minders.

U.S. Retaliation Complicates Corporate Life

This is not happening in a vacuum – in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump designated the five China media organization operating in the USA as government functionaries of China, limiting the number of Chinese citizens who could work in the U.S. as journalists. The five are propaganda tools, the charge goes.  Their activities are being restricted. 

And so here in the USA the tit-for-tat is targeting China’s main news outlets –– Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily, China Radio.

The Trump Administration is also moving to de-list publicly-traded Chinese corporations (traded on American stock exchanges). 

In all of the dustups, as U.S. business leaders are deftly navigating the tricky shoals where the seas of statesmanship meet the rocks of ideology and pose challenges to strategy and business models. 

Some of the challenges in the US-China relationships are about freedoms.  Such as our First Amendment freedoms. There are no China equivalents. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set out four important freedoms for the peoples of all nations during the early days of World War II  — freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. These have long been central to many elements of U.S. and western capitalism — and foreign concepts to the rulers of present-day China. 

American companies have to carefully navigate the differences when they do business in China, with China, and other non-democratic nations. 

An example getting news coverage this week:  The Walt Disney Company, a U.S.-based global entertainment and communications company.  The company has been a  very able and savvy global marketer since the earliest days of Uncle Walt’s cartoon studio in sunny California.  Founder Uncle Walt always innovated and marketed that innovation far and wide. 

Consider that Disney has a $5 billion-plus investment in Shanghai Disneyland Resort (opened 2016) — co-owned by the Communist government — and an older Disney park in Hong Kong.   China is an important market for various activities of the company, including motion pictures.

And so the anxiety we logically could expect in the Disney offices as a new dustup occurred.  The company created “Hulan”, a movie about an important character (female) in China mythology, with a China-born female lead and a female director, and scenes filmed in China for accurate depiction of locations for the story. 

One snippet of the 1 hour/50 minute film — the usual (traditional) roll of credits at the end named a number of governments within China as assisting. Including Xinjiang, rolling by in a long list.  Where other American companies operated.  And where in 2018 as the film was underway, the local government was locking up tens of thousands of Muslims in concentration camps!  And so the September 2020 criticism of The Walt Disney Company — including by two dozen members of the U.S. Congress. 

There’s a thorough, fair and balanced recap of all of this in The New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 2020 (“How a 1 Minute of Scenery in ‘Mulan’ Put Disney in a Bind Over China”).    It’s an important read for you, I think, in the context of U.S.-China relations and for non-China-based companies operating in the country. 

Thinking about “open” communication not being permitted today in China we are reminded of President Thomas Jefferson’s perspective: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” – Thomas Jefferson letter to the Marquis de Lafayette.

So true some two centuries later in our great democracy!