The S&P 500® Universe — Setting the Pace for Corporate Sustainability Reporting: 90% Mark Reached!

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

The popular corporate equity “baskets” including the Dow Jones Industrial Index, Nasdaq 100, S&P 500, the Russell 1,000 – 2,000 – and 3,000– in essence consist of the underlying value of the corporate shares in each basket (or benchmark for investors).

Today, there is an ocean of stock indexes for asset managers to license from the creators and then apply process and approaches for keeping track of the companies in the fiduciary portfolio, or to analyze and pick from the underlying issues for their portfolio.

Alternative benchmarks and indexes may be dependent on market cap size and have variations in the index family to fine tune the analysis (think of the varieties of Wilshire, Russell, S&P Dow Jones, etc.).

There has been a steady move by many asset managers from “active management” to passive investment instruments, with this transition key benchmarks become an important tool for the analyst and portfolio manager.

One large-cap index really dominates the capital markets:  The S&P 500.

G&A Institute’s Annual S&P 500® Research
Almost a decade ago, the team at G&A Institute began gathering corporate reports to build our models and methodology for guiding client’s corporate disclosure and reporting — and focusing especially on the structured reports of U.S. publicly-traded companies, we selected the universe of companies that the index creators include in the S&P 500 Index®.

Here’s why:  The S&P 500 Index is the most-widely-quoted index measuring the stock performance of the 500 largest investable companies listed on American stock exchanges.  Asset managers licensees like State Street, MCSI, Invesco Capital and London Stock Exchange Group use this index for their constructing ETFs and other investable products.

This universe of public companies provided for our team a solid foundation for tracking and analyzing the activities of these 500 companies as they began or expanded their sustainability reporting. In 2011, that first year. we found just about 20% of the 500 were publishing sustainability reports.

And here’s the dramatic news:
G&A’s just-completed report shows 90% of the S&P 500 companies produced a sustainability report in year 2019!

Tracking the Trends
Over the decade of close tracking and analysis of the 500 companies in the index, the good news is we saw the number of reports steadily grow.

We charted the broad impact of these market-leading enterprises on such reporting frameworks and standards as the GRI and SASB as those standards evolved and matured and were adopted by the companies in the 500.  We saw…

CDP disclosure steadily expanded in structured reports and (stand alone) corporate responses to CDP on carbon emissions, water, supply chain, forestry products.

The adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by companies as they were in some way conceptually a part of a company’s sustainability strategy (and subsequent reporting).

And more recently, there was the adoption of TCFD recommendations by corporate issuers in the U.S. – that began to show up in reports recently.

Starting with 2010 reporting, the first G&A analysis, we’ve shared the highlights of the research efforts.

Teams of talented, passionate and bright analyst-interns developed each year’s report (you can see who they are/were in G&A’s Honor Roll on our web site).  Most of the team members have moved on to career positions in the corporate, investment, public sector and NGO communities.

Download this year’s report, examining 2019 corporate sustainability reporting by the S&P 500 companies.

We’ve organized the deliverable for both quick scanning and concentrated reviewing.  Let us know if you have questions about the research results.

Stay tuned to G&A’s upcoming Russell 1000 Index® analysis of 2019 reporting.

This second important index/benchmark was created several decades ago by the Frank Russell Company and is now maintained by FTSE Russell (subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange Group)

The largest companies by market cap companies are available as benchmarks for investors in the S&P 500 (largest cap) and for the next 500 in the Russell 1000.

The ripple effects of the S&P 500 companies and more recently some of the Russell 1000 companies on corporate sustainability disclosure and reporting is fascinating for us to track.

Many mid-cap and small-cap companies are now adopting similar reporting policies and practices.  Privately-owned companies are publishing similar reports.  All of this means volumes of ESG data and narrative flowing out to investors – and fueling the growth of sustainable investing.  We find this all very encouraging in our tracking of corporate reporting.

Here are the details for you:

Top Stories

90% of S&P 500 Index Companies
Publish Sustainability Reports in 2019,
G&A Announces in its Latest Annual
2020 Flash Report

Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. – G&A Institute announces the results of its annual S&P 500 sustainability reporting analysis. 90% of the S&P 500 published corporate sustainability reports, an all-time high!


Adding Important Perspectives to G&A’s S&P 500 Research Results

What is Greenwashing? The Importance of Maintaining Perspective in ESG Communications
Source: AlphaSense, Pamela Styles principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC – “Greenwashing” can generally be described as ‘the practice of only paying lip service to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors with token gestures.’ In practice, greenwashing occurs when an organization presents…

New report measures boardroom diversity at top S&P 500 companies
Source: CNBC – There’s a renewed focus on diversity in the boardroom, but a new report shows not much is changing. CNBC’s Seema Mody reports.

