Getting Serious About SASB: Company Boards, Execs and Their Investors Are Tuning In. What About Accounting Firms?

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

February 26, 2020

The importance of the work over the recent years of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board in developing industry-specific ESG disclosure recommendations was underscored with the recent letters to company leadership from two of the world’s leading asset management firms.

Corporate boards and/or executive teams received two important letters in January that included strong advice about their (portfolio companies’) SASB disclosures. 

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained to corporate CEOs his annual letter:  “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance. Important progress in improving disclosure has been made – many companies already do an exemplary job of integrating and reporting on sustainability but we need to achieve more widespread and standardized adoption.” 

While no framework is perfect, BlackRock believes that the SASB provides a clear set of standards for reporting sustainability information across a wide range of issues, from labor practices to data privacy to business ethics. 

In 2020, BlackRock is asking companies that the firm invests in on behalf of clients to publish a disclosure in line with industry-specific SASB guidelines by year end (and disclose a similar set of data in line with the TCFD’s recommendations). 

In a thought paper, BlackRock explained that disclosures intended for investors need to focus on financially material and business relevant metrics and include supporting narratives. The recommendations of the TCFD and the SASB (standards) are the benchmark frameworks for a company to disclose its approach to climate-related risks and the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Absent such robust disclosure, investors could assume that companies are not adequately managing their risk. Not the right message to send to current and prospective investors in the corporation, we would say.

State Street Sends Strong Signals

Separately, State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) CEO Cyrus Taraporevala in his 2020 letter to corporate board members explained:  “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is a good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance – a matter of value, not values.” 

The asset management firm [one of the world’s largest] uses its “R-Factor” (R=“responsibility”) to score the performance of a company’s business operations and governance as it relates to financially material and sector-specific ESG issues.

The CEO’s letter continued:  The ESG data is drawn from four leading service providers and leverages the SASB materiality framework to generate unique scores for 6,000+ companies’ performance against regional and global industry peers. “We believe that a company’s ESG score will soon effectively be as important as it credit rating.”

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board

About SASB’s continuing progress:  Recommendations for corporate disclosure centered on materiality of issues & topics were fully developed in a multi-party process (“codified”) concluding in November 2018 for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors by a multi-party process.

The recommendations are now increasingly being used by public companies and investors as important frameworks for enhanced corporate disclosure related to ESG risks and opportunities. 

To keep in mind: A company may be identified in several sectors and each of these should be seriously considered in developing the voluntary disclosures (data sets, accompanying narrative for context).

Bloomberg LP (the company headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination) is a private company but publishes a SASB Disclosure report. (Bloomberg is the chair of SASB as well as the leader of his financial information firm.)

The company published “robust” metrics using the SASB on three industry categories for 2018: Internet & Media Services; Media & Entertainment; Professional & Commercial Services.

Bloomberg LP is privately-owned; this was an example for public company managements. The report explained:

“The nature of our business directs us to consult three industries (above). We provide a distinct table for each…containing topics we have identified as material and against which we are able to report as a private company. Quantitative data is followed by narrative information that contextualizes the data table and is responsive to qualitative metrics.”

Solid advice for company boards and executives beginning the expansion of disclosure using the SASB.

SASB Guidance

SASB provides a Materiality Map for each sector (SASB uses its SICS® – The Sustainability Industry Classification System) and provides a Standards Navigator for users. There is also an Engagement Guide for investors to consider when engaging with corporates; and, an Implementation Guide for companies (explaining issues and SASB approaches).

The fundamental tenets of SASB’s approach is set out in its Conceptual Framework: Disclosures should be Evidence-based; Industry-specific; Market-informed.  The recommended metrics for corporate disclosure include fair representation, being useful and applicable (for investors), comparable, complete, verifiable, aligned, neutral, distributive.

Accounting and Audit Professionals Advised: Tune In to SASB

Separate of the BlackRock and SSgA advice to companies and investors, accounting and auditing professionals working with their corporate clients are being urged to “tune in” to SASB.

Former board member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Marc Siegel shared his thoughts with the New York State Society of CPAs in presenting: “SASB: Overview, Trends in Adoption, Case Studies & SDG Integration”.  The Compliance Week coverage is our Top Story in the newsletter this week.

Marc Siegel is a Partner in E&Y’s Financial Accounting Advisory Service practice, served a decade on the FASB board (managers and shapers of GAAP) and was appointed to the SASB board in January 2019.

He was in the past a leader at RiskMetrics Group and CFRA, both acquired by MSCI, and is recognized as a thought leader in financial services – his views on SASB will be closely followed.

With the growing recognition of the importance of SASB recommendation for disclosure to companies and the importance of SASB’s work for investors, he encouraged the gathered accountants to get involved and assist in implementing controls over ESG data, suggesting that SASB standards are a cost-effective way for companies to begin responding to investor queries because they are industry-specific. 

