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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week’s Top Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GRI Sector Disclosure:

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

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

Being Prepared for Reporting:

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

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

Other Differences to Note:

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

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

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

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

Overlaps and Differences – E/Environmental:

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

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

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

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

Using the GRI Standards For Reporting – More Detailed

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

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

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

Addressing “S” — Social Issues

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

About Supply Chain Content

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Food Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jess Peete – G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

It is often the case that many us may not give our monthly energy utility company a second thought — unless there is an issue with the power going out or the bill is too high.

However, for those of us working in the sustainability field, the Energy Utilities Industry is one of the most important industries to consider, regardless of where we live or do business.

This industry’s companies power our homes, power our businesses, and in so many ways power our modern lives.

Traditionally, the energy utilities & power generators industry relied on oil and coal to generate supply for the power grid. This historic reliance on fossil fuels has more recently become a major issue in focus for investors, and society, as the effects of climate change continue to grow and the impact of burning fossil fuels for energy become more apparent.

Because of these effects on the environment and atmosphere, the Energy Utilities and Power Generators sector is today considered “high impact”.

Key sustainability reporting frameworks – including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) — have sector-specific reporting standards (GRI has supplemental guidance that goes beyond their regular reporting requirements in order to more accurately measure the societal impact of the industry.)

Similarities and Differences in Standards

I’ve found that there is a great deal of similarity in the GRI Sector Supplements and SASB Industry standards for the Energy Utilities and Power Generation industry — but there are distinct differences as well.

The sector supplements only exist for GRI-G4, however, it is still advised for reporting organizations to now use the GRI Standards and incorporate the sector-specific disclosures from the GRI-G4 energy sector supplement to establish a more thorough industry-specific review of the total impact of the energy utilities sector.

The SASB Standards

SASB defines the materiality for the Energy Utilities sector reporting to include the following topics:

ENVIRONMENT

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Energy Resource Planning
  • Air Quality
  • Water Management
  • Coal Ash Management

SOCIAL CAPITAL

  • Community Impacts of Project Siting

HUMAN CAPITAL

  • Workforce Health & Safety

BUSINESS MODEL AND INNOVATION

  • End-Use Efficiency & Demand

LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE

  • Nuclear Safety & Emergency Management
  • Grid Resiliency
  • Management of the Legal & Regulatory Environment

Overall, the SASB standards appear to me to be quite comprehensive for a company to follow for their reporting — and would require reporting for many aspects of the electric power grid, including overall energy supply chain impacts.

For instance, SASB requires a calculation of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emitted related to operations — but also requires a qualitative reporting of management-level planning to reduce the GHG emissions (emitted both from the company and its customers).

SASB addresses this in terms of recommending corporate reporting on negative environmental impacts — such things as coal ash and potential hazards such as posed by nuclear plants.

The GRI Standards

There appears to be little to no mention of coal ash storage in the GRI Standards — unless a company chooses to include coal ash as effluence.

This type of reporting could also be included in a company’s disclosure of their management approach (DMA) in the GRI Standards Report.

One area where the GRI standards seems to have a stronger “urging” for corporate reporting is the Sector impact on water, which is incredibly important because the energy utilities sector is one of the biggest users of water (usually required for cooling).

GRI Standards, in this case, appear to take a more holistic approach to water consumption (measuring total stress) while SASB only requires reporting the water impact from high stress areas.

Conclusion:

Because of the high impact that energy production and distribution have on climate, local communities, and the economy, companies in the Sector using both the GRI Standards and GRI G4 Energy Supplement alongside the SASB Energy Utilities Sector Supplement will be able to create a sustainability report that measures the true impact and costs of operations.

Measuring and managing these material E&S issues can help to provide both companies and investors in the sector a better understanding of their businesses, and a clear pathway to keeping consumer costs low while shifting to an energy portfolio that is one more based on sustainable energy.

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

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

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

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

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

By Emilie Ho – G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

During my analysis, I found that although many of the material disclosures that the SASB Standards suggest for disclosure by the Agriculture Products Industry are in line with the GRI’s Topic Disclosures, there are also a number of material topics that SASB advances for disclosure that do not have a related disclosure under the GRI Standards.