GRI & SASB 2020 Collaborate To Better Understand The Use Of The Two Standards Together In Corporate ESG Reporting

Two heavyweights in the corporate reporting frameworks/standards arena have announced intentions to move closer to help promote “clarity and comparability in the sustainability landscape” – GRI and SASB.

The two organizations just announced a collaborative work plan to demonstrate how some companies have used both sets of corporate ESG reporting standards…together — and lessons to share for reporters.

The common understanding expressed is that “GRI and SASB share a guiding principle” – that greater transparency (in corporate reporting) is the best currency for creating trust among organizations and their stakeholders (Tim Mohin – CEO of GRI).

Notes SASB CEO Janine Guillot:  “In a post-COVID world, companies will increasingly be expected to disclose their performance on a range of ESG Topics.”  The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that non-financial information disclosure can highlight material financial implications, she advises.

In the short-term of the collaboration, the two organizations will develop examples based on reports that demonstrate how corporate reporters can use GRI Standards and SASB Standards together.  Further progress in the collaboration will be decided later this year/into 2021.

The Global Reporting Initiative is the most widely-used corporate reporting framework around the world for companies reporting on their ESG sustainability, responsibility, citizenship (companies select their titles) and related activities.

The GRI Standards for reporting features a set of “universal” and “topic-specific” standards (continuing to evolve) each with one or more disclosures to guide corporate managers in preparing their disclosures — focused on the environmental, economic and social impacts of a company.  The reporting is fashioned for delivery of important ESG information to a range of stakeholders – including investors.

The GRI Standards are the fifth generation of the framework; the first corporate reports were published following “G1” back in 1999-2000. Since then more than 40,000 reports have been published following the constantly-evolving GRI framework (which became standards in 2017).

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards are more recently developed, with investor needs in mind. After an intensive collaborative effort by investors and corporate issuers and other parties, standards were announced for 77 industries in 11 sectors. Using the SASB Sustainable Industry Classification System – SICS®.

SASB standards recommend material ESG disclosure topics and related accounting metrics for the primary SICS industry assigned to a company (often companies operate across more than one industry and should consider guidance from SASB on these as well).  For example, a Primary SICS Sector may be “Extractives & Minerals Processing” and the industry, “Oil & Gas – Exploration and Production”.

SASB recommendations for corporate reporting are reflecting a critical input from institutional investors on what providers of capital are considering to be material for the industry categories.  The intention is to identify a subset of sustainability-related risks and opportunities likely to affect a publicly-traded company’s financials and risk profile.

At G&A institute, our team uses both sets of standards as a “hybridized” approach in working with our corporate clients in preparing their ESG disclosure and structured reporting.

“Best practice” in preparing the corporate sustainability report with ample ESG data disclosures for both investors and a range of stakeholders requires a fulsome content indexes to guide the user (especially the investor and ESG rating agencies’ analysts) to the exact information they are seeking (for example GhG emissions, water used or energy consumption) in an efficient and effective manner.

The GRI Standards content index is one of the most important aspects in assisting these analysts and other users in navigating the content and disclosures.  We help companies cross-reference the SASB standards – as well as (more recently) the TCFD recommendations for disclosures; CDP data; GRESB data where applicable…and more working to create a Rosetta Stone for different users of the report to interpret the disclosures through their lens.

In our work as Data Partner for the U.S.A., U.K. and Republic of Ireland for GRI, we are capturing significant information now on the use of GRI and SASB and other reporting frameworks in one report – a most welcome advance in corporate ESG disclosure.

The trend of using both sets of standards is clearly on the rise for U.S. public companies.

Watch for our announcement (very soon!) with results of the annual S&P 500 Index® analysis.  There is information in the report about the use of GRI and SASB among the S&P 500 – and the use of other reporting frameworks as well.

The S&P 500 universe of corporate issuers continue to set the pace for all publicly-traded – and privately-owned companies – in the disclosure of ESG data and information now expected by key stakeholders.

While our hybridized approach to corporate ESG reporting adds value to the reporting company’s effort to achieve greater disclosure, we advise clients (as do SASB and GRI in their announcement of collaboration) that the two standards organizations prize the independence of their standards-setting processes.  As do the other reporting / standards-setting frameworks (like TCFD, CDP, et al).  There is not yet a “one-size fits all” for corporate ESG reporting, but announcements like the one in our featured story move the needle.

Bottom line:  as stated by SASB and GRI, both provide compatible standards for sustainability reporting that can be used in the same report.  While they are designed to fulfill different purposes, based on different approaches to materiality, there are many ways to use them to create a hybrid report that creates value.

Top Stories

Promoting Clarity and Compatibility In The Sustainability Landscape
Source:  Global Reporting Initiative (July 13, 2020)
Amid rising global demand for clarity in the sustainability reporting ecosystem, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are pleased to announce a collaborative workplan.