Accountants, he advised, can help clients by putting systems in place to collect and control the data and CPA firms can use SASB standards as criteria to help companies that are seeking assurance for their expanding sustainability reporting.

This is an important call to action for accounting professionals, helping to generate broader awareness of the SASB standards for those working with publicly-traded companies and for internal financial executives.

The G&A Institute team has been working with corporate clients in recent years in developing greater understanding of the SASB concepts and approaches for industry-specific sustainability disclosure and helping clients to incorporate SASB standards in their corporate reports. 

We’ve also been closely tracking the inclusion of references to “SASB” and inclusion of SASB metrics by public companies in their reporting as part of our GRI Data Partner work. ‘

The G&A Institute analyst teams examine and assess every sustainability report published in the USA and have tracked trends related to how companies are integrating SASB disclosures into their reporting. 

What began as a trickle of SASB mentions in corporate reports several years ago is now increasing and we are capturing samples of such inclusions in our report monitoring and analysis.

Over the past four+ years we’ve developed comprehensive models and methodologies to assist our corporate client teams incorporating SASB disclosures in their public-facing documents (such as their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reports, in Proxy Statements, for investor presentations and in other implementations).

Our co-founder and EVP Louis Coppola was among the first in the world (“early birds”) to be certified and obtain the SASB CSA Level I credential in 2015.

If you’d like to discuss SASB reporting for your company and how we can help please contact us at info@ga-institute.com

There’s information for you about our related services on the G&A Institute web site: https://www.ga-institute.com/services/sustainability-esg-consulting/sasb-reporting.html

Top Story

Benefits of sustainability reporting: takeaways for accounting 
Source: Compliance Week – According to former Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) member Marc Siegel, companies are being asked for sustainability information from many sides and are facing a bumpy road because they are under pressure due to pervasive… 

The Year 2020: Off To Great Start For News About Sustainable Investing

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

January 2020 — Here we are now in a new year, and new decade (already, the third decade of the 21st Century) and much of the buzz is all about (1) climate change and the dramatic impacts on business, finance, government and we humans around the globe; and (2) many investors are moving their money to more sustainable investments.

Oh, of course, there are other important conversations going on, such as about corporate purpose, corporate stewardship, human rights, the circular economy, worker rights, supply chain responsibility, reducing GHG emission, conserving natural resources, moving to a greener and lower carbon economy, workplace diversity, what happens to workers when automation replaces them…and more. 

But much of this is really part of sustainable investing, no?  And corporate purpose, we’d say, is at the center of much of this discussion!

The bold names of institutional investors/asset management are in the game and influencing peers in the capital markets – think about the influence of Goldman Sachs, BlackRock (world’s largest asset manager), State Street/SSgA, The Vanguard Group, and Citigroup on other institutions, to name here but a handful of major asset managers adopting sustainable investing strategies and approaches.

This week’s Top Story is about Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s pivot to “green is good”, moved by Reuters news service and authored by Chris Taylor.  The GS website welcome is Our Commitment to Sustainable Finance

The company announced a US$750 billion, 10-year initiative focused on financing of clean energy, affordable education and accessible healthcare, and reduction of or exclusion of financing for Arctic oil-gas drilling.

Head of GS Sustainable Finance Group John Goldstein explains the company’s approach to sustainable financing and investment in the Reuters story. 

Our other Top Story is from Morningstar; this is an update on the investors’ flows into sustainable funds in 2019…what could be the leading edge of a huge wave coming as new records are set. 

For 2019, net flows into open-end and ETF sustainable funds were $20.6 billion for the year just ended – that’s four times the 2018 volume (which was also a record year). There’s always information of value for you on the Morningstar website; registration is required for free access to content.

And the commentary on the January 2020 letter from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to the CEOs of companies the firm invests in – we’ve included a few perspectives. 

We’d say that 2020 is off to an exciting start for sustainability professionals, in the capital markets, and in the corporate sector! Buckle your seat belts!

Top Stories for This Week

Green is good. Is Wall Street’s new motto sustainable?   
Source: Reuters – If you have gone to Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s (GS.N) internet home page since mid-December, it would be reasonable to wonder if you had stumbled into some kind of parallel universe. 

Sustainable Fund Flows in 2019 Smash Previous Records   
Source: MorningStar – Sustainable funds in the United States attracted new assets at a record pace in 2019. Estimated net flows into open-end and exchange-traded sustainable funds that are available to U.S. investors totaled $20.6 billion for the… 

BlackRock’s CEO’s 2020 Letter to Corporate CEOs – Explaining the World’s Largest Asset Manager’s Perspectives and Actions on the Global Climate Change Crisis

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

The big news this week for sustainability professionals:  The publication of the much-anticipated annual letter to corporate chief executive officers by Larry Fink, Chair and CEO of BlackRock –– the world’s largest asset manager (with almost US$7 trillion in Assets Under Management). 

