Corporate Sustainability Performance – Setting the Stage for ESG Data Analysis by Humans and AI Bots Alike

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

There is an expansive reservoir of ESG data – a.k.a. key performance indicators (KPIs) – across growing corporate ESG disclosure and reporting, commercially advertised metrics and/or data sets subscription access, and proprietary third-party rater, ranker and data provider analytical systems.

While voluntary reporting frameworks and the various third parties jockey for dominance and survival, who is using all this data — and how?

Currently, there are too many ESG-related KPIs and data sets for companies and investors to get a handle on, respond or analyze.  It is impossible to predict how many more KPIs will enter the mix or how soon third-party relationships will naturally consolidate the number of KPI expectations, simply driven by necessity for their own business models’ sustainability.

The corporate disclosure side of this issue is explored in:
The End User Side

Just like corporations, investors have to prioritize which KPIs matter and what reporting framework KPIs, public access information sources, licensed and/or proprietary databases they can rationalize for focus.

CFA-PRI recently joined forces to survey 1100 investment professionals.  Survey results show that fixed income inclusion of ESG in investment decision-making is rapidly catching-up with equity investors.

Source: UNPRI

Analogous to portfolio diversification theory, the number of investments (in both time and money) in ESG data sources has got to naturally reach some optimal number needed to optimize risk/return. Beyond that there is an entire sustainable finance ecosystem too large to address in a simple blog post.

Data Use

There is not an honest person alive who can tell you that they can stay on top of all the current and increasing company ESG data they could analyze, germane to their investment decision-making.

Research of Value

In addition to 90% of S&P 500 companies, Governance & Accountability Institute just announced its annual research update that 65% of Russell 1000 companies also published sustainability reports in 2019 (up from 60% in 2018), including 39% by companies in the smallest half of the index (up from 34% in 2018).

Important Perspective

An article highlighting takeaways from the recent NIRI “Big I – Investor & Issuer Invitational Forum”, quoted speaker Dan Romito, SVP of Business Development & Product Strategy at Nasdaq:

“There is an explosion of non-fundamental data…especially in ESG data…The
SEC found that 90% of data now used in the capital markets has been created during the past two years.”

Artificial Intelligence

AI use as a tool to consume, filter and analyze, huge reservoirs of ESG data is increasingly valuable in investment decision-making. AI providers are jockeying for differentiation and capital.  For instance:

  • AI is being used by investors, such as BlackRock, to not only analyze ESG data that companies are disclosing, but to uncover other information, such as ESG impacts from satellite images of pollution to cars in a parking lot, voice inflection and more.
  • FactSet just announced, on October 20th, a definitive agreement to acquire TrueValue Labs. Founded in 2013, TrueValue is a pioneer in AI-driven ESG data. It applies AI-driven technology to over 100,000 unstructured text sources in 13 languages, to identify positive and negative ESG behavior. Its coverage spans over 19,000 public and private companies.
  • TrueValue LabsTM had previously announced on January 23, 2020, that it was introducing its patent-pending concept of Dynamic Materiality, indicating that every company, industry and sector has a unique materiality signature. The company head of research noted that, “Given how central materiality is to ESG investing and fiduciary duty, it is critical to understand the mechanisms by which ESG factors impact the operational and financial performance of companies.”

The Human Element

“While AI can unearth key data for investors seeking sustainable investments, discerning unreliable information will be a key challenge and humans will not be replaced any time soon.” – as stated in the article titled,  How can AI help ESG investing? –  S&P Global, Sept 2020

“AI is not a replacement for human intelligence, but rather a way to further it… The strategic value of alternative datasets, in particular ESG data, in the financial sector is becoming increasingly visible. As only relevant data has decision-making utility, supervised machine learning is emerging as the most effective mechanism to generate strategic value for businesses.” – Cutting through the noise: demystifying the buzz around artificial intelligence in financial decision-makingRepRisk, Sept 2020

The Final Word

In only the last few years, it became obvious that ESG/Sustainability had finally gone mainstream.  It took over twenty years to catch-on, since the first voluntary ESG reporting framework, GRI, was founded in 1997.  Now it is time to buckle-up for the ride… practically everything ESG/Sustainability-related is advancing at orders of magnitude faster pace than anything we’ve experienced thus far!

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

Looking Back to Look Ahead – The Promise of Biden-Harris Administration to Return to the Hopes of Action on Climate Change Issues

November 9, 2020

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

For almost four l-o-n-g, long years we have been watching – and decrying! – the antics of the Trump Administration in the attempt to roll back vital federal environmental protections that have been put in place (and protected) by elected representatives of both parties over five decades.

It was President Richard M. Nixon – a Republican and conservative leader – who signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) into the law of the land. NEPA was established by the 91st Congress and became law on January 1, 1970.

