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

August 10 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governance & Accountability Institute succinctly captures the breadth of concern,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Company leadership may find that…

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

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

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

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

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

Questions We Are Thinking About in the Midst of Major Disruption on Sustainable Investing Trends & Corporate Sustainability Journeys

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

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot our normal business, financial, economic and personal pursuits, questions that we could logically ask are…

(1) what impact does the virus crisis have on the ongoing corporate sustainability / ESG / citizenship efforts; and

(2) what is the investor reaction – does the move into more sustainable / ESG investment vehicles continue?

Some answers come from Sanghamitra Saha, of Zack’s, writing in Yahoo Finance – “Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic”.

He begins by explaining that ESG investing has remained “hot” since the pre-outbreak period, and as Wall Street recorded its worst quarter overall since Q 2008, ESG ETFs appeared [somewhat] resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 2020. (Read, he says: “ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage”.)

These investment vehicles had US$8 billion-plus inflow in 2019, four times their total 2018 inflow. In the first three months of 2020 the flow into ESG Exchange Traded Funds was $6.7 billion — pushing total assets in such funds to $19 billion (only a bit less than the total in February 2018).

Several of these ETFs outperformed the S&P 500® and came close to the Nasdaq performance (which has been the hot place for returns in 2020, bouncing close to the 9000 mark as we write this).

What are some of the reasons for such outperformance even during the virus crisis?

The author shares perspectives from Morningstar and Bloomberg, and presents data on performance on some of the ETFs offered by Nuveen, State Street SPDRs, Vanguard, and iShares MSCI.

We’ve been seeing news and commentary about this trend since the start of the virus crisis as investors seek out what they consider to be more resilient, “safer” companies as packaged in the respective ESG ETFs.  What are public company managements doing to be part of this trend?

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor of Triple Pundit and Managing Editor of CR Magazine, shares news from the corporate sector in “Sustainability Isn’t Stopping:  Just Ask These Companies.”

The firms and the stories of their continuing sustainability journeys that she profiles include Bayer and Microsoft.

She begins by addressing the comments of business columnist John D. Stoll in The Wall Street Journal…that “several top companies are starting to put the brakes on their ESG programs due to economic strain…”

Pushing back in TriplePundit:  “Right now we’re all understandably consumed with the human suffering and economic strain posed by the pandemic…but we’re not convinced we’ll see a sunsetting of sustainability – and the eight corporate examples are just some of the reasons why…”

The two Top Stories present the two answers to the questions posed up top.  And throughout the collection in this week’s newsletter you’ll see other answers presented in slightly different form.

The good news from the G&A Institute offices is that our corporate clients continue with vigor and strong commitment on their respective sustainability journeys, even as operations are disrupted by the virus crisis.

Managers tell us that questions from their investors about sustainability, ESG and related issues continue to increase, and major customers continue to ask questions related to their own supply chain management.

2020 is a challenging year – and sustainable, resilient companies are stepping up to meet the challenges, setting a welcome pace.

Top Stories

Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic
Source: Yahoo Finance – Environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) investing has remained a hot favorite among investors since the pre-outbreak period. Wall Street recorded the worst quarter to start 2020 since the fourth quarter of 2008. But ESG ETFs appeared somewhat resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 (read: ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage).

Sustainability Isn’t Stopping: Just Ask These Companies
Source: Triple Pundit – Over the weekend, a sustainability-focused Wall Street Journal article started making the rounds on social media. In it, business columnist John D. Stoll notes that several top companies are starting to pump the brakes on their…

And here’s some additional perspectives on the two questions to mull over:

Seven Ways To Make Business Truly Sustainable Post-COVID
Source: Forbes – We humans are a spectacularly resilient species. Wars, famines, plagues, economic crashes – we dust ourselves off and press on. So we will get beyond COVID-19. But is it too much to hope that, devastating as the virus’s effects…

Can companies still afford to care about sustainability?
Source: FT – Note — Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy….

The U.S. Department of Labor – Proposed Rule Addressing ESG Investment Selections by Fiduciaries – the Drama Continues As Agency Downplays Importance of ESG

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

August 9 2020

In the early 1970s, Congressional hearings featured allegations of abuses by managers of corporate pension funds taking actions to systemically deny men and women approaching retirement age their promised benefits.  A law was passed to protect plan beneficiariesThe Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

This was intended by the Congress of that day to create standards for private-sector plans to protect the financial and health of beneficiaries of corporate plans.

The U.S. Department of Labor was designated is the primary designated arm enforcing “ERISA”,  charged with “protecting the interests of employee benefit plans participants (workers) and their beneficiaries”.

