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… 

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…

The Survey Results Are Here: $12 Trillion in Professionally Managed Assets Are Guided by Sustainable Investing / ESG Approaches in the USA – That’s $1-in-$4 of All Capital Market Assets Under Professional Management At End of 2017

The results of the 2018 survey of asset owners, asset managers and community investment professions conducted by The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (“US SIF”) were announced last week.

Dramatic results were highly anticipated  — and the US SIF trends survey delivered:  at the end of 2017, ESG / sustainable assets under professional management (AUM) totaled US$12 trillion.  That’s 1-in-$4 of total professional managed assets (AUM) in the U.S. capital markets ($46 trillion).

The survey universe consisted of 496 asset owners, 385 asset managers and 1, 145 community investing financial institutions.

These professional money managers pursued ESG integration for a variety of reasons, including:  (1) to meet increasing institutional and retail client demand for “sustainable investing”; (2) to fulfill stated mission and pursuing social benefits; (3) to address a number of societal issues such as climate change, diversity, human and labor rights, weapons manufacturing, and corporate political spending.

High net worth individuals and retail investors increasingly utilized ESG / sustainable investing approaches reporting $3 trillion in sustainable assets.

One of the leading sponsors of the every-other-year study since the 2010 survey report is the Wallace Global Fund.  The managers have embraced sustainable investing and Executive Director Ellen Dorsey commented:  “We support this research as a critical tool to track crucial trends in the industry and benchmark our own goal of 100 percent mission alignment, as we promote an informed and engaged citizenry, help fight injustice and protect the diversity of nature.”

The Trends report breaks out the top ESG issues for investors – nine types of financial institutions (public employee funds, insurance companies, labor funds, and more), mutual funds, ETFs, money management firms, foundations, venture capital funds, and community investing institutions.  There is a tremendous amount of useful data and information or you in the Trends report available from US SIF.  The two top stories this week provide you with highlights.

We encourage readers to order the full report and keep it handy…for the next two years, volumes of content will be cited by investors, investor coalitions and advocates, media, academics, NGOs, government agencies, and others. To get started in digesting the sustainable investing trends, start with our two Top Stories below.

This Week’s Top Story

Breaking News: $12 Trillion in Professionally Managed Sustainable Investment Assets — $1-in-$4 of Total U.S. Assets
(Thursday – November 01, 2018) Source: Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist – G&A Institute – Call it “sustainable and responsible investing” or “SRI” or “ESG investing” or “impact investing” – whatever your preferred nomenclature, “sustainable investing” in the U.S.A. is making great strides as demonstrated in a new…

US SIF Foundation Releases 2018 Biennial Report On US Sustainable, Responsible And Impact Investing Trends
(Thursday – November 01, 2018) Source: US SIF Foundation – The US SIF Foundation’s 2018 biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, released today, found that sustainable, responsible and impact investing (SRI) assets now account for $12.0 trillion—or one…

Sustainable Mutual Funds Investing Ratings

– Morningstar Has Added This To Its Widely-Used Information & Advice Platform – Some Practical Advice Offered to Investors…

Mutual Funds:  They are there in your individual or institutional portfolio, right? This should be of interest to most:

The 20th Century concept of “mutual funds” investment debuted before the stock market crash of October 1929; in 1924 the Massachusetts Investors’ Trust in Boston was created with State Street Investors’ Trust as the custodian.  That fund opened to public investment in 1928.  That same year the Wellington Fund (offering both bonds and equity) opened for business.

When the dramatic market crash occurred there were 19 open-ended funds for investors. The 1929 crash diminished individual investors’ appetite for equities for most of the following decade.  And, most Americans had little money to invest during the Great Depression (one of four households were unemployed).

But by 1940, as investors “recovered” and gained some confidence in the market, and the national economy improved with preparation for WW II, there were enough mutual funds for the Congress to pass the Investment Company Act of 1940 to regulate mutual funds and protect investors.

The first index funds came along in 1971 (a Wells Fargo offering); The Vanguard Group’s legendary investor John Bogle would use the concept (he embraced while a college student) to build the giant mutual fund enterprise.