Every year CEO Fink as fiduciary for his firm’s clients communicates BlackRock’s positions on key issues — and signals the steps ahead as BlackRock enhances its sustainable investing actions as influential global fiduciary.

This week the 2020 annual letter to corporate CEO’s describes what is headlined as “A Fundamental Reshaping of Finance”.   The focus is on climate change – a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects, explains Mr. Fink.

 About the impact of climate change on investors:  “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental re-shaping of finance.”  Consider some quotes from the letter:

 “In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant re-allocation of capital.”

 “Climate risk is investment risk.”

 “As I have written in past letters [to CEOs in 2019, 2018] a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders.  Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”

 “Every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change.”

Separately the BlackRock CEO wrote to the firm’s investor clients; he communicated to the corporate CEOs what he is saying to clients about BlackRock actions that will affect them. 

Consider: sustainability will be integral to BlackRock’s portfolio construction and risk management; certain investments will be exited (those presenting high sustainability-related risk, such as coal producers).  There will be new investment products that screen fossil fuels and strengthen BlackRock’s commitment to sustainability and transparency in its investment stewardship activities.

“Over time,” CEO Larry Fink posits, “companies and governments that do not respond to stakeholders and address sustainability risks will encounter growing skepticism from the markets, and in turn, a higher cost of capital. Companies and countries that champion transparency and demonstrate responsiveness…by contrast, will attract investment more effectively, including higher-quality, more patient capital.”

BlackRock was a founding member of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (the TCFD) and is a signatory of the UN Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) as well as the Vatican’s 2019 statement advocating carbon pricing regimes.

CEO Larry Fink is one of the signatories of The Business Roundtable’s statement on corporate purpose.  BlackRock has just joined the Climate Action 100, a coalition of almost 400 investment manager managing US$40 trillion in AUM. 

There’s a volume of important information for both corporate boards and executives and sustainable investing professionals in the 2020 Larry Fink letter to CEOs of companies in BlackRock’s portfolio.

We can expect going forward in 2020 that many business & financial media will pick up on the BlackRock letter and capital market and corporate sector leaders will weigh in with their perspectives.

We are now a long way from the Professor Milton Friedman school of “shareholder primacy” advanced by the professor, in his books such as “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) and his September 1970 essay proclaiming “shareholders first” in The New York Times.

Link to the letter.

Top Stories – Start of 2020 Coverage of the BlackRock / Larry Fink Missive

Fortune Magazine’s Coverage:
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink puts climate change at the center of megafund’s investment strategy

Barron’s Coverage for 400,000 Reader-Investors:
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink say’s it’s time to tackle global warming – starting with coal

Bloomberg News:
BlackRock puts climate at center of $7 trillion strategy

Sustainable Investing Has Moved Into the Mainstream — and UBS Survey Results Send Strong Signals This is a Lasting Trend

December 2019

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

There is no doubt now — the world’s largest asset managers are definitely focused on corporate sustainability and sustainable investing (the two go hand-in-hand) as survey upon survey of investment professionals tells us.

In recent years we seen considerable momentum as asset owners and their managers adopt or further enhance their sustainable investing / ESG investing approaches. And to gauge the progress we’re seeing major, global asset managers busily taking the pulse of the capital market players.

For example UBS, the findings from one of the world’s leading asset managers, which regularly surveys asset managers.  James Purcell, Global Head of Sustainable and Impact Investing at UBS Wealth Management shares the latest survey findings in a sponsored editorial post in the Harvard Business Review, and assures executive-level readers:

“Sustainability doesn’t mean one potentially has to give up returns. In fact it may be contributing to the investment process by adding more pertinent non-financial information. In this, we have reached a ‘why not’ moment.”

UBS, the commentator explains, is ambitious in wanting to shape the future of sustainable investing because the company believes these investments can help clients pursue investments according to their values.  And – because UBS is confident that sustainable investing will remain a widely-accepted way of investing.

In the content shared on the HBR platform, the company explains the signals that sustainable investing should be seen as a lasting, major force in the capital markets.  Among these signals:

  • Urgent challenges such as climate change (presented to both companies and investors).
  • The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the aims of the EU High Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance – all of these actively suggest solutions to global challenges that are now at a scale demanding critical mass. (We have but 10 years to go to change the direction of perilous global warming, science experts tell us.)
  • At the same time, customers, shareholders and employees are aligning their values and leveraging their investments for the public good. That is impacting (positively) sustainable investing.
  • In turn, this trend creates new demands on institutions to make ESG performance and sustainable investment part of the long-term strategy.
  • Asset owners are heeding the call – see the Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) for reports on the progress of asset owners (the PRI signatories) and their asset managers. (PRI was launched in 2006 with 63 investment companies committing to incorporate ESG issues into investment decision.  This year there are 2,450 signatories representing US$82 trillion in collective AUM!)
  • Three of four asset owners surveyed by UBS say that they consider ESG management approaches and results as one of the key issues looked at when choosing an asset manager.
  • These and other factors (outlined in the Harvard Business Review commentary) are clear demonstration – important signals! — of the extent to which the mainstreaming of ESG has evolved over the most recent years.