This also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. What flowed thereafter was important…

…the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was created;
The Clean Air Act was enacted into law;
The Clean Water Act soon followed; and then
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA);  and 
…”Superfund” for clean up of contamination (actually, CERCLA-Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act);  and
Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act;  and 
Endangered Species Act;  and
Federal Insectiside, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; and 
Energy Policy Act; and
Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act;
…and much more!

Beginning almost immediately as the Trump Administration took charge of the EPA and other cabinet agencies, these historic legislative achievements were being undermined and protections whittled away.

There will be new environmental overseers coming to town in 2021 and the great hopes pinned on the Biden-Harris Administration include rebuilding the important rules, oversight mechanisms and enforcement of the laws/rules by EPA, Interior, Energy and other agencies.

The New York Times today outlined the first steps that could be taken – issuance of presidential Executive Orders (EOs) and President Memoranda that would undo the same mechanisms employed by President Trump and EPA political leaders to undermine environmental protection measures.

We read in — “Biden Will Roll Back Parts of the Trump Agenda With Strokes of a Pen” – that on Day One, we can expect action on climate change, writes Michael D. Shear and Lisa Friedman.

That starts with notice to the United Nations that the U.S.A. will rejoin the Paris Agreement.

The move to revoke Trump era EOs and re-issue Obama-Biden Administration orders can be immediate; or, President Joe Biden in 2021 can issue new orders along the same lines of prior EOs addressing climate change issues.

Important: The new Executive Orders would create important policies for the heads and rank and file members of the departments – Defense, EPA, Labor, Commerce, Interior, SEC, and many others that in some way directly or indirectly are affected by climate change.

Attitudes do matter – and Presidential Executive Orders to heads of agencies really matter!

2021 is looking like climate change matters will move to front-and-center on the public policy agenda. The Financial Times today pointed out that candidate Joe Biden set a policy of having a target to reach zero carbon

While Donald Trump led the effort to isolate the United States from world affairs, China moved to pledge net zero by 2060 and Japan and South Korea set net zero targets.

With the USA back on board, real progress can be made toward meeting Paris Agreement goals. Exciting to consider: The United States of America as once again a leader in the drive to make the world a safer, healthier place for billions of us!

For a reminder of the Trump moves in 2017 to reverse a half-century and more of environmental protection, here’s my March 2017 look at what was underway just two months into the new administration, with a new leader (Administrator Scott Pruitt) at the helm of the EPA.

Let’s go back to March 2017 – Just two months into the Trump Administration – with bad news on climate change all around!

http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/climate-change-nah-the-deniers-destroyers-are-work-white-house-attempts-to-roll-back-obama-legacy/


Advancing Toward a Circular New York

By Kirstie Dabbs – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions.

A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.

What is the Circular Economy?

Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources.

Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources to make products that are used and disposed of before the end of their useful life, a circular economy follows three core principles to extend the value of existing resources and reduce the need to extract new resources:

  • Design out waste.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

These three principles — as put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — create opportunities to reduce and potentially eliminate waste,  from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.

Materials Matter

In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture products with recycled materials, companies will drive demand for more post-consumer feedstock, further reducing waste to landfill which is aligned with the City’s waste-reduction goal.

Companies can also choose to manufacture products using responsibly sourced bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life with the appropriate infrastructure in place.

WinCup and Eco-Products are examples of companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports New York City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.

Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand

In addition to applying material design principles to divert material from landfill, companies can deploy design and marketing strategies to keep their products in use longer.

Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product.

Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation.

According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.

How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.”

A recent press release from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”

New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy

Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles.

According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners — an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy — the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.

The New New York Circular City Initiative

Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month.

One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.

The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.

# # #

Kirstie Dabbs is pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainability with focus on Circular Value Chain Management at Bard College.  She is currently an analyst-intern at G&A Institute working on GRI Data Partner assignments and G&A research projects. In her role as an Associate Consultant for Red Queen Group in NYC she provides organization analyses and support for not-for-profits undergoing strategic or management transitions.

 

Profile:  https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/kirstie-dabbs.html

 

This article was originally published on the GreenHomeNYC blog on September 28, 2020.

 

Celebrating Highlights Issue #500 – And Unveiling a New Design

October 16, 2020

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

Celebrating Highlights issue #500 – this is a landmark achievement, we will say, for this is also the tenth anniversary year of publishing the G&A Institute’s weekly newsletter (G&A Institute’s Sustainability Highlights).  As you will see in reading #500, we are also introducing an enhanced format intended to make the newsletter easier to read or scan as well.

Our G&A Institute’s Sustainability Highlights newsletter is designed to share timely, informative content in topic/issue “buckets” that we think will be of value to you, our reader. So much is happening in the sustainable investing and corporate sustainability spaces these days – and we are working hard to help you keep up to date with the important stuff!