By the end of 2016, Statista was charting 9,500-plus funds with US$16 trillion in AUM in operation.  There are also Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) now with at least $3 trillion in AUM as of October 2017 according to Global X.

Of course, as investors embrace the concept of sustainable or ESG investing, both mutual fund and ETFs offerings have been coming to market to add to the long-available funds offered by Domini, Trillium, MSCI, Pax, Calvert, Zevin, and other SRI advisory firms (the newer funds du jour have such titles as Fossil Free, Green Future, Sustainable Investing, Green Bonds, Low Carbon, Socially Responsible, etc.).

And, of course, sustainability-focused ratings/scores/rankings/best for mutual funds and ETFs quickly followed here in the 21st Century as “sustainable” funds expanded. The popular Morningstar platform offers information on “Socially Responsible Funds” – any fund investing according to non-economic guidelines (issues include environmental responsibility, human rights, religious views, etc.)  Morningstar also offers Sustainability Ratings for “Sustainable Investing” funds and tools such as the Portfolio Carbon Risk Score™.

Janet Brown, a contributor to Forbes’ “Intelligent Investing,” offers her perspectives on ratings and rankings in this issue’s Top Story.  She begins with: between two funds with the same returns, many people invest in the one with companies with good ESG practices or commitment to data security and privacy.  Do sustainable ratings of the funds make a difference?

There are four factors she and the team at her company (Fund X Investment Group) and Morningstar recommend considering: (1) Cost of Ratings (free or not); (2) What do sustainability ratings measure?; (3) How to use these ratings to find suitable funds; (4) How do the ratings fit into your investing strategy?

The narrative captures highlights of a recent webinar by Fund X and Morningstar and explains some of the latter’s approach to the new Sustainable Funds ratings for you.

What You Need To Know About Fund Sustainability Ratings
(Friday – June 15, 2018) Source: Forbes – Given the choice between two funds that have similar returns, many people prefer to invest in the one that prioritizes investing in companies that focus on clean energy, good governance or are committed to data security or…

ING Surveyed Corporate Finance Execs: The Results are Encouraging, as the Respondents Commented on Positive Results of Corporate Sustainability

Take our Top Story today and get it in front of your firm’s finance leaders

So often we hear that “investors don’t ask” or “no one inside seems to care” or “our finance folks don’t believe in” when we talk with corporate connections about corporate sustainability at their firm.  And, inside the company, skepticism can typically be found in the finance offices.

We have some good news “findings” for you today from the ING folks to add to the growing number of research studies demonstrating the sustainability business case.  ING is a leading global financial institution (banking, financial service) of Dutch origin, with a strong European base, serving clients in 40+ countries; it is selected to be among the leaders in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index’s Bank Industry category.

The firm just issued a report — “From Sustainability to Business Value – Finance as a Catalyst” — based on survey results (analyzing the views of 200-plus US-based finance executives in financial services, manufacturing, tech, consumer goods, real estate, industrial engineering, telecom, media, agriculture, infrastructure, chemical, transport, and logistics).

The survey respondents included CFOs, financial controllers, finance directors and senior treasury professionals, with revenues in their firms of from $500MM to $20+ billion.  The survey was intended to help to improve understanding of how financing and lending can support the goal of building a low-carbon, sustainability society.

The findings are encouraging for the most part, and resonated with us.  In our discussion with many corporate managers, the conversation usually includes “encouraging greater Corporate Sustainability is important for me internally, especially with our tough-minded and often skeptical finance folks. So being able to make the strong business case is a critical task…”.

Here’s some help for you from ING: 
The important role played by corporate finance and the benefits that these professionals identified were described in these ways:

“Almost half of the firms responding said that sustainability concerns have some level of influence on their business’s growth strategy…and 40%+ of firms with a mature sustainability framework in place said revenue growth is a main driver for acting.”

Supporting that portion of the business case?

  • 87% of survey respondents in firms with sustainability frameworks (the “mature” firms) said they experienced better revenue,
  • and 65% improved their credit rating.

ING states that it believes that financial institutions have a duty to explore how their financing can help to support energy transition and combat climate change. CEO Ralph Hamer is a “champion”  in the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders.