Other agencies have plan oversight responsibilities as well – the U.S. Treasury Department (the IRS) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

PBGC is like the FDIC protection for bank customers’ money; when a corporate pension plan fails, the PBGC assumes responsibility for providing retirement benefits to retirees. When a company with a retirement plan goes belly up, filing bankruptcy, or giving up responsibility for the plan, the PBGC takes over to help the plan’s beneficiaries (they don’t get all that was promised by the plan when it was managed by the company they worked for).

Among other elements of the ERISA law and operating rules, there are standards set for fiduciaries and managers of worker retirement plans and welfare benefit plans.

ERISA has been updated since passage 40+ years back and the DOL rules have changed over time.  So have related Internal Revenue Service rules.  In 1978 the Internal Revenue Code was amended to allow taxpayers to have a tax-deferred, defined, voluntary retirement plan of their own – the familiar 401 (k) plan that millions participate in.

In the latest summary from the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration of DOL (“EBSA“) for FY 2013(!) — ERISA rules [then] applied to 684,000 retirement plans, 2.4 million health plans and 2.4 million additional welfare benefits.

These plans covered 140 million workers and beneficiaries – at the time, that was about half of the American workforce – and assets under management of the plans exceeded US$7 trillion.

To simplify what follows here, the rules adopted by federal regulators are intended to explain and enforce the statute passed by Congress – in this case, protection of worker rights and oversight of fiduciaries managing workers’ assets in plans.

There is a structured process for creating the enforcing agency rules-of-the-road for those organizations being overseen (for ERISA, fiduciaries, plan managers) and these rules could be changed from time-to-time and also be “interpreted” by regulators through communications intended to clarify the rules.

ESG Investment and the Department of Labor Perspectives

As “sustainable” or “ESG” investing became a preferred approach for individuals in plans and managers of plans, many more institutions and individuals preferred those investments, alongside or instead of more traditional investments.

Investors want to be able to invest in an ESG-themed mutual fund or ETF along with or instead of a traditional version that may track a benchmark of the same type.

Example:  There are many investment managers whose fund track the widely-used S&P 500 benchmark (from S&P Global) and investable products with an S&P 500 ESG benchmark.

State Street a few days ago launched an S&P 500 ESG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) “to provide investors an opportunity to tap into ESG investing at the core of their portfolio” (with a very low expense ratio). This “EFIV” tracks the new S&P 500 ESG Index.

SSgA explains: “ESG investing is approaching a critical inflection point…the collective call for change is growing louder and investor increasingly taking a stand through their investment choices.”

How do the regulators of ERISA react to such progress?  To the call for change?  To respond to investors’ call for action?

By moving backward in rule-making with changes in rules to make it more difficult for plan managers and beneficiaries to invest in ESG vehicles.

To be sure, rules are subject to change. The DOL’s first guidance on ESG investment issues as issued back in 1994.

More recently, in 2008 (during the Administration of President George W. Bush) guidance appeared to be designed to restrict ESG investments by plan fiduciaries.

In 2015 (during the Administration of President Barack Obama) DOL guidance gave the green light to ESG investments…if the investment is appropriate based on economic considerations including those that may derive from ESG factors. (See our perspectives here from November 2015: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/)

And now in 2020, in June DOL’s EBSA proposed a “new investment duties rule” with “core additions” to the regulations.  (“Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” — this to address “recent trends involving ESG investing”).

Among the comments of DOL that really wrankled the ESG investor universe:

  • New text was added to codify DOL’s “longstanding position” that plan fiduciaries must select investments based on financial considerations relevant to the risk-adjusted economic value of an investment (or “course of action”).
  • The reminder that “Loyalty” duty prohibits fiduciaries from subordinating interests of plan participants and beneficiaries to “non-pecuniary goals”.   ESG factors could be “pecuniary” factors — but only if they present economic risk/opportunity under generally-accepted investment theories.
  • New text was added on required investment analysis and documentation for the “rare circumstance” when fiduciaries are choosing among “truly economically-indistinguishable” investments.  (Huh?)
  • A provision that fiduciaries must consider “other” available investments to meet prudence and loyalty duties.
  • A new provision for selection of investment alternatives for 401-K plans describes what is required for “pursuing” one or more ESG-oriented objectives in the investment mandate (or include ESG “parameters” in the fund name).

DOL Comments On These:

“ERISA plan fiduciaries may not invest in ESG vehicles when they understand an underlying investment strategy…is to subordinate return or increase risk for the purpose of non-financial objectives.”  And

“Private [Sector] employer-sponsored retirement plans are not vehicles for furthering social goals or policy objectives…not in the interest of the plan…ERISA plans should be managed with unwavering focus on a single, very important social goal: providing for the retirement security of American workers.”