Interestingly, some of the material disclosures that do share overlap also have differences in what the two reporting frameworks suggest companies include in their sustainability reports. (Note that in the United States, use of both standards is voluntary for corporations.)

This commentary will explore some of these similarities and gaps between SASB and GRI to help corporate reporters better understand how these standards can be utilized for a company in the Agriculture Products Industry to report their environmental, social, and economic impacts more effectively.

At first glance, I found that the GRI Standards appear to seek more in-depth disclosures for some topics that they share in concept with the SASB Standards — but as a whole, the SASB Standards provide a more comprehensive view of agricultural practices due to the industry-specific disclosures and components suggested in its recommendations. These are not covered in as much depth under the GRI Standards.

As an example, SASB and GRI both include Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions as an area for disclosure, and the disclosure of GHG emissions suggested by the two Standards’ organizations both account for Scope 1 emissions and biogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

Similarities and Differences to Consider

However, although SASB asks agricultural organizations to describe their long-term and short-term strategies of managing Scope 1 emissions and emission-reduction targets—something that is not specifically outlined under the GRI’s Emissions Topic Disclosure — GRI does suggest organizations that choose to report on emissions include a management approach that is used to cover components such as the policies, commitments, and goals and targets as they relate to the reporting organization’s emissions.

GRI expects reporting organizations to provide a management approach disclosure (otherwise known as the DMA) for every material topic chosen, or else explain why the management approach was not included at the time of reporting.

While the discussion encouraged by the GRI’s DMA is similarly suggested for some of the topics covered by SASB, it is not found in the SASB’s emissions materiality topic. Many of the industry-specific disclosures included in SASB could thus be improved by being covered using this management approach section of the GRI.

Emissions and Energy Related Disclosure

The GRI Standard’s Emissions Topic Disclosure also has more topic-specific components available for reporting — such as Scope 2 and Scope 3 GHG emissions, emissions of ozone-depleting substances, and other significant air emissions.

In this way, the GRI Standards would appear to be more comprehensive for the emissions materiality topic that it shares with SASB.

The same observation is found in Energy, which is also available as a material topic under SASB and a disclosure topic in the GRI Standards.

SASB Standards suggest reporting organizations disclose their consumption of operational energy fleet fuel — both of which are also covered under GRI’s topic-specific categories of energy consumption within and outside of the organization.

Both GRI and SASB also account for the amount of energy reduced through the use of renewable energy.

However, GRI Standards additionally ask reporting organizations to disclose their energy intensity and the reductions in energy requirements of sold products and services achieved during the reporting period.

Since this topic will be coupled with a management approach under the GRI, the organization’s Standards would appear to cover more ground than SASB Standards in the Energy topic disclosures, since this discussion is not required for the Energy material topic under SASB — however, the company could choose to disclose it in the DMA section.

Addressing Labor/HR Issues

Suggested disclosure content that relates to labor is also more extensive under GRI than SASB.

SASB Standards cover Food Safety and Health Concerns as it relates to the number of recalls issued and strategies used to manage genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Fair Labor Practices and Workplace Health and Safety (as it pertains to whether farms are certified for fair labor practices, the data on injury rates, and how to assess, monitor and reduce exposure of employees to pesticides).  In comparison, the GRI Standards offer 19 available Social topics for companies to report on.

In particular, the labor/management relations and occupational health and safety topic specific disclosures share some overlap with those of SASB.

These topic-specific disclosures under the GRI Standards also suggest that companies report on hazard identification, risk assessment, promotion of worker health, prevention and mitigation of occupational health and safety impacts, and work-related injuries.

Agriculture-Specific Issues

SASB does take a more agriculture-focused approach because it asks specifically for data on topics such as recalls, GMOs, and farms certified for fair labor practices; these are not similarly asked for under the GRI Standards.