In the 2018 UBS Investor Watch Global Survey, 81% of respondents said they wanted to align their consumer spending patterns with their values.

In the 2019 UBS survey of investors (“ESG: Do You, or Don’t You?”) more four-of-ten respondents said they already have sustainable investments in their portfolios and expect a positive impact on financial performance. Eight-of-ten respondents said they thoughts “sustainable companies” were good investments (they’re perceived as better managed, more forward-thinking).

In 2019, UBS teamed with Responsible Investor to gauge the extent of ESG investing.  Europe had the highest proportion of asset owners active in ESG investing (82% of owners). North America is catching up with 70% of respondents saying they were “do-ers” (making ESG material their day-to-day activity) and 19% were “adopters” (not yet focused day-to-day on ESG but planning to integrate in the future).

Just in time!

Opening this week’s COP 25 meetings, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres challenged those assembled at the Conference of Parties’ gathering (and millions more tuning in)  by asking – Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned? (Or, follow of path of resolve, of sustainable solutions).

The UBS commentary is a message of hope – and there is a handy sidebar explain sustainable investing which is of value.  We invite your reading of this week’s Top Story and the other items (including more sustainable investment items) that Editor-in-Chief Ken Cynar and the G&A team has selected for you this week.

Top Stories

Is Sustainable Investing Moving Into the Mainstream?
Source: Harvard Business Review – Sustainable investing, which incorporates environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria into investment decisions, has been gaining more attention among both individual investors and asset managers in the world’s largest…

Sustainable & Responsible Investment and Asset Manager Perspectives – Today, and Quo Vadis Over the Coming Years…

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

The terms of reference are familiar now to many more institutional owners and their internal and external managers (as well as to a growing number of retail investors who are their clients and beneficiaries).

This movement began as “socially responsible investing” (“SRI”) which evolved over time to “sustainable & responsible investing” and on to “sustainable & responsible & impact investing” in the 21st Century.

In recent months we’re increasingly hearing and using the simplified term “sustainable investing” and “ESG investing”.

The progress is welcomed!  Our esteemed colleague Erika Karp at Cornerstone Capital Group here in New York (she was formerly managing director/head of Global Sector Research at UBS and is one of the founders of SASB) has been saying for some time at public conferences that one day we’ll just be talking about “investing” — and it will all be what today we’re describing as “sustainable investing”. 

So how do investors – the world’s trusted fiduciaries and intermediaries – feel about sustainable investing? 

According to Schroder’s “Institutional Investor Study 2019 – Geopolitics and Investor Expectations” – belief is very high and the proportion of investors worldwide who do not believe in sustainable / ESG investing fell to just 11 percent (from 20% in 2017); the decline was most notable in Latin America (falling to 12% from 29%).

The survey respondents:  pension funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, endowments, foundations – 650 in total, managing US$25 trillion in assets from 20 global locations.  According to Schroder’s survey of these entities, the “cynics in the asset management sector” fell by 50% in just three years of the survey effort.

Geographic spread of responses:  27%, North America; 38%, Europe; 27%, Asia-Pacific; Latin America, 8%.

Key numbers:  52 percent cite macro and geopolitical risks as greatest concern; 52% look to increase their exposure to private assets; 53% need customized solutions to meet their needs; 67% believe annual total returns will remain above 5% over the next five years; and, 75% believe sustainability will play a more important role over the next five years.

This is an important point to underscore:  Three quarters of respondents expect sustainable investing to grow in importance over the next five years (up from the base of 67% who thought so in the 2017 survey effort). 

Alas, there are still asset managers doubting the value of sustainable investing – almost one-in-five (19%) of investors responding said they do not invest in sustainable investing funds.

Sixty-seven percent of North American survey respondents said greater transparency and better ESG data and benchmarks were important.  

At G&A Institute we’re hearing this argument every day among our capital market colleagues and this is why the major ESG ratings agencies and ESG information providers – such as MSCI, Sustainalytics, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters/Refinitiv, Vigeo Eiris and ISS — have been strengthening their systems and enhancing their methodologies to meet increasing investor-clients’ demands. 

We have been successfully working with our corporate sector clients in helping them better manage their ESG data profiles and related information in the effort to improve the information available to the rating agencies’ for rankings and data sets in a more efficient and effective manner. And then from the ratings agencies on to their investor clients.