An important takeway is the ING CEO’s perspective:

“We are witnessing an important shift in how companies in the United States view sustainability. Our research shows that it is no longer just about cutting costs or creating positive brand awareness ­— sustainability strategies are being deployed as true revenue drivers,” said Gerald Walker, CEO, ING Americas. “The finance function holds the key to unlocking the business value of these strategies, and are crucial to pushing the sustainable agenda in the U.S. as the industry continues to mature.”

There’s more for you in the Top Story, which also has a link to the ING Report:

Research: U.S. Companies Implement Sustainability Strategies To Drive Revenues
(Friday – February 16, 2018) Source: Chem Info News – ING’s sustainability report, ‘From Sustainability to Business Value — Finance as a Catalyst’, published today, finds that revenue growth is the most important factor when deciding to implement sustainability strategies, as 39…

A Big Year, 2018 – Tipping Points For Developments in Corporate Sustainability & Sustainable Investing…

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

Volume & Velocity!
Those may be well the key characteristics of developments in corporate sustainability and in sustainable in the year 2018.

Linda-Eling Lee, Global Head of Research for MSCI’s ESG Research Group and her colleague Matt Moscardi (Head of Research Financial Sector, ESG) this week described what they are projecting in the traditional early-in-the-year setting out of key ESG trends to watch by the influential MSCI ESG team:

Bigger, faster, more – that’s how Linda describes the “onslaught of challenges happening soon and more dramatically that many could have imagined” in the corporate sector” (including public policy, technology, and climate change as key factors).

Investors (in turn) are looking for ways to better position their portfolios to navigate the uncertainty of the 2018 operating environment in the corporate sector.

As the “heads up” for investors and companies– the five key 2018 trends projected by MSCI’s ESG researchers/analysts:

  • Investors will be using ESG “signals” to navigate the size/shape of the Emerging Markets investment universe to pick the winners for portfolios.
  • The first steps are coming in “scenario testing” for climate change (this is systematically looking at risks emanating from company carbon footprints across asset classes, with short- and long-term transition scenarios).
  • The fixed-income universe will see acceleration (velocity) with the alignment of ESG frameworks by investors across all asset classes.
  • And this is very important for the corporate sector:

Investors are looking beyond the growing volume of corporate disclosure and reporting for data.
Keep In Mind: 65% of a company’s rating by MSCI is based on data sources beyond the corporate reporting!

 

  • MSCI sees 2018 as the Year of the Human – it’s about human talent, talent, talent!  That is, what companies do to help in the transitioning to new working environments (with the changes brought about by automation, artificial intelligence, robotics) that will be factored into the analysis of public companies by the MSCI ESG team, and measured over time (for outcomes over a 3-year horizon).

Linda Eling-Lee observed:  These are the major trends that we think will shape how investors approach the risks and opportunities in 2018.

Already, at the Davos meetings this week, major global firms in IT are creating an initiative to “tech-reskill” one million people to meet the global skills gap challenge inherent in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (firms are Cisco, Accenture, CA Technologies, HP, Infosys, Salesforce, SAP, Tata Consultancy, others).

What we think company managements / boards should expect in the “volume and velocity” context:  many more investors (the volume / especially large fiduciaries) are embracing comprehensive ESG factors in their analysis and portfolio management approaches with a faster uptake of this trend among the mainstream elements of the capital markets players (the velocity).

Voluntary reporting by companies has its limits in providing a full picture of the companies’ ESG risks,” the MSCI ESG researchers note. “In 2018 we anticipate that the disclosure movement reaches a tipping point, as investors seek broader data sources that balance the corporate narrative and yield better signals for understanding the ESG risk landscape actually faced by portfolio companies”

# # #

Buzzing:  The Larry Fink CEO-to-CEO Message for 2018

Speaking of significant influence, the head of the world’s largest asset management firm sent an important CEO-to-CEO letter to stress the importance of companies having “a social purpose”

Background:  BlackRock engages with about 1,500 companies a year on a range of ESG issues, meeting with boards of directors and CEOs, and other shareholders when that is needed.

Each year, CEO Fink reaches out to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to alert them to the key issues in focus for BlackRock (as fiduciary).

