The UN Sustainable Development Goals -– “What Matters” For 40 Sectors? G&A Institute’s Research Project Yields Key Data

by Hank BoernerG&A Institute Chair & Chief Strategist

  • An examination of materiality decisions made by 1,387 corporations in their sustainability / ESG reports on all 91 GRI G4 Specific Standard Disclosures, linked SDG Targets, and GRI Standards Disclosures 
  • Forty individual sector reports including the “Top GRI Indicators / Disclosures” and “Top SDG Targets” rankings for each sector are available for download at https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

Nearing the end of the 20th Century, the United Nations assembled experts to develop the eight Millennium Goals (the MDGs), to serve as blueprints and guides for public, private and social sector actions during the period 2000-2015 (the “new millennium”).

For “post-2015”, the more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (the now familiar SDGs) were launched with 17 goals and 169 targets.

These are calls to action for rich and poor and middle-income nations from 2015 out to the year 2030.  These ambitious efforts are focused on such societal issues as improving education and health; social protection; providing job opportunities; and encouraging greater environmental protection (global climate change clearly in focus!).

The 17 SDGs are numbered for themes – “No Poverty” is Goal #1; “Clean Water and Sanitation” is Goal #6; Gender Equality is Goal #5.

As the goals were announced after an exhaustive development process (ending in 2015), sovereign nations, regions, communities, corporations, academic institutions, and other societal stakeholders began “adopting” and embracing the goals, and developing action plans and programs related to the goals.

Numerous companies found (and are finding today) that the goals aligned with the long-term corporate strategies (and vice versa).

SDG strategies were and are being amended to align the goals with critical corporate strategies; actions and programs were formulated; partnerships were sought (corporate with government and/or social sector partners and so on).  And the disclosures about all of this began to appear in corporate and institutional GRI sustainability reports.

In the months following official launch, a wave of corporations began a more public discussion of the SDGs and their adoption of specific goals – those that were material in some way to the company’s strategies, operations, culture, stakeholders, geography…and other factors and characteristics.

As the SDGs were “adopted” and embraced, companies began quickly to examine the materiality of the SDGs relative to their businesses and the first disclosures were appearing in corporate sustainability reports.

To rank the materiality of the SDGs for 40 different sectors, the G&A Institute analyst team gathered 1,387 corporate GRI G4 Sustainability / ESG reports and examined the disclosure level of each on 91 Topic Specific Standard Disclosures.  The database of the reporters materiality decisions around GRI Indicators were then linked to the 169 SDG targets using the SDG Compass Business Indicators table.

The sectors include Electricity, Beverages, Banks, Life Insurance, Media, and many more classifications (the list is available on the G&A web platform with selections to examine highlights of the research for each sector).

The results:  we now have available for you 40 separate sector report highlights containing rankings of the SDG Targets’ and the GRI G4 Indicators & GRI Standards Disclosures for each sector which can be downloaded here:  https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

The research results are an excellent starting point for discussion and planning, a foundation for determining sector-specific materiality of the SDGs and the GRI KPIs and disclosures as seen through the lens of these 1,387 corporate reporters across 40 sectors.

This is all part of the G&A Institute’s “Sustainability Big Data” approach to understanding and capturing the value-added corporate data sets for disclosure and reporting.  The complete database of results is maintained by G&A Institute and is used for assisting corporate clients and other stakeholders in understanding relevant materiality trends.
We welcome your questions and feedback on the year-long research effort.

Thanks to our outstanding research team who conducted the intensive research: Team Research Leaders Elizabeth Peterson, Juliet Russell, Alan Stautz and Alvis Yuen.  Researchers Amanda Hoster, Laura Malo, Matthew Novak, Yangshengjing “UB” Qiu, Sara Rosner, Shraddha Sawant, and Qier “Cher” Xue. The project was architected and conducted under the direction of Louis Coppola, Co-Founder of G&A Institute.

There’s more information for you at: https://www.ga-institute.com/SDGsWhatMatters2018

More information on the SDGs is at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/

Contact G&A Institute EVP Louis Coppola for information about how G&A can help your company with SDGs alignment at:  lcoppola@ga-institute.com

The State of Sustainable / ESG Investment in 2018: The State of Corporate Sustainability Reporting & How We Got Here

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

In this issue of our weekly newsletter we brought you two important Top Stories that capture the state of sustainable investing from varying points-of-view. 