After the rule changes were published, numerous investors pushed back – some summaries for you that were published on the 401K Specialist web platform of the responses of some fiduciaries who object to the proposed rule (“Commenters Hammer DOL of Proposed  ESG Rule”).

More than 1,500 comments have been submitted so far to DOL, calling for changes in the proposed rule, withdrawal, and the very short comment period (just 30 days, ended August 3, vs. the usual 90 days).

Investor/Fiduciary Pushback:

T. Rowe Price:   The proposed rule is attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Worse, the proposed rule discourages fiduciaries from taking into account ESG factors that should be considered.

ICCR/Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility:  The rule would impose significant analytical and documentation burdens on fiduciaries of benefit plans governed by ERISA wishing to select (or allow individual account holders to select) investments that use ESG factors in investment analysis, or that provide ESG benefits (signed by 138 member institutions).

ESG Global Advisors: The Proposal has misunderstood and/or mischaracterized the nature and purpose of ESG integration…this is likely to lead to confusion for ERISA fiduciaries and additional costs to plan savers. Plan fiduciaries will struggle to fulfill their obligation to integrate all financially-material ESG risk factors into their investment process.

Morningstar: The Department’s rule is out of step with the best practices asset managers and financial advisors use to integrate ESG considerations into their investment processes and selections. The proposed rule would…erect barriers to considering ESG factors that many financial professionals consider as a routine part of investment management…

Voya Financial Inc.: The Proposal is fundamentally flawed for two reasons…among the many qualitative factors an ERISA fiduciary may appropriately consider…the Proposal singles out ESG factors and subjects them to special tests…second, the Proposal fails to account for the positive effect on investment behavior that the availability of ESG-focused investment options can have…

American Retirement Association: …appropriate investments that include ESG factors should not be prohibited from qualifying as Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (“QDIAs”)…

The Wagner Law Group:  The proposed amendment is inconsistent with existing law and guidance…it would require fiduciaries to only consider pecuniary factors instead of using their judgment and discretion to evaluate investments under the totality of circumstances…a narrow list of permissible factors is inconsistent with the notion that prudence is not determined by a checklist and is a fact-specific determination…

BlackRock:  …the Proposal creates an overly prescriptive and burdensome standard that would interfere with plan fiduciaries’ ability and willingness to consider financially-material ESG factors…we urge DOL to engage with the industry to understand how investment options incorporating ESG factors are used in ERISA plans…

Members of Congress – the body that passed ERISA during its 93rd session in 1974 – reacted along partisan lines.

Republican members of the House Committee on Education and Labor submitted a letter of support of the DOL action.

Democrat Party members (41 of them) of the House and 20 members of the House Education and Labor Committee expressed opposition to the rule changes.

The Securities & Exchange Commission is looking at ESG investments as well – soliciting public comment “for the appropriate treatment for funds that use terms such as ESG in their name and whether the terms are likely to mislead investors” (also in the Federal Register post).

In May 2020 the SEC Investor Advisory Committee / Investor-as-Owner Subcommittee issued their perspectives on ESG disclosure:  https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/recommendation-of-the-investor-as-owner-subcommittee-on-esg-disclosure.pdf

There are more details for you here (the investor response summaries): https://401kspecialistmag.com/commenters-hammer-dol-on-proposed-esg-rule/

The Department of Labor’s EBSA proposal highlights are here as published in the Federal Register, June 30, 2020: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/

Notes:  The Secretary of Labor is Eugene Scalia, a nominee of President Donald Trump.

Acting Assistant Secretary for EBSA is Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson (appointed in June 2020).

There is an ERISA Advisory Council with six members.  Effective July 14, 2020:

  • Glenn Butash is chair; he is managing counsel at Nokia Corp.
  • David Kritz is vice-chair; he is deputy counsel at Norfolk Southern Corp.
  • John Harney is partner at law firm O’Donoghue and O’Donoghue.
  • Peter Wiedenbeck is Washington University School of Law professor.
  • James Haubrock is CPA and shareholder, Clark Schaefer Hackett.
  • Lisa Allen is compliance consultant, Altera Group.

Stay Tuned:  We will update you when decisions are announced by the Department of Labor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To keep in mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

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

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

In addition, see:

Titles Matter to Provide Context and Direction – For Corporate Leaders and the Providers of Capital

May 14 2020

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

Shorthand terms in business and finance do matter – the “titling” of  certain developments can sum up trends we should be tuning in to.  Some examples for today: Sustainable Capitalism  – Stakeholder Primacy – Sustainable Investing – Corporate Sustainability – Corporate ESG Performance Factors – Environmental Sustainability – Corporate Citizenship…and more.

These are very relevant and important terms for our times as world leaders grapple with the impacts of the coronavirus, address climate change challenges, as well as addressing conditions of inequality, have/have not issues, questions about the directions of the capital markets, ensure issuer access to long-term capital…and more.  And, as influential leaders in the private, public and social sectors consider the way forward when the coronavirus crisis begins to wind down.