Publishing the Sustainability Highlights newsletter is a team effort here at G&A.

Our company was formed in late 2006 and among our first efforts, Ken Cynar, then and now our Editor-in-Chief, began the daily editing of the then-new “Accountability Central” web site with shared news and opinion. The focus was (and is) on corporate governance, environmental matters, a widening range of societal and corporate-society issues, SRI investing, and more.

Two years later we created the “SustainabilityHQ” web platform – Ken manages content for both platforms today.

Back in those early days there was not the volume of ESG news or opinion pieces that we see today. Whenever we “caught” something of note the rest of the G&A team would quickly share the item with Ken.

Our team had worked together (some for a number of years) at the former Rowan & Blewitt consultancy, specialists in issue management, crisis management and strategic communications for the fortunate Fortune 500s.

That firm was acquired by Interpublic Group of Companies and after 7 years the New York City team created G&A Institute to focus on corporate sustainability, responsibility, citizenship and sustainable & responsible investing.  All of us came equipped with a strong foundation of issue management, risk management, critical issues managements, and corporate communications experience and know-how.

“ESG” had just emerged as a key topic area about the time we began our publishing efforts and soon we saw a steady flow of news, features, research reports, opinions & perspectives that we started sharing.

We had worked on many corporate engagements involving corporate governance, environmental management, a range of societal issues, public policy, and investor activism.  Here it was all coming together and so the G&A enterprise launch to serve corporate clients!

By 2010, as we emerged from the 2007-2008 financial markets debacle, then-still-small-but-solid (and rapidly expanding) areas of focus were becoming more structured for our own information needs and for our intelligence sharing, part of the basic mission of G&A from the start. And so, we created the weekly Highlights newsletter for ease of sharing news, research results, opinion & perspectives, and more.

It is interesting to recall that in the early issues there were scant numbers of corporate CSR or sustainability etc. reports that had been recently published (and so we were able to share the corporate names, brief descriptions of report contents, links of those few reports).  That trickle soon became a flood of reports.

But looking back, it was interesting to see that at the start of the newsletter and our web sites, there were so few corporate sustainability / responsibility reports being published we could actually post them as news for readers. Soon that trickle of corporate reports became a flood.

A few years in, The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) invited G&A to be the data partner for the United States and so our growing team of ESG analysts began to help identify and analyze the rapidly-increasing flow of corporate reports to be processed into the GRI’s global reporting database.

Hank Boerner and Lou Coppola in the early days worked closely with Ken on the capturing and editing of content.  Lou designed the back end infrastructure for formatting and distribution.

Amy Gallagher managed the weekly flow of the newsletter, from drafts, to layout and then final distribution along with the coordination of a growing body of conference promotions with select partner organizations.

And now with a solid stream of content being captured today, all of this is a considerable effort here at G&A Institute.

Ken is at the helm of the editorial ship, managing the “AC” and “SHQ” web platforms where literally thousands of news and opinion are still hosted for easy access. He frames the weekly newsletter.

Today Ken’s effort is supported by our ESG analysts Reilly Sakai and Julia Nehring and senior ESG analyst Elizabeth Peterson — who help to capture original research and other content for the newsletter.

Hank and Lou are overall editors and authors and Amy still manages the weekly flow of activities from draft to distribution.  Our head of design, Lucas Alvarez, working with Amy created this new format. As you see, it is a team effort!

There is a welcome “flood” — no, a tidal wave! — of available news, research and opinion being published around the world that focuses on key topic areas: corporate sustainability, CSR, corporate citizenship, ESG disclosure & reporting, sustainable investing, and more.  We capture the most important to share in the newsletter and on our web sites.

We really are only capturing a very tiny amount of this now-considerable flow of content, of course, and present but a few select items in the categories below for your benefit.  (The target is the three most important stories or items in each category.)

Much more of the ongoing “capture effort” is always available to you immediately on the SustainabilityHQ web platform (see the “more stories” links next to each category of headlines).

We hope that you find Sustainability Highlights newsletter of value. It’s a labor of love for us at G&A, and we would like to get your thoughts and feedback …including how we can continue to improve it. Thanks for tuning in all of these years to our long-term readers!

TOP STORIES

As example of the timely news of interest for this week we offer these (two) commentaries on the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).  We are five years in/with 10 years in which to make real progress…where do you think we are headed?

As students and faculty head back to campus – there’s discussion about “sustainability” and “campus”:

 

Americans Tuning in to Sustainability During Crises, Expecting “More” from Government and Corporate Sector

August 27 2020

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

According to responses to a June on-line survey of 2,000 adults in the U.S.A. for “clean manufacturing” leader Genomatica, sustainability is now a top-of-mind issue, with an overwhelming majority (85% of respondents) of Americans indicating they’ve been thinking about sustainability the same amount or more…and 56% want brands and government to prioritize sustainability even in the midst of the crises (Coronavirus, economic downturn – plus civil unrest).