We selected these research efforts for their value to both corporate managers and investment professionals.

  • Corporate staff can use the findings to “make the case” upward to C-suite and boardroom using both documents.
  • Investors not yet on board with Sustainable / ESG investing can gain valuable insights from both reports.

First is the report by Guido Giese and Zoltan Nagy at MSCI – “How Markets Price ESG” – addressing the question “have changes in ESG scores affected market prices?”

MSCI examines the changes in companies ESG scores, “ESG momentum” — either strong or negative for the companies being rated. Using the firm’s model, the research showed that markets reacted “most sensitively” to improvements in a public company’s characteristics rather than to declines in ESG performance, among many other takeaways in the full report.

The takeaway is that changes in ESG profiles of companies certainly affect company valuations.  The change in ESG characteristics showed the strongest move in equity pricing over a one-year horizon compared to shorter or longer time frames.  The report contains a well designed, thorough methodology which clearly demonstrates the importance of a public company’s ESG profile.

The MSCI score, the authors point out, is a proxy for the ESG-related information that the market is processing. (All MSCI ESG scores are updated at least once a year.)  There’s good information for both corporate managers and investment professionals in the 25-page report.

The second report is a snapshot of the “State of Integrated and Sustainability Reporting 2018” — issued by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute (IRRCI)Sol Kwon of the Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2) is the author and colleague Heidi Welsh is editor.  (IRRCI and Si2 regularly publish research reports together.)

The report charts the evolution of corporate sustainability reporting, which got off to a modest start in the 1980s – then on to the 1990s when corporate sustainability reports as we know them today as investors and companies adopted ESG or Triple Bottom Line approaches.

Key:  Another transition is underway, writes author Kwon, the “value creation” (a/k/a shared value) which should lead to more holistic reporting of inputs and outputs…and the emergence of the integrated report.

In 2013, IRRCI had Si2 look at the state of integrated reporting among the S&P 500® companies and examined practices again for this year’s report.  (The earlier work focused on what companies were reporting without regard to status as “mandated” or “voluntary” disclosure.)  Much progress has been made – for one thing, investor attention on ESG matters is much higher today…making corporate sustainability reporting ripe for the next phase.

The details are set out for you in the IRRCI report including trends and examples in use of reporting frameworks (GRI, SASB, IIRC), Quality, Alignment with SDGs, Inclusion of Sustainability in Financial Reports, Investor Engagement / Awareness, Board Oversight, Incentives, and many other important trends.

This an important comprehensive read for both corporate managers and investment professionals, with a sweep of developments presented in an easy-to-read format.

Example:  What drives ESG integration into investment strategy?  The drivers are identified and presented in a graphic for you.

Important note for you regarding IRRCI:  in 2019 the organization’s intellectual properties will be assumed by the Weinberg Center at the University of Delaware.  The center conducts research and holds conferences on corporate governance and related issues and is headed by Charles Elson, one of the most highly-regarded thought leaders on corporate governance in the U.S.

Important Study on ESG Momentum by MSCI: 
https://www.msci.com/www/research-paper/how-markets-price-esg-have/01159646451

State of Integrated and Sustainability Reporting 2018:
https://irrcinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-SP-500-Integrated-Reporting-FINAL-November-2018.pdf

Is the Movement to Achieve Greater Societal Sustainability Reaching the Consumer? One Consumer Marketers’ Story…

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

The story is being well told -– a growing number institutional shareowners and their global networks of asset managers steadily embrace ESG / sustainable investing approaches.  Corporations of all sizes are adopting sustainability strategies and churning out sustainability and responsibility reports to tell the story of their sustainability journey.

Many national, state and local governments are following through on their commitments made in Paris in 2015 (the Paris Accord on climate change). NGOs galore are focused on driving sustainability into all corners of human behavior.

What about the vast global consumer market?  What’s happening at the consumer level?  The House Beautiful magazine (part of the Hearst UK Fashion & Beauty Network) brings us news from the UK about one large company’s sustainability-focused marketing efforts.