For investors and corporate sector leaders, the concept of shareholder primacy was more or less unchallenged for decades after World War II with the rise of large publicly-traded corporations – General Electric! — that dominated the business sector in the USA and set the pace other companies in the capital markets.

But as one crisis followed another – the names are familiar — Keating Five S&L scandal, Drexel Burnham Lambert and junk bonds, Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia Cable, Arthur Andersen, the Wall Street research analysts’ debacle (Merrill Lynch et al), Lehman Bros and Bear Stearns, Turing Pharmaceutics, on to Wells Fargo, Purdue Pharma and its role in the Opiod crisis – over time, increasing numbers of investors began to seriously adjust they ways that they evaluate public companies they will provide vital capital to in both equities and fixed-income markets.

Investors today in this time of great uncertainty are focused on: which equity issue to put in portfolio that will stand the test of time; whose bonds will be “safe”, especially during times of crisis; which corporate issuer’s reputation and long-term viability is not at risk; where alpha may be presented as portfolio management practices are challenged by macro-events.

This is about where the money will be “safer” overall, and provide future value and opportunity for the providers of capital – because there is great leadership in the board room and executive offices and resilience in crisis is being demonstrated.

As we think about this, the questions posed in context (virus crisis all around) are:  Why has sustainable investing gone mainstream?  What can savvy boards and C-Suite leaders do to exert leadership in corporate sustainability?  Where is sustainable capitalism headed?  How do we identify great leadership in the corporate sector in times of crisis?

Our choice of featured stories up top for you this week provide some interesting perspectives on these questions.

And, we’ve tried to illustrate the embrace of sustainability as a fundamental organizing principle today of great corporate leaders.  As well as explaining the continuing embrace of sustainable investing approaches of key providers of capital as a strategic risk management discipline — and proof of concept of acceptance of stakeholder primacy / sustainable capitalism in the 21st Century.

The other stories we’ve curated for you this issue of our newsletter help to broaden these perspectives that are offered up in these challenging times from thought leaders.

As the ancient blessing/curse goes:  May we live in interesting times.

Featured Stories – The Two Critical Halves of Sustainable Capitalism, Issuers and Providers of Capital…

Concept: A well-structured sustainability committee not only serves a critical coordinating function, but also steers sustainability right to the heart of the company and the company’s strategy. Let’s take a look at how boards at some of the world’s leading companies have tackled this…

How Can Boards Successfully Guide a Transition to Sustainable Business?
Source: Sustainable Brands – The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are set to unlock $12 trillion in new business opportunities by 2030. Yet many companies are still stuck in the past. Over the next decade, businesses can either adapt and thrive or deny and, says the organization…

The evidence suggesting that boardrooms should prioritize sustainability is growing rapidly. On the one hand, there are increased risks associated with not prioritizing sustainability. On the other hand, the figures show the huge opportunities sustainability offers businesses. As a result, more and more, sustainability is positioned at the top of boards’ agendas.

Boards must put sustainability at the top of their agenda to thrive
Source: GreenBiz – Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, there have also been glimmers of hope. A significant one is its impact on climate change. It’s estimated that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by 2.5 billion…

During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so than having the right systems in place, is and will be integral as we navigate uncharted territory:

Pivoting with Moral Leadership
Source: CECP – During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so…

Bears watching:  On 8 April 2020 the European Commission published a consultation paper on its renewed sustainable finance strategy (the “Sustainability Strategy”). The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the inevitable recent shift of focus to measures dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, this remains a top EU priority and the outcome of this consultation may significantly affect :

European Commission Consultation on the Renewed Sustainable Finance Strategy
Source: National Law Review – The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the…

Boston Common Asset Management – Staying the Course, With Adjustments

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

Boston Common Asset Management with offices in Boston and San Francisco has been a sustainable and responsible investor since its founding in 2003.  The clients served are endowments, foundations, religious/faith-based groups, pension funds, family offices, and mission-driven organizations.

Part of its mission is to strive to improve corporate behaviors and responsibilities through engagement with corporate boards and executives and being active in proxy season with filing of resolutions, supporting other institutions doing the filing (often through collective actions) and voting practices.   Of course, like other asset managers, Boston Common is challenged as well by the changes brought about by the spreading coronavirus.

The Earth Day message from Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common included these points:

  • The firm’s focus is on both local and global issues – such as the health and safety of our community, planet and Boston Common’s impact as an active, engaged investor. Even as the impacts of COVID-19 are addressed, the work must go on in addressing systemic risk, especially the climate crisis.
  • Engagements (with companies) have not changed, but the tenor and lens through which public companies are evaluated and act will change.
  • Boston Common feels it is important in the crisis for portfolio companies to prioritize stakeholder well-being and the firm commends those companies that step up to show leadership.
  • At the same time, some companies are being called out – those firms that are price gouging, firing employees who are concerned about their health, and limiting access to much-needed products on the front lines.