These efforts help the corporate issuer to better represent themselves as a sustainable investment candidate and to make sure they do not get passed over by the dramatically-growing pool of asset managers now focused on corporate ESG as key factors in financial analysis and portfolio management. 

The Schroder’s results as revealed in their latest investor survey are good news all around, we would say!

Schroder’s Global is a 200-year old investment management firm working with institutions, intermediaries and individuals, managing $500 billion-plus in assets for 5,000 people on all continents.

This week’s Top Story is a review of the Schroder’s report for asset managers as published for the readers of Chief Investment Officer.  Information about the Schroder’s report is also available to you here and here.

Each week as part of our Highlights content we bring you news of ESG / Sustainable & Responsible Investment from global sources.

Adding Considerable Value to This Discussion:
Business Insider shared the results of the Merrill Lynch – Bank of America survey of investors. These are the top 10 reasons investors and companies should care about ESG investing. You can read highlights here.

Top Stories

Sustainable Investment Skeptics are Becoming Believers
Source: Chief Investment Officer – The doubters of sustainable investing are rapidly dwindling in numbers, according to a study by asset manager Schroders, which found that cynics of the sector have fallen by nearly 50% in just three years.

Trump Administration Continues Attempts to Unravel U.S. Environmental Protections Put in Place Over Many Years – Now, Shareholder Proxy Resolution Actions on Climate Issues Also In Focus For Investors…

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

We should not have been surprised: in 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump promised that among his first steps when in the Oval Office would be the tearing up of his predecessor’s commitment to join the family of nations in addressing climate change challenges. 

In late-December 2015 in Paris, with almost 200 nations coming to agreement on tackling climate change issues, the United States of America with President Barack Obama presiding signed on to the “Paris Agreement” (or Accord) for sovereign nations and private, public and social sector organizations come together to work to prevent further damage to the planet.

The goal is to limit damage and stop global temperatures from rising about 2-degrees Centigrade, the issues agreed to. 

As the largest economy, of course the United States of America has a key role to play in addressing climate change.  Needed: the political will, close collaboration among private, public and social sectors — and funding for the transition to a low-carbon economy (which many US cities and companies are already addressing).

So where is the USA? 

On June 1st 2017 now-President Trump followed through on the promise made and said that the U.S.A. would begin the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, joining the 13 nations that have not formally ratified the agreement by the end of 2018 (such as Russia, North Korea, Turkey and Iran).  

Entering 2019, 197 nations have ratified the Agreement.

A series of actions followed President Trump’s Paris Agreement announcement – many changes in policy at US EPA and other agencies — most of which served to attempt to weaken long-existing environmental protections, critics charged.

The latest move to put on your radar:  In April, President Trump signed an Executive Order that addresses “Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth”.

[Energy] Infrastructure needs – a bipartisan issue – are very much in focus in the president’s recent EO.  But not the right kind to suit climate change action advocates. 

Important: The EO addressed continued administration promotion and encouraging of coal, oil and natural gas production; developing infrastructure for transport of these resources; cutting “regulatory uncertainties”; review of Clean Water Act requirements; and updating of the DOT safety regulations for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities.

Critics and supporters of these actions will of course line up on both sides of the issues.

There are things to like and to dislike for both sides in the president’s continuing actions related to environmental protections that are already in place.

And then there is the big issue in the EO:  a possible attempt to limit shareholder advocacy to encourage, persuade, pressure companies to address ESG issues.

Section 5 of the EO“Environment, Social and Governance Issues; Proxy Firms; and Financing of Energy Projects Through the U.S. Capital Markets.” 

The EO language addresses the issue of Materiality as the US Supreme Court advises.  Is ESG strategy, performance and outcome material for fiduciaries? Many in the mainstream investment community believe the answer is YES!

Within 180 days of the order signing, the Secretary of the Department of Labor will complete a review existing DOL guidance on fiduciary responsibilities for investor proxy voting to determine whether such guidance should be rescinded, replaced, or modified to “ensure consistency with current law and policies that promote long-term growth and maximize return on ERISA plan assets”. 

(Think of the impact on fiduciaries of the recommendations to be made by the DOL, such as public employee pension plans.) 

The Obama Administration in 2016 issued a DOL Interpretive Bulletin many see as a “green light” for fiduciaries to consider when incorporating ESG analysis and portfolio decision-making.  The Trump EO seems to pose a direct threat to that guidance.

We can expect to see sustainable & responsible investors marshal forces to aggressively push back against any changes that the Trump/DOL forces might advance to weaken the ability of shareholders – fiduciaries, the owners of the companies! – to influence corporate strategies and actions (or lack of action) on climate change risks and opportunities.  Especially through their actions in the annual corporate proxy ballot process and in engagements. 