The headline:  Why 2018 is the year sustainability went mainstream. The most-watched TV show of the year was the BBC series on sustainability.  And at least one major retailer has put “sustainability at the heart of everything we do,” says its senior sustainability manager.

The firm in focus is John Lewis & Partners (manufacturers and marketers of “homeware, fashion, furniture, electricals,” mens and womens wear). The employee-owned company offers its lines of products through a vast network of retail outlets. What is the company doing?

It has introduced a duvet (quilt bed cover) made of 100% recycled polyester from plastic bottles (120 bottles = one duvet).  The product is made in an “eco-factory” running on renewable energy. The company has its own factories as well as contract manufacturers.

The S’well Geode Rose drinking water bottle sales are up year-to-year (by 37%) says the company.  Glassware made from recycled glass is offered in the company’s John Lewis Croft Collection.  As alternatives to tin foil and plastic cling film for food storage the company offers brands “Stasher” and “Bees Wrap” -– silicone kitchen storage bags.

The company works with the Re-Use Network in marketing its new sofas; when a customer buys a new sofa in the “Thomas Snuggler” line, the company arranges for the old sofa to be re-used or re-cycled in collaboration with local charities that support disadvantaged communities.

All of this and more is in its annual 2018 Retail Report.  Shoppers became more conscious about what they buy and where the products come from, explains the company.  And, this was the year we took it upon ourselves to build a more sustainable future rather than leaving it to others.

The company (“partnership”) is the largest employee-owned company in the United Kingdom. “Partners” (83,000 permanent staff) own 50 John Lewis shops across the United Kingdom, plus Waitrose supermarkets, shops at Heathrow International, online and catalogue shops, production facilities, farms, and more.

Founder John Spedan Lewis created a “constitution” to define the business and how individual “partners” are expected to behave toward stakeholders. This reminds us of the foundational document of Johnson & Johnson (“the credo”) here in the USA.

The partnership model was and is “an experiment in industrial democracy,” showing that long-term success can come from “co-ownership” with shared power and collective responsibilities.  Societal challenges like climate change and social inequality guide company thinking.

As information: https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/csr/governance.html

Its human rights report and related information is available at: https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/csr/source-and-sell-with-integrity/tackling-modern-slavery.html

This Week’s Top Story

Why 2018 is the year sustainability went mainstream
(Wednesday – October 24, 2018) Source: House Beautiful – This was the year we took it upon ourselves to build a more sustainable future rather than leaving it to others,’ said John Lewis & Partners in its annual Retail Report 2018. ‘We know that 73 per cent of millennials will spend…

And along the lines of sustainability-themed marketing…

Nielsen: How do sales of sustainable products stack up?
(Thursday – October 25, 2018) Source: Food Navigator – Sustainability-related claims on food products are popping up more frequently and while still just a small fraction of market, items mentioning sustainability outperformed the growth rate of total products in their respective…

State of Corporate Sustainability, GreenBiz Releases Latest Update — Top Lines: (1) We are making progress and (2) There are still challenges

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

It’s now three-quarters of the way through the year 2018 – what is the state of the Sustainability Profession?  John Davies, writing in GreenBiz (he’s VP & Senior Analyst), shares some interesting highlights gained through the firm’s recent report with us this week.

Among the major themes:  (1) Companies large and small see advances – progress – more companies are communicating what they are doing.  (2) Serious concerns, challenges, barriers are still ahead (look at what is happening to the US SEC and the dismissal of sound science by policymakers).

The Greenbiz report on the state of the profession is always eagerly awaited (every-other-year) and the latest (the 2018 report) is available for you (the link is in the Top Story).

GreenBiz presented results of its research on such items as gender pay equity trends; the embedding of the sustainability role(s) throughout the organization; more professionals coming in to the firm from outside vs. being promoted from within; and, the corporate sustainability programs becoming more sustainable.

There is also an interesting collection of news items we’ve selected for you that describes the range of activities within industries as companies of all sizes as the “corporate sustainability wave” gains momentum.  It’s below the Top Story for you.

This Week’s Top Story

The State of the Sustainability Profession, 2018
(Tuesday – September 25, 2018) Source: GreenBiz – That’s a significant change from 2011, when the Governance & Accountability Institute found just under 20 percent of S&P 500 companies were publishing such reports.

And we call your attention to:
Sustainable Brands Delivers Insight on How to Build Better Sustainability Metrics
(Friday – September 28, 2018) Source: Sustainable Brands – Sustainable Brands® reveals program, networking and activity highlights for its upcoming conference: New Metrics 2018. Nearly 400 business executives will convene October 29-31 at the Loews…

There’s a new way for Delaware companies to highlight their sustainability chops. Will it be meaningful?

By Lois Yurow – Fellow, G&A Institute

Delaware companies that are focused on sustainability will soon have a new way to demonstrate their dedication.

Effective October 1, any Delaware “entity”—a term that encompasses corporations, partnerships, limited liability companies, statutory trusts, and certain associations—may elect to apply for a so-called “certificate of adoption of transparency and sustainability standards.”

The newly enacted Certification of Adoption of Transparency and Sustainability Standards Act is designed to give Delaware companies a platform for signaling their “commitment to global sustainability.” Since this is the first statute of its kind in the United States, and Delaware is home to a disproportionate number of U.S. companies, it’s worth looking at how the Certification Act is intended to work.

The statute at a glance

On its face, it looks like the Certification Act offers a formal seal of approval — a certificate from the Secretary of State to any entity that commits to publish an annual sustainability report. No big deal, right? But if you look deeper, it becomes clear that a certificate will represent both significant board-level involvement and greater corporate transparency.

Let’s start with key terms

Several definitions in the Certification Act are substantive and intertwined. It will be easier to appreciate what it means to get a certificate if you first understand some terminology.

Standards—the “governing body” (such as the board of directors, general partner, or a “duly authorized and empowered committee”) of a “reporting entity” (one that has or wants a certificate) must adopt “principles, guidelines or standards” against which the entity will measure “the impacts of its activities on society and the environment.” Standards must be “based on or derived from third-party criteria.”

Third-party criteria are “principles, guidelines or standards developed and maintained by” someone unaffiliated with the reporting entity — such as a government unit, an NGO, or an independent consultant—for the purpose of “measuring, managing or reporting the social and environmental impact of businesses or other entities.”

Presumably, the requirement that standards have some relationship to third-party criteria will improve the odds that companies will select credible standards that are tangible and objective. This requirement also may accelerate the movement toward uniform disclosure and reporting standards — such as those developed by GRI or SASB.

Assessment measures—the governing body of a reporting entity must adopt “policies, procedures or practices” that will generate “objective factual information” about how well the entity is performing against the standards it adopted. (In other words, performance metrics.) This includes deciding whether to provide for “internal or external verification” of performance results.

Standards statement—the first step to getting a certificate is filing a standards statement. The most important things a standards statement must do are:

  • affirm that the entity’s governing body adopted resolutions that enumerate standards and assessment measures;
  • affirm that the entity will use those assessment measures to evaluate the entity’s performance in relation to those standards;
  • affirm that the entity will periodically revisit its standards and assessment measures and adjust them if the governing body thinks changes are appropriate;
  • affirm that the entity will publish a report (described below) every year; and
  • indicate where on the reporting entity’s principal website a visitor can (without paying a fee or providing any information) find a discussion of the entity’s “standards and assessment measures, the third-party criteria used . . .[and] the process by which such standards were identified, developed and approved,” as well as all of the entity’s reports.

Report—in order to maintain its certificate, a reporting entity will need to publish on its primary website comprehensive annual performance reports covering these topics:

  • “the standards and assessment measures in effect” over the past year, “the third-party criteria and any other source used to develop [those] standards and assessment measures,” and how the entity identified, developed and approved its standards and assessment measures;
  • the type of information described above regarding any standards or assessment measures the entity changed;
  • how the reporting entity has endeavored to satisfy its standards and whether those efforts included any interaction with stakeholders;
  • current “objective and factual information developed pursuant to the assessment measures” to gauge how the entity performed in relation to its standards;
  • the governing body’s view of “whether the entity has been successful in meeting the standards”;
  • if the entity was not successful, whether the governing body has ordered “additional efforts” to improve performance, and if not, why not;
  • whether the entity retained an independent consultant to help measure, manage, or report on its performance, and if so, whom; and if “materially different,” how the entity intends measure, manage, and report its performance in the next annual reporting period.

With these definitions under our belt, the statute is pretty straightforward.

Putting it all together

Any Delaware entity in good standing will be able to apply to the Secretary of State for a certificate of adoption of transparency and sustainability standards by delivering a standards statement and paying the prescribed fees ($200 to file and $50 for the certificate).

All the certificate will do is attest that the named entity filed a standards statement. The Secretary of State will not even confirm that the entity actually implemented the standards and assessment measures it purports to have adopted. Certificates are renewable every year, also with an application and a fee.

It looks so easy—until you return to the definition of “standards statement.” The seemingly simple application process belies the two rigorous obligations at the core of the statute: board-level involvement and complete transparency around standards, metrics, and results.

Again, the standards statement must affirm that the decision to adopt particular standards and assessment measures was made by formal action at the entity’s highest levels. The standards statement also must promise that the entity will issue an annual report. The prescribed content of that report—standards, metrics, results, and the governing body‘s reaction to it all—suggests this will not be a simple undertaking.

So why would a company bother getting a certificate (and paying fees, and assuming a disclosure obligation)?

Every company is at liberty now, certificate or no certificate, to voluntarily issue a sustainability report. Indeed, 85% of the Fortune 500 published a sustainability report in 2017. No doubt those reports represent a genuine commitment on the part of the issuing companies. Still, it pays to consider who chooses what a given company reports on: what goals it adopts, what metrics it uses to gauge progress, who measures that progress, and what specific information will be shared. With voluntary reporting, companies have almost infinite flexibility.

Under the Certification Act, reporting entities will need to disclose “objective and factual” performance results, and each entity’s governing body will be required to specifically address those results, offering its view of whether they represent success. By imposing these rules, the statute responds to the ever lingering concern that at least some sustainability reports are as much about marketing as they are about real change. The public in general, and investors in particular, may find the Certification Act’s data-heavy reports more valuable.

Liability concerns

Any company thinking about assuming the obligations of a reporting entity will want to consider whether there are any risks. The Certification Act explicitly eliminates two.

First, there is no audit or merit review required. The statute expressly does not prescribe particular sustainability standards. Moreover, every certificate will state that the Secretary of State does not verify standards statements or annual performance reports.

Second, no one will have a cause of action against a Delaware entity because of anything the entity does (such as choosing particular standards and assessment measures) or fails to do (such as falling short of a standard, or refusing to become a reporting entity at all).

Reporting entities may suffer reputational harm if their goals are unrealistically ambitious or easy, or if their disclosure seems inadequate, but these risks are largely controllable. In addition, the standards statement, the annual performance report, and every application to renew a certificate must be “acknowledged.” That means an “authorized person” of the reporting entity must “certif[y], under penalty of perjury, that the information [provided] is accurate and complete to the best of such authorized person’s actual knowledge after due inquiry.” This too presents a largely controllable potential risk.

Conclusion

A few Delaware companies reportedly are mulling whether they want to be the pioneer reporting entities. Many organizations already have the requisite governance and data-gathering processes in place, so applying for a certificate would be a relatively uncomplicated—and possibly logical—next step. For those companies that have not fully implemented sustainability practices and reporting protocols, the Certification Act may serve as another nudge.

Contents Copyright © by Lois Yurow, All Rights Reserved

Guest Commentator Lois Yurow is founder and president of Investor Communications Services, LLC, where she specializes in converting complex legal, business, and financial documents into plain English. Mutual Fund Regulation and Compliance Handbook, a book she co-authored and updates annually, is published by Thomson West. Lois writes and speaks frequently about plain English, disclosure, and other securities law matters. Before forming Investor Communications Services, Lois practiced corporate and securities law, first in Chicago and then in New Jersey. Email: lois@securitieseditor.com

Lois Yurow is a Fellow the Governance & Accountability Institute