What Boston Common is doing:

  • Having direct dialogue with company managements.
  • Working with investor networks and partners.
  • Looking at its own “responsible business” practices.
  • Planning and re thinking its future work.

Some specifics:

Company Engagements — Issues include human rights, eco-efficiency, climate risk. The changed tone is having more empathy, with more personal tone in these engagements.  Company responses are applauded and accountability is discussed – balancing interests of shareholders and stakeholders.

Working in Partnerships and Coalitions — The ICCR is a key partner of Boston Common, which is a signatory of the “ICCR Coronavirus Investment Statement” on workplace and supplier practices, and engagement of pharma companies to coordinate & collaborate on urgent medical needs. Link: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/watching-the-watchers-what-investors-esg-raters-are-doing-in-the-virus-crisis/

PRI:  The firm joined the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which has awarded Boston Common an A+ rating for our consecutive years.

Boston Common itself, a B-Corporation, is taking these actions:

  • Continuing to pay composting, cleaners, other contract vendors who rely on the income.
  • Supporting local food banks and social agencies addressing urgent community needs in Boston and San Francisco, contributing to date $26,630 in firm and employee-donated funds.
  • Future Focus” includes a “refresh” of engagement priorities and investor and private sector actions.  A range of societal issues that have been in the spotlight during the crisis must be addressed:  how work is valued; the need for a sustainable living wage; public health risks posed by industrial agriculture and food insecurity; unequal healthcare access and outcomes for low-income and communities of color; corporate tax practices, need for investment in healthcare infrastructure, social safety nets…and more.
  • Boston Common is adjusting the lens through which the firm examines its “asks” of companies and actions, and keeping systemic risk in focus (such as for issues like climate change, digital human rights, environmental protections as EPA rolls back the regs, controversial energy projects.)

Much will change with the virus crisis, MD Lauren Compere points out. “We must ensure that as investors we memorialize the lessons learned in this crisis, empowering companies to manage for the long-term, with a focus on joint recovery and prosperity as the world emerges from lockdown.”

Boston Common has long been a proponent for responsible behavior of corporations and investors and regularly joins with other asset managers in initiatives to drive change.

The issues involved include Amazon de-forestation, climate change and the portfolio risk posed by fossil fuel, urging the Detroit Big 3 (GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler) to drop opposition to California’s waiver authority on auto emissions standards, encouraging boards to include more diversity in director choices, and bank financing of controversial projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

About the name:  Many people have visited the beautiful Boston Commons in the middle of this New England city.  The firm’s name comes from the concept of standing at the intersection of the economic and social lives of the community; the “universal commons” is the firm’s shared mission and vision.

Information: https://bostoncommonasset.com/Membership/Apps/Boston_HP_Input_App.aspx 

 

Watching the Watchers – What Investors & ESG Raters Are Doing in the Virus Crisis

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

As we have numerous times in this space commented about the dramatic shift from a shareholder primacy focus (for public companies and investors) to today’s stakeholder primacy operating environment, the views of key stakeholders – investors, and their service providers – are critical during the virus crisis.

Today we’re sharing the actions and perspectives of the investor-stakeholders…as the investor coalition in our first item notes…

“…the long-term viability of the companies in which we invest is inextricably tied to the welfare of their stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers and communities…”


Investor Coalition Focuses on Corporate Response to the Crisis

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of 300 institutional investors long focused on corporate responsibility and sustainability, joined forces with the Office of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and Domini Impact Investments LLC to develop an “Investment Statement on Coronavirus Response” — to urge the business community to take what steps they can and offered five (5) steps for corporate managements to consider.

These include:

  • Providing paid leave – emergency leave for all employees, including temps, part-timers, and subcontracted workers.
  • Prioritizing health and safety – limiting exposure to COVID-19, rotating shifts, enhancing protective measures, closing locations, setting up remote work, additional training where appropriate.
  • Maintaining employment – retain workers as much as possible; a well-trained and committed workforce will help companies resume operations quickly; also, companies should watch for potential discriminatory impact during and after the crisis.
  • Maintaining supplier/customer relationships – As much as is possible, companies should maintain timely or prompt payments to suppliers and work with customers facing financial challenges to help stabilize the economy, protect communities and small businesses, and ensure a stable supply chain will be in place when operations return to normal.
  • Practice financial prudence – the investors state they expect the highest level of ethical financial management and responsibility in the period of (acknowledged) financial stress. As “responsible investors” (the signatories) the expectation is that companies will suspend share buybacks, and limit executive and senior management compensation for the duration of the crisis.