For 2017-2018, the key Investment Stewardship priorities are:

  • Corporate Governance / Accountability
  • Corporate Strategy
  • Executive Compensation Policies
  • Human Capital (again — there’s the focus on talent management)
  • Climate Risk Disclosure

Larry Fink is the Founder, Chair, and CEO of BlackRock and heads the firm’s “Global Executive Committee.” BlackRock is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018.  It now manages more than US$6 trillion (Assets Under Management-AUM).

Of this, $1.7 trillion is in active funds managed by the company.  As one of the world’s most important and influential (and trend-setting) fiduciaries BlackRock engages with company management to drive the sustainable, long-term growth clients need to meet their goals.

“Indeed,” CEO Fink said in his letter to CEOs, ”the public expectations of your company has never been higher.”

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose…to prosper over time, every company must show it makes a positive contribution to society.”

“Without a sense of purpose, no company…can achieve its full potential…it will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders…”

# # #

The Key Word on Responsible Investing Growth is Global, RBC Reported

In October 2017, RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM) conducted its second annual global survey of asset managers.  Two-out-of-three respondents said they used ESG considerations, and 25% will increase their allocations to managers with ESG investment strategies to offer in 2018.

Does ESG mitigate risk…or drive alpha?  Answers were mixed.  Some asset managers are increasing their allocation and others are skeptical, especially about the accuracy and value of the available data on corporate ESG performance.

For 2018:  RBC sees responsible investing as a global trend, with many managers incorporating ESG in analysis and portfolio management due to client (asset owner) demand.

# # #

Tracking Company Behaviors – The RepRisk ESG Risk Platform

One of the leading producers of research and business intelligence for the banking and investment communities is RepRisk, based in Zurich, Switzerland. The firm started in 2006 to serve bank clients wanting to be alerted to real or possible risk issues in the corporate sector.

RepRisk developed artificial intelligence and data mining tools, that along with human analysis, “reduces blind spots and sheds light on risks that can have reputational, compliance and financial impacts on a company…”

Today, there are 100,000-plus companies in the RepRisk database (both listed and non-listed, from all countries and sectors). The firm started out monitoring 100 companies for clients.  The daily screening is delivered in 16 languages and about 50 companies a day are added for screening.  Is your company one of those tracked?  What are the risks tracked?

# # #

Does Adoption of ESG Approaches Sacrifice Corporate Performance?

Robeco, one of the world’s leading financial services firms (based on The Netherlands), and a sister company of RobecoSAM, managers of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, looked at the question of whether or not the adoption of ESG / sustainability approaches “cost” the company performance.

Adopting sustainability approaches does require investment, but companies with poor ESG performance also have greater risks and “seriously under-perform” their peers.  And investors “win” by investing in the better performers (that reduce risk, strategize around climate change, reduce bad behaviors).

Says Robeco:  “…a growing body of evidence concludes that companies which are progressively more sustainable today will reap the rewards of the future…and it may save their businesses…”

The Company’s positioning:  “Robeco is an international asset manager offering an extensive range of active investments, from equities to bonds. Research lies at the heart of everything we do, with a ‘pioneering but cautious’ approach that has been in our DNA since our foundation in Rotterdam in 1929. We believe strongly in sustainability investing, quantitative techniques and constant innovation.”

# # #

CalPERS, America’s Leading Public Employee System – Corporate Engagement on Diversity Issues

“CalPERS: is the California Public Employee’s Retirement System, the largest state investment fund in the United States with about $350 billion in total fund market AUM.

CalPERS sent letters to 504 companies in the Russell 3000 Index to engage on the issue of diversity on the companies’ boards of directors.

CalPERS request:  the company should develop and then disclose their corporate board diversity policy, and the details of the plan’s implementation (to address what CalPERS sees as lack of diversity in the companies).

“Simply put, board diversity is good for business,” said Anne Simpson, CalPERS’ investment director for sustainability.

Starting in Fall 2017 and into 2018, CalPERS is monitoring companies’ progress on the matter and making it a topic for engagement discussions.  If a company lags in progress, CalPERS will consider withholding votes from director-candidates at annual voting time (at annual meetings).

# # #

The Climate Action 100+ Investor Initiative

 Sign of the times: More than 200 investors supporting action on climate change by the corporate sector are focusing on the board room of such companies as ExxonMobil, Boeing, GE, P&G, Ford, Volvo, PepsiCo, BP, Shell, Nestle, Airbus, and  other  enterprises (the “100” plus companies in focus) to dialogue on their GhG emissions as contributions to global warming.

The 100 corporates are said to account for 85% of the total GhG emissions worldwide – they need to step up, says the Coalition, and develop strategies and take action (and disclose!) to address the issue.  The investors manage more than $26 trillion in AUM, and are coordinating their efforts through five partnerships…

# # #

McKinsey Weighs In – ESG No Longer “Niche” – Assets Are Soaring

The McKinsey & Co. experts studied ESG investing and reported to corporate clients that of the $88 trillion in AUM in the world’s capital markets (in late-October), more than $1-in-$4 (25%-plus) are invested according to ESG principles.  That’s a growth of 17% a year, and ESG has become “a large and fast-growing market segment.”

# # #

Investors Are Not Forgetting – Rana Plaza Still in Focus

One of the characteristics of the sustainable investing market players is having-the-memory-of-the-elephant.  Do you remember the Rana Plaza apparel factory tragedy of five years ago?  Most media reporters and commentators have moved on to other crisis events.

Investors are signing on to a statement – “Investors Call on Global Brands to Re-commit to the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety” – with focus on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the statement signed (in May 2013) after the accident that killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh.

Reforms were promised in the Accord by industry participants and trade unions.

# # #

Another Example of Investor Action – McDonald’s

“In a win for the health of the world’s oceans,” began the As You Sow shareholder advocacy group announcement, “McDonald’s Corp. agreed to end the use of polystyrene foam packaging – worldwide! – – by the end of 2018.

The advocacy group had campaigned to have the fast food retailer stop using foam cups and takeout containers.

A shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow in May 2017 requested the company stop using polystyrene and 32% of shares voted (worth $26 billion at the time) voted to support.

# # #

Finally – What a Low-Carbon Economy Looks Like – California Dreamin’

The State of California is the world’s sixth largest economy all by itself!

While President Donald Trump upon taking office fulfilled one of his signature campaign promises – beginning the process of withdrawal from the historic COP 21 Paris Accord on climate change – California Governor Edmund (Jerry) G. Brown, Jr is moving ahead with his state’s plans to move to a low-carbon economy.

The Global Climate Change Action Summit is scheduled for September 2018 in San Francisco, California.

The theme, as described by the governor:  “Sub-national governments” (cities & states), business sector leaders, investors and civil society leaders will gather to “demonstrate the groundswell of innovative, ambitious climate action from leaders around the world, highlight economic and environmental transition already underway and spur deeper commitment from all parties, including national governments.”

Says the governor: “California remains committed to a clean energy future and we welcome the responsibility to lead on America’s behalf…”

# # #

Coming:  ISS QualityScores for “E” and “S” for 1,500 Companies

As we communicated in early January, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has expanded its long-term focus on corporate governance to encompass “E” and “S” issues for its QualityScore product for fiduciaries (its client base).  In late-January it is expected that ISS will issue the first wave of scores for 1,500 companies in six industries, expanding to 5,000 companies in additional industries by mid-year 2018.

The first 1,500 companies to be scored are in Autos & Components; Capital Goods; Consumer Durables & Apparel; Energy; Materials; and, Transportation.

The QualityScore is a Disclosure and Transparency Signal that investor-clients are seeking, says ISS, and an important resource for investors to conduct comparisons with corporate peers.

Keep in mind:  ISS serves its 1,700 clients with coverage in 117 global markets.

# # #

There’s much more information on this and other critical 2018 tipping points for corporate managers and investment professionals in the comprehensive management brief from the G&A Institute team posted on our G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” platform for you.

We’re presenting here more details on the MSCI trends forecast, the BlackRock CEO-to-CEO letter about Social Purpose for the Corporation, California’s move toward a low-carbon economy,  RepRisk’s focus areas for corporate behavior…and a host of additional important developments at the start of the year 2018 that will shape the operating environment throughout the year – and beyond! Read the brief here!