You’ll want to stay tuned to this and the other issues addressed in the Executive Order.  We’ll have more to report to you in future issues of the newsletter.

Click here to President Trump’s April 10, 2019 Executive Order.

Facts or not?  Click here if you would like to fact check the president’s comments on withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

We are still in!  For the reaction of top US companies to the Trump announcement on pulling out of the Paris Accord, check The Guardiancoverage of the day.

At year end 2018, this was the roundup of countries in/and not.

For commentaries published by G&A Institute on the Sustainability Update blog related to the above matters, check out it here.

Check out our Top Story for details on President Trump’s recent EO.

This Week’s Top Stories

Trump Order Takes Aim at Shareholders Pushing Companies to Address Climate Change
(Wednesday – April 77, 2019) Source: Climate Liability News – President Trump has ordered a review of the influence of proxy advisory firms on investments in the fossil fuel industry, a mot that…

When Will Sustainable Investing Be Considered to be in the Mainstream?

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

“Movements” – what comes to mind when we describe the characteristics of this term are some 20th Century examples.

The late-20th Century “environmental movement” was a segue from the older 19th and early 20th Century “conservation movement” that was jump started by President Theodore Roosevelt (#26), who in his 8 years in the Oval Office preserved some 100,000 acres of American land every work day (this before the creation of the National Parks System a decade later).

The catalysts for the comparatively rapid uptake of the environmental movement?  American rivers literally burned in the 1960’s and 1970’s (look it up – Cuyahoga River in Ohio was one).

And that was just one reason the alarm bells were going off.  New York’s Hudson River was becoming an open, moving sewer, with its once-abundant fish dying and with junk moving toward the Atlantic Ocean.  Many East Coast beaches were becoming fouled swamp lands.

One clarion call – loud & clear — for change came from the pen.  The inspired naturalist / author Rachel Carson wielded her mighty pen in writing the 1962 best-seller, “Silent Spring”. 

That book helped to catalyze the rising concerns of American citizens. 

She quickly attracted great industry criticism for sounding the alarm…but her words mobilized thousands of early activists. And they turned into the millions of the new movement.

She explained the title:  There was a strange stillness.  Where had the little birds gone? The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.”  (Hint:  the book had the poisonous aspects of the DDT pesticide at its center as the major villain.)

Americans in the 1960s were becoming more and more alarmed not only of dumping of chemical wastes into rivers and streams and drifting off to the distant oceans —

—but also of tall factory smokestacks belching forth black clouds and coal soot particles;

–of large cities frequently buried beneath great clouds of yellow smog a mile high on what were cone clear days;

–of dangerous substances making their way into foods from the yields of land and sea;

–of yes, birds dropping out of the sky, poisoned;

–of tops of evergreen and other trees on hilltops and mountains in the Northeast burned clean off by acid rain wafting in from tall utility smokestacks hundreds of miles away in the Midwest…and more. 

Scary days. For public health professionals, dangerous days.

We will soon again be celebrating Earth Day; give thanks, we are long way from that first celebration back in spring 1970. (Thank you, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin for creating that first Earth Day!)

Most of our days now are (as the pilots cheer) CAVU – ceiling (or clear) and visibility unlimited. 

We can breathe deep and as we exhale thank many activists for persevering and driving dramatic change and creating the modern environmental movement… and on to the sustainability movement. 

And now – is it time (or, isn’t time!) for another movement along these lines…the sustainable investing movement going mainstream? 

Experts pose the question and provide some perspectives in this week’s Top Story.

In Forbes magazine, they ask:  “Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?”

Decio Fascimento, a member of Forbes Council (and chief investment officer of the Richmond Global Compass Fund) and the Forbes Finance Council address the question in their essay.

In reading this, we’re reminded that such mainstream powerhouse asset managers as BlackRock, State Street/SSgA, Vanguard Funds, TIAA-CREF, and asset owners New York State Common Fund, New York City pension funds (NYCPERS), CalPERS, CalSTRS and other capital market players have embraced sustainable investing approaches. 

But – as the authors ask:  what will it take for many more capital market players to join the movement?  There’s interesting reading for you in the Top Story – if you have thoughts on this, send them along to share with other readers in the G&A Institute universe.

Or send comments our way to supplement this blog post.


This Week’s Top Stories

Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?
(Wednesday – April 10, 2019) Source: Forbes – Let’s first look at what sustainability looks like in financial terms. In sustainable investing, the ideal scenario is when you find opportunities that produce the highest returns and have the highest positive impact. 

And of further reading for those interested:

EDF Report Offers Perspectives on the Current State of Sustainability Ratings and Rankings — and Has Suggestions for Improvement…

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

Ratings, rankings, scores, best of lists – these are increasingly important to corporate issuers and for investors

The popular CBS TV Network nighttime host David Letterman for many years provided us with periods of laughter with his well-known top 10 list segments. (Example: The Top 10 Stupid Things Americans Say to Brits.)