Beyond these, the investors urged companies to consider such measures as childcare assistance, hazard pay, assistance in obtaining government aid for suppliers, paying employee health insurance for laid off/furloughed workers, and deploying resources to meet societal needs related to the pandemic.

Over the past few years, the investor coalition points out, corporations have shown leadership by using their power as a force for tremendous good. This kind of leadership if critically needed now. And, business reputation and social license to operate is at stake.

As we prepare this about 200 long-term institutional investors with AUM of US$5 trillion had signed on to the effort, including: the AFL-CIO funds, American Federation of Teachers, Aviva Investors, Boston Common Asset Management, the Chicago City Treasurer, Communications Workers of America, Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden, Delaware State Treasurer, Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Investor Environmental Health Network, Office of Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Oregon State Treasurer, Robeco, SEIU, UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, Treasurer of the State of Maryland, Vermont State Treasurer, and a large roster of faith-based institutions and religious denomination funds.

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Walking-the-Talk of Corporate Responsibility

Refinitiv provides investors with ESG ratings and perspectives on corporate ESG performance and builds ESG / sustainability considerations into products and services for investor clients. The company announced what it is doing to maintain its forward ESG momentum during the crisis.   And the changes will over time affect the public companies that are rated and ESG news distributed worldwide by Refinitiv. 

On Earth Day 2020, the folks at Refinitiv – this is one of the world’s largest providers of financial information – announced the beefing up of their own operations…walking the talk of what they provide to investor clients in terms of ESG Data and solutions for evaluating public companies’ ESG performance.

Refinitiv is putting in place for itself more stringent, science-based emissions targets, climate change reporting standards to meet the TCFD’s recommendations, and is joining the RE100 initiative to source 100% of its electricity from renewables.

Refinitiv had made three core pledges on the environment, social impact and sustainable solutions to support the UN SDGs. Part of this was a goal of achieving carbon neutrality before the end of 2020. The company is joining the Business Ambition For 1.5C commitment; aligning its own corporate reporting with the Task Force for Climate-Related Disclosures (the TCFD); and by this coming summer should be 100% in terms of how they source energy from renewables.

Refinitiv recently launched “The Future of Sustainable Data Alliance” to accelerate the mobilization of capital into sustainable finance, and will work to sustainability “at the core of product offerings”. Refinitiv serves more than 40,000 institutions in 190 countries, providing ESG data for 15+ years.

We can expect that these moves will result in the intensifying of the evaluation of corporate sustainability efforts by this major financial information provider. As the Refinitiv CEO David Craig comments:

The pandemic is clearly providing humanity with a re-set moment: a stark reminder about our fragility as a species and a sharp lesson about what happens when we mess with nature. It is also a moment when the old rules about the role of the state no longer apply. We can therefore attack the twin challenges of COVID-19 and climate change simultaneously, not sequentially. After all, when again will we be at a moment when governments are injecting such unprecedented sums into the economy just as the world needs up to $7 trillion a year of renewable investments to hit 2030 development and climate targets.”

Luke Manning, Global Head of Sustainability and Risk Enterprise at Refinitiv, adds:

Our commitment is going further than before and aiming for more ambitious emissions reductions that – if repeated by businesses across the world – should limit atmospheric warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. If we want to truly progress the climate agenda we need to help everyone understand that tackling it is in all our personal and financial self-interest. It’s not just about the impact we are having on the environment, but the impact the environment is having on us.

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Morningstar Acquires Full Ownership in Sustainalytics

Morningstar, a leading firm in providing investment research to individual and institutional investors in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia-Pacific region, began measuring the performance of ESG-focused mutual funds and ETFs three years ago. As part of the initiative, Morningstar acquired a 40% interest in the ESG ratings organization, Sustainalytics.

Now, that interest will be 100% as Morningstar solidifies its competitive advantage in measuring the performance of ESG investable products. Says CEO Kamal Kapoor:

“Modern investors in public and private markets are demanding ESG data, research, ratings, and solutions in order to make informed, meaningful investing decisions. From climate change to supply-chain practices, the nature of the investment process is evolving and shining a spotlight on demand for stakeholder capitalism. Whether assessing the durability of a company’s economic moat or the stability of its credit rating, this is the future of long-term investing.

“By coming together, Morningstar and Sustainalytics will fast track our ability to put independent, sustainable investing analytics at every level – from a single security through to a portfolio view – in the hands of all investors. Morningstar helped democratize investing, and we will do even more to extend Sustainalytics’ mission of contributing to a more just and sustainable global economy.”