The Land Use and Ecological Impacts, Climate Change Impacts on Crop Yields, and Environmental and Social Impacts of Ingredient Supply Chains material issues identified by SASB are other examples where SASB takes a more comprehensive approach to reporting for the Agricultural industry’s specific issues.

These SASB Standards disclosures ask organizations to report on topics such as the amount of crop yields/lost, percentage of agricultural raw materials certified to third-party environmental/social standards, amount of pesticide consumption by hazard level, and volume of wastewater reused/discharged to the environment.

The available disclosures following the GRI Standards do not appear to directly encompass these agriculture-specific components (even in the GRI Food Processing Sector Supplement), making GRI reporting as a whole appear to be not as comprehensive for the Agriculture sector — despite GRI requiring more detail for those disclosures that do intersect with SASB.

Agricultural organizations that choose to report without following SASB Standards and / or the Food Processing Sector Supplement may, therefore, result in a more restricted view of those organizations’ agriculture-specific practices — despite them being in line with GRI Standards reporting.

My Conclusions

Moving forward, corporations in the Agricultural sector can improve their sustainability reports by using both the GRI Standards and the SASB Standards for the collection, measurement, analysis and reporting of their environmental, social, and economic data.

This integrative approach to reporting would enable corporations to create a much more comprehensive sustainability report, by allowing the enterprise to take advantage of both SASB’s industry-specific disclosure recommendations and GRI’s broader topic-specific recommendations.

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Note about GRI’s Sector Disclosure — from the GRI’s website FAQ: “With the transition from G4 Guidelines to GRI Standards, the G4 Sector Disclosures remain valid. The use of the G4 Sector Disclosures is recommended for organizations using the GRI Standards, but is not a requirement for preparing a report in accordance with the Standards (see GRI 101: Foundation, Section 2 for more detail).”

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

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

SERIES INTRODUCTION 
GRI & SASB In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

Notes from the G&A Institute Team on the series of commentaries by members of the G&A Sustainability Report Analyst Interns…

With the recent publication of the much-anticipated “Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2018” issued by US SIF showing that ESG has really hit the capital markets’ mainstream — with $1-in-$4 in the US (by professional investment managers now incorporating ESG).  And, with the recent petition urging mandatory ESG reporting — submitted to the Securities & Exchange Commission by institutional investors  — he need to develop a more standardized framework for corporate ESG reporting is more pressing than ever before.

A recent discussion paper — “Investor Agenda For Corporate ESG Reporting” — with inputs from the CFA Institute, ICGN, PRI, CERES, GSIA, GIIN, and the UNEP-FI — further highlights this issue.

Among other things, the discussion paper emphasizes the need for participants of the Corporate Reporting Dialogue (participants include reporting standard setters – GRI, SASB, CDP, IIRC,CDSB, ISO, FASB, and IFRS) to deliver on their promise to work together to develop a more unified agenda on ESG reporting.

As part of our company’s role as the GRI Data Partner in the USA, UK and Republic of Ireland, G&A Institute’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns analyze thousands of sustainability reports each year and contribute the information to the GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database. This is the largest publicly-accessible sustainability disclosure database in the world (with now over 50,000 sustainability reports included, dating back to the start of the GRI).

Many of the corporate reports the G&A analysts process use the GRI Standards — and a number have now started to implement aspects of the SASB Standards as well in their disclosure and reporting process, depending on their sector and industry categories.

In their ongoing work, G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns have been comparing the two standards for disclosure in specific industries as they carefully examine the corporate reports, and consider two standards’ alignment, similarities and differences.

In this series G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns share their own perspectives as they have analyzed reports and noticed similarities and differences.

* * *

We begin our series of shared perspectives with the perspectives of Minalee Busi, looking at the Software and IT Services Industry.

Comments by Minalee Busi – G&A Sustainability Report Analyst-Intern

Discussion regarding sustainability reporting is usually more focused in context of resource intensive industries, and the Software and IT Services sector is often left out.

With sustainability being a major factor in competitive advantage and investor decision-making, Software and IT Services companies need to re-think their sustainability reporting strategies, if they are not already at that point.