There’s long been a spirited competition in the corporate sector along the lines of the popular “top of” or “best of” lists (with rankings) that companies are awarded, and/or that companies pursue in the effort to garner more third party recognitions and awards. 

In recent years, there’s been a steadily-increasing number of such contests focused on governance, social and environmental issues.

Popular audience “top 10” awards seem to proliferate overnight (like mushrooms in the forest) coming forth from publishers, NGOs, conference organizers, trade associations, professional membership organizations, academia, and others.  All are welcome to some degree by investors and stakeholders and can add luster to the company reputation and brand.

Indeed, here at G&A Institute we have well beyond 400 “corporate awards and recognitions” related to ESG / Corporate Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, et al…identified and profiled to help client companies round out their third party awards roster with relevant, suitable recognitions of different kinds. 

The competitive kinds that we’re all familiar with include Best in industry. Best workplace for women. For LGBTQ employees. Best business sector economic development contributors in the state (the Governor’s Award). Best companies for Hispanic or African-American engineers…and on and on.

Some of these types of recognitions are well known and for investors and stakeholders, welcomed signals of third party recognitions of a company’s citizenship, responsibility or sustainability / ESG progress and achievements.

Many awards began as editorial features of magazines. (In past years, members of our team worked with Fortune on a “Best Places” annual award.)  Forbes is another well-regarded business and finance publication with much-followed awards for companies (the Best Employers List; Best Employers for Diversity; Top Companies to Work For, and more).

Investor-Focused Ratings / Rankings / Scores / Leadership Lists

And then there are the all-important ratings, rankings, scores, index/benchmark selections that many more public companies are receiving from such service provider organizations as MSCI, Sustainalytics and Institutional Shareholder Services.

There are many robust corporate ESG profiles in the Bloomberg platform or on Thomson Reuters’ Eikon (now, “Refinitiv” branded); and coming forth from a host of other ratings organizations in the U.S. and Europe. 

These ESG data sets, and rankings / ratings are also used by many third parties in the methodology to create other awards, recognitions, indexes, and so on.  This is why it’s critical for companies to engage with and improve these key ESG investor data sets and rankings as they flow down and are used by many investors and many other stakeholders.

At the top – in the board room, C-suite — these are indeed critical recognitions and independent (to a large degree) profiles of a company’s ESG strategy, actions, achievements, and recognitions.  Of course there’s grumbling from companies about the efforts to keep up and the independent views of the raters, and how the company may be presented in the ratings work.

So how do the best of these ratings pay off for the public issuer?

Consider:  In terms of ROI for their awards efforts, sustainability rankings can help companies define internal performance measures, attract top talent and link executive comp to corporate sustainability efforts…so write the authors of an essay in Forbes.

Victoria Mills and Austin Reagan of the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) then add:  Unfortunately, there’s a significant problem with these sustainability lists.

The authors point to a new report – “The Blind Spot in Corporate Sustainability Rankings: Climate Policy Leadership” – produced by EDF+Business — which posits that: “Environmental problems like climate change will never be solved through voluntary corporate actions alone. Public policies are critical to reduce environmental impacts across the economy in an efficient and equitable manner, and on a scale commensurate with the challenges.”

The missing link, thinks EDF, is [corporate] public policy advocacy; companies can be doing more than just addressing their own ESG issues (and winning third party recognition for leadership and admirable rankings and scores from ESG raters).

EDF thinks the most powerful tool companies have to fight climate change is their political influence.

The report explains EDF views on rankings vs. ratings; analysis of rankings (“all have a major blind spot”, explains EDF); the challenges of integrating climate policy advocacy into sustainability rankings; and, a series of recommendations.

The EDF opinions are sure to stimulate debate now among asset owners and managers, and within the corporate community. 

We’re all hooked on sustainability / ESG rankings, ratings, scores and other opinions; they’ve become ever-more important in the decision-making of key asset managers.  So, in this brief report, EDF shares its perspective on the way forward to make corporate reporting on ESG more robust.

Click here to view the 12-page report.

This Week’s Top Story

The Good, The Bad And The Blind Spot Of Corporate Sustainability Rankings
(Thursday – March 21, 2019) Source: Forbes – No matter the industry, business stakeholders care about lists – who’s on them and who’s on top. Consider this small sampling: Fast Company’s “50 Most Innovative Companies” list, Fortune’s “Change the World” list, Forbes’ “The…

Morgan Stanley Research Important Takeaway: Sustainable Investing Approaches Now Clearly Mainstream For Institutional and Retail Asset Owners

A 2018 survey by Morgan Stanley took the pulse of U.S. asset managers (with in-depth telephone interviews) to determine the level of adoption of sustainable investing approaches by asset managers in the United States.