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As companies large and small, public and private, step up to help society during the virus crisis, they burnish their reputation and social license to operate.And help society cope with the impact of the crisis on individuals, families, communities and institutions. 

We’re bringing you the news of those corporate actions.  And, we’re watching the investment community for their reactions, and their intention to encourage public companies to stay the course of their sustainability journey during the virus crisis.  Stay Tuned to this blog. 

The Virus Crisis Affects Business in Many Ways – What Will the Risks and Opportunities Result in for Companies “Post-Emergency?” BNP Paribas Offers Views…

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

What might our world look like when the COVID-19 global emergency finally winds down and we move into the “recovery and restoration” phase?  What is in store for business in the transition? And beyond? Looking at risk and opportunity through an ESG lens.

BNP Paribas Asset Management has offered up some important perspectives. ESG Analyst Anupama Rames asks and answers:  (1) Will the world go back to status quo when we exit the current dis-location? (2) Probably not. 

“We believe,” she writes, “that the learnings from the go-remote experiment are here to stay.”

Last year BNP Paribas offered up the “3-E’s” – their methodology for addressing what the large asset management firm sees as the three key sustainability challenges of our time:  (1) Energy transition; (2) Environmental sustainability; (3) Equality and inclusive growth. 

Now, analyst Rames is determining the risk, changes, risk mitigation strategies and opportunities in each of the categories.

The examples she cites:

Energy Transition
There’s now a 20% drop in global oil consumption and negative regional oil pricing; the energy sector is under-performing equity and high-yield indices. Such factors as lower plastic uses (petro is a key component), electrification of transport and climate mitigation policies add up to dampened oil demand.

Changes in work patterns (more remote working, distancing), reductions in personal and business travel mean less oil demand today. Key concern going forward:  stranded oil & gas assets over the long-term.

Possible winners in the opportunity zone:  renewables, conservation measures, energy storage (capturing the energy from the windmill).

And, BNP Paribas ESG integration methodology aims to differentiate winner and losers in the transition, post-emergency

Environmental Sustainability
Analyst Rames brings up a topic not really being discussed (yet) in broader public dialogue – the disease transmission path, from animal to human, such as with COVID-19, SARS, MERS, and other virus infections of recent years.  Natural habitat destruction and global wildlife trade are factors.  Vectors move in times of climate change and bring diseases with them!

Equality and Inclusive Growth
The urban-rural divide — with many differentiations in the access to opportunities, access to the digital economy, mis-information overload, access to affordable healthcare — are key issues being confronted by society (and with varying results during the crisis).

The virus crisis is accelerating the transition to “remote” and digital connectivity in our personal and business lives.  This can be positive – and quite negative in the socio-economic divide. 

A positive:  on the opportunity side, remote healthcare can bring benefits to rural areas. The virus crisis day-by-day brings society closer to a “digitized” future.  Analyst Anupama Rames sees this:  Of all industries being re-shaped, healthcare will be most affected. 

And an important note to corporate leaders:  BNP Paribas is viewing transformations and market shifts through the lens of its 3E (ESG) framework, to identify public companies being proactive in finding solutions to the societal issues that can support “sustainable returns” for the long-term.

There are more details for you in the Top Story.   

Top Story

Will COVID-19 lead to sustainable change?   
Source: Investors-Corner (BNP Paribas Asset Management)
Will the world go back to ‘status quo’ when we exit this dislocation? Probably not. We believe the learnings from the ‘go-remote’ experiment are here to stay. The implications for the future of energy, real estate, work…

Is There a Trend of Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

By Reilly Sakai – Sustainability Analyst at G&A Institute

Despite being identified by some as one of the top contributors to impact on society’s environmental and social issues, on close inspection we could say that the fashion industry continues in 2020 to lag behind other sectors when it comes to a close review of the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The positives: Some major apparel industry players have or are attempting to create strategies and initiatives to reduce plastic and improve the sustainability of their supply chain.

However, in reviewing industry performance overall, it can be difficult to parse through which initiatives are actually making a difference — and which are simply an example of greenwashing, especially given the lower rate of disclosure of ESG emissions by prominent companies’ reporting.

Solutions? What Steps To Be Taken?

So, we can ask, what steps must be taken now — both at the company and the consumer level?

We can ask this question: Is it possible for an industry that so depends on continuous consumption of its products (clothing) to become more sustainable?

The fashion industry is reported to be responsible for more carbon emission than all international flights and maritime shipping combined — “producing 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions” (source: UNEP, 2018).

The apparel industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply — after fruit and vegetable farming, which can be very intensive in terms of water use (source: Thomas Insights, 2019).

And, among the challenges, it’s reported that up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills rather than being recycled or upcycled (UNECE, 2018).