According to Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling: “The collective consciousness on sustainability is rising, and certainly faster than most would have expected during these unprecedented times.

While this shift has been underway for decades, and is particularly strong in Europe, many of us in the U.S. have been inspired by the rapid improvement in air quality and traffic that shine a bright light on how our behaviors and decisions impact our environment and quality of life.”

Other interesting survey findings:

  • 59% of Americans say working from home is more sustainable than working in an office.
  • 37% of Americans are willing to pay a little more for sustainable products, even during an economic downturn. Gen-Z is the most willing age group, at 43%.
  • Half of Americans won’t be comfortable using sharing economy services like Uber or Airbnb (53%), riding public transportation (54%) or carpooling (50%) until there is a vaccine, if ever.

There’s more findings in the Top Story link below:

Part of the “sustainability thinking” is about personal investments…and how to do well financially while doing good with one’s financial activities.

A new report published by the foundation of The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) explores the growth of passive ESG investing and the outpace of investor flows into passive vs. active ESG funds.

The report shows that “net flows into passively-managed ESG funds have in recent years outpaced net flows into their actively managed counterparts” — despite the fact that “the vast majority of sustainably-invested assets are in actively-managed ESG funds.”

Meg Voorhes, Director of Research at the US SIF Foundation explains:  “The advent of passive ESG funds provides more options to investors seeking sustainable impact, and we encourage these fund managers to make commitments to comprehensive ESG approaches.”

Follow Up to Last Week
In last week’s Highlights we told you about Morgan Stanley’s pioneering move to join the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (“PCAF”).  The update:  Citi and Bank of America are on board, too.  Great news moving toward the low-carbon economy. 

Citi, Bank of America join Morgan Stanley in carbon-disclosure group

Individual news releases from the banks with the details:

Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

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

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories

As Summer 2020 Nears End in Northern Hemisphere – Quo Vadis, Corporate Sustainability and ESG/Sustainable Investing?

September 14 2020

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

This has been a strange summer in the northern climes, as the corporate sector and capital markets players meet the challenges of the Big Three crises — Corona virus pandemic, economic downturn, and widespread civil protests.

In times of crises (and as we have at least three major crisis situations occurring all at once to deal with this summer) certain actions may take a back seat.  Not so with forward movement of corporate sustainability and ESG/sustainable investing in summer 2020.

We bring you brief updates on some of these trends that continue to shape the interactions of companies and their providers of capital.

First –– worldwide, ESG/sustainable investing index funds reach a record of US$250 billion, with the crises appearing to accelerate investors’ moves into these passive and actively managed investment instruments.

Consider:

  • Before COVID-19, sustainability funds were already experiencing major growth, with assets doubling over the past three years.
  • Actively-managed ESG mutual funds continue to attract the lion’s share of dollars and represent a much larger portion of the sustainable investing landscape. Combined inflows into both active and passive ESG-focused funds reached $71.1 billion during the second quarter — pushing global AUM above the $1 trillion mark for the first time.
  • In the USA, sustainable index funds still make up less than 1% of the market – lots of room for growth here!
  • According to a recent survey conducted by Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing, nearly 95% of Millennials are interested in sustainable investing, while 75% believe that their investment decisions could impact climate change policy.

On the corporate sustainability side, Goldman Sachs shares the view that oil & gas enterprises could lead the way into a lower-carbon economy. Perhaps.  Will take leadership and action – very soon.

The sector’s leading equities players limped in value this summer and there are many challenges still ahead – but, says a Goldman Sachs report, a new European Union rule in 2021 could accelerate the oil & gas companies’ shift into more sustainable activities.  The industry leaders can leverage their brands and trading capabilities to acquire power customers, thinks GS analysts.  And exert leadership.

And the “octopus” that many retailers see encircling their businesses, Amazon, is pushing ahead with The Climate Pledge (founded by Amazon and Global Optimism in September 2019) with an important commitment:  meeting the Paris Agreement goals a decade early!

Info: https://sustainability.aboutamazon.com/about/the-climate-pledge

Mercedes-Benz is the latest signatory to the pledge.  And look at what these moves can mean in practical business terms:  Amazon will add 1,800 electric Mercedes-Benz vans to its delivery fleet in Europe in 2020!  Other big-name corporate signatories include Verizon, Infosys, and Reckitt Benckiser.

Not quite a quiet summer in the corporate sector and capital markets, we would say!

On to Fall now in the Northern climes and a most welcome Spring season in the Southern Hemisphere, 2020 into 2021.

These are the Top Stories picks for you this week – and there are important items in the categories as well.  Happy Welcome to Autumn and Spring, wherever you