Results:  in the report “Sustainable Signals: Growth and Opportunity in Asset Management” a majority of managers said they now see sustainable investing strategies as a strategic imperative, explains Matthew Slovik, head of Global Sustainable Finance at Morgan Stanley.

Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and Bloomberg had 300 asset management firms with at least US$50 million in Assets Under Management polled and the results built on a prior Morgan Stanley and Bloomberg survey in 2016 (“Sustainable Signals: The Asset Manager Perspective”). In that year’s pulse-taking, 65% of survey respondents said their firms adopted sustainable investing; the 2018 response was that 75% of asset management firms surveyed had done so.

Reasons cited:  increased investment stability; high client satisfaction; product popularity; possible high finance returns.

Explains Bloomberg Global Head of Sustainable Business & Finance, Curtis Ravenel:  “As investors increasingly consider sustainability factors across asset classes and investment products, we expect to see a shift toward better data tracking and reporting mechanisms…this will increase credibility and improve measurements of impact across portfolios.”

Survey Highlights:  Three-in-four U.S. asset managers now offer sustainable investing strategies. Nine-in-ten say sustainable investing is not a fad, it’s here to stay. Eight-in-ten say strong ESG practices can lead to higher profitability and companies [with ESG practices] may be better long-term investments. Two-out-of-three asset managers believe that it is possible to maximize financial return while investing sustainability.

Consider that according to the most recent survey of U.S. asset owners and managers by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable & Responsible Investing (US SIF), $13 trillion (or one-in-four dollars) of professionally-managed assets now consider sustainability principles, a clear signal that ESG factors are now widely incorporated into investment processes.

The new Morgan Stanley / Bloomberg survey results make the financial case for sustainable investing with both institutional and retail investors demanding an increasingly sophisticated range of investment approaches and impact outcomes.

The Initiative for Responsible Investment at the Hauser Institute for Civil Society at the Harvard Kennedy School and Edelman Intelligence contributed to the work.

The Top Story this week has highlights of the survey; click here to access the 16-page report.

The US SIF’s comprehensive “Report on U.S. Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2018” is also available.

This Week’s Top Story

Sustainable Investing Goes Mainstream: Morgan Stanley and Bloomberg Survey Finds Sustainable Investing a Business Imperative Among U.S. Asset Managers
(Friday – February 22, 2019) Source: BusinessWire – A majority of U.S. asset managers are now practicing sustainable investing, viewing it as a strategic business imperative. In a new survey entitled Sustainable Signals: Growth and Opportunity in Asset Management, from..

There Were Many Positive Developments for Sustainability Professionals in 2018 and Much Promise for What’s To Come in 2019 – We Are Watching For You

There were many positive developments and trendlines in 2018 that we believe were encouraging for corporate sustainability & responsibility managers, sustainable investing champions, NGO managers and members, and other stakeholders.  The analyses and wrap-ups are beginning to appear now in the many media outlets and platforms that we monitor.  We bring you some highlights in this first newsletter of the exciting new year, 2019!

One of the most compelling and sweeping of essays to kick off the year was the commentary of Andrew Winston in the Harvard Business Review – “The Story of Sustainability in 2018:  We Have About 12 Years Left.”

Author Winston came to broad attention with the publication of his books, “Green to Gold” and “Green Recovery”, and the recent “The Big Pivot”.  In his end-of-year HBR commentary, the author begins with the important 2018 sustainability themes that he sees as having lasting impact, and his belief that the year just ended brought “incredible clarity” about the scale of our challenges and opportunities.”

Clarity:  the world’s scientists sound a “final” alarm on the climate — citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change/IPCC report on where we are; that is, dear reader, in a global, universally-perilous state with just a dozen years left for bold, collective action on carbon emissions.

Clarity:  the key elements of the government of the United States of America told a similar story in the U.S. National Climate Assessment released at Thanksgiving time (with the White House attempting to bury on a slow Friday after holiday) – climate change inaction could knock off 10% of this, the world’s leading economy’s enormous GDP.  The U.S. GDP was US$19.39 trillion in 2017, said sources including the World Bank.

Clarity:  Business must dramatically change how it operates and companies must push well past their comfort zones.

There’s lots of information for you regarding the threats and challenges posed by dramatic climate change.  And, Andrew Winston points out the positive developments as well, by corporate leaders at organizations such as Unilever, Salesforce, Nike, Kroger, and Danone (which became the world’s largest B Corporation in 2018).

We present Winston’s wrap up for you in this week’s Top Story:

The Story of Sustainability in 2018: “We Have About 12 Years Left” 
(Wednesday – January 02, 2019) Source: Harvard Business School – We have about 12 years left. That’s the clear message from a monumental study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change, the world must slash carbon…