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales increased from 50 billion units to over 100 billion units, while utilization of clothing (the average number of times a garment is worn) dropped 36% during the same timeframe (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

These figures are nothing to scoff at as various sectors and industries move toward less water use; less waste to landfill; more recycling and re-use, among many measures adopted throughout industries.

Is the Fashion Industry Drive to Sustainability Slowing Down?

And yet, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from the year 2019, sustainability efforts in the industry appear to be slowing down rather than accelerating to address these issues.

In GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database, there are currently 248 organizations that fall in the textiles & apparel sector worldwide. Put that in perspective of the total 14,476 organizations in the database.

That’s less than 2% of reporting organizations in the textile & apparel sector. In the sector, there are just 80 GRI Standards industry reports, vs 4,089 GRI Standards reports in the database as a whole.

Given the rate at which the global fashion industry has been growing (before the coronavirus emergency) – more people, more apparel, more income, etc) — we might conclude that companies in the industry have simply not been doing enough to offset their well-charted detrimental environmental impacts.

So what to do now? We know that the fashion industry is important in terms of global economic impact and employment, and creativity – while also being a top contributor to waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and an array of other negative environmental factors.

Incentives For Changing – Lacking

Today, there aren’t major economic or societal incentives in place for apparel companies to make real changes.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, not to mention considerable investment, to switch factories in which clothes are produced and polluting or violating human rights and so on (to address key ESG issues).

And it’s also quite difficult to have real transparency at every level of the apparel and footwear global supply chain to help to ensure a more sustainable production process.

Consumer Tastes – May Make a Difference. Maybe.

Moreover, while many consumers are now starting to buy what they believe to be the more sustainable products in many categories including fashion, very few consumers are apparently willing to pay more for them — or have the time or means to investigate every company’s sustainability initiatives and track record before making their purchase (Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2019).

Since it’s so much quicker and cheaper to do, companies instead may turn to marketing messaging that tells their customers that they are working towards a more sustainable future — without actually doing much or even anything in reality.

What Leading Companies Are Doing – the Positives

There is good news.  The “we are sustainable” message has begun to sell well and customers have been moving to certain apparel brands that are promoting a sustainable vision — without the buyer being able to (at point-of-sale) fact-check a company’s claims. That is the reality of at-market sales.

We can begin by taking a look at Everlane, which touts “radical transparency,” but doesn’t actually divulge the name of the factories in which its garments are produced.  So we don’t know what is going on there.

Patagonia, on the other hand, is considered best-in-class, offering repair and buyback programs in order to promote a circular economy, and has a multitude of policies and systems in place to ensure they’re doing everything they can to protect the environment and people who work at or interact with the company.

Nike, similarly, has done a lot to improve their supply chains over many years, using innovation as a driver for sustainability.

Rather than increasing factory audits to ensure that workers are wearing protective gear, Nike engineered a non-toxic glue so protective gear is no longer needed.\

Nike’s flyknit sneaker vastly reduced the amount of material needed to construct a shoe, meaning lower costs and less waste.

Other brands, from Adidas to Puma, have followed suit.

On the luxury end, Eileen Fisher has been a staple of sustainable clothing for decades, sourcing environmentally friendly materials, offering a buyback program, upcycling old materials into new garments, and sharing the wealth with all of her employees by offering a comprehensive ESOP.

Looking to the Future to Protect the Planet

With our Planet Earth’s environmental situation growing ever more dire, it is critical for the fashion industry — now! —  to encourage and make major changes — but convincing individual corporate leadership that this is a worthwhile investment is no small feat.

Because of the higher costs typically associated with implementing sustainability initiatives (or at least the perception of higher cost), overhauling a company’s entire supply chain is quite challenging.

Many fashion companies do not find it feasible in this competitive pricing environment to raise their prices or cut into their margins, especially when they continue to see the industry growing at such a swift pace year-over-year.

Perhaps more and more companies will consider Nike’s successful approach. That is, increasing spending in R&D as opposed to marketing, which has major potential to decrease costs and increase margins in the long-term, while improving their ESG efforts at the same time.

In my opinion, it’s going to probably take some form of public sector intervention or a mass consumer revolution or some similar dramatic action to influence the bulk of the fashion industry to move toward a truly sustainable future – and one of those things might happen sooner than later.

The leaders in corporate sustainability in the industry will be the major beneficiaries when the tide turns.

* * * * * * * * *

Reilly SakaiReilly Sakai is a sustainability analyst at G&A Institute; she began her work with us as one of our outstanding analyst-interns in grad school. She is completing her MBA program in Fashion & Luxury at NYU Stern School of Business, where she is specializing in Sustainable Business & Innovation, and, Management of Technology & Operations. She has been working with NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business on an independent study that explores environmental sustainability in apparel manufacturing.