SASB identifies a limited number of material issues for the industry for corporate reporting, such as:
• environmental footprint of hardware infrastructure,
• data privacy and freedom of expression,
• data security,
• recruiting and managing a diverse skilled workforce, and
• managing systematic risks from technology disruptions.

Environmental Disclosures

The disclosure suggestions set forth by both the SASB and GRI Standards are in fact quite comparable, and in alignment with each other for some topics.

For example, both standards suggest companies to report on the energy consumed (both renewable and non-renewable) — but with different reporting boundaries.

SASB suggests reporting consumption within the organization — and the GRI Standards ask to additionally include consumption outside of the company.

However, GRI Standards also include disclosures in terms of energy reduction due to conservation and efficiency initiatives — which SASB disclosures do not include.

Similarly, though both the disclosure frameworks require information about water withdrawal and consumption, GRI also expects detailed reporting on water discharge into different water bodies, with information such as whether water was treated before discharge and whether they follow international standards on discharge limits.

The GRI Standards also include disclosure on recycling — which although not very comprehensive, is completely non-existent in the SASB sector disclosure.

Given the increasing e-waste generated by the IT industry, both GRI and SASB could consider including more detailed disclosures in this area for addressing material risks companies face.

Addressing Data Security/Privacy

In terms of data security, both standards include suggestions of disclosures related to data breaches and the number of users affected. But since SASB disclosures are designed to be industry-specific standards, more detailed reporting requirements in terms of data privacy and freedom of speech are found in SASB — including information on secondary usage of user data and monetary losses as a result of legal proceedings associated with user privacy.

Other such additional detailed areas of sector-/industry-specific disclosures by SASB which are not specified in the GRI standards are topics under managing systematic risks — such as performance issues, downtime and service disruptions due to technological impediments; and, activity metrics related to data storage, processing capacity and cloud-computing.

Disclosures with respect to monetary losses due to legal proceedings around intellectual property protection and competitive behaviour can also be found in the SASB Standards.  These disclosures can be loosely be aligned with the GRI disclosures under non-compliance with laws in the socio-economic arena.

S/Social Reporting

With respect to the “S” (social domain) of corporate ESG reporting, both of the standards suggest reporting on employee diversity, with GRI focusing on categories such as age, gender and minority representation and SASB additionally suggesting reporting on data related to the percentage of employees who are (1) foreign nationals and (2) located offshore.

Interestingly, although SASB disclosures are industry specific standards and the IT industry is mainly dependent on human and intellectual capital, there is no specific suggestion of reporting on training and education of employees.

GRI Standards appear to be filling this gap with suggestions of detailed disclosures on average training hours, upskilling and transition assistance programs and information related to employee performance reviews.

Sustainability Reporting Criteria

The GRI Standards have extensive sustainability reporting criteria, of which a major portion of the disclosures fall under the “General Disclosures” — which include materiality, measurement approaches, consistency and comparability of reporting, external assurance, supply chain information, sustainability strategies, and ethics and integrity. This to me is seemingly more transparent as compared to the SASB Standards.

Another such area is stakeholder engagement, which exists in the SASB Standards only in the form of percentage of employee engagement.

The category of Discussion and Analysis under SASB Standards does require reporting on strategic planning about each of the material topics identified, which can be mapped to the Management Approach (DMA) disclosures recommended under each material Topic-specific disclosure area of the GRI Standards.

Alignment – and Gaps

With the above overview, the SASB disclosures and GRI Standards can be seen in alignment with respect to some material topics while having some gaps in others.

However, since both the standards are developed to address the needs different stakeholders – with GRI aiming a broader set of stakeholders and the SASB majorly targeting mainstream U.S. investors — they should not be seen by report preparers as being in competition with each other.

I believe that the efforts of the CDP and important sustainability reporting standards-setters such as GRI and SASB will certainly be welcomed by companies and other stakeholders now struggling to keep up, but the question remains if such collaborations can ultimately lead to the desired standardised sustainability reporting framework that many investors actively seek.

#  #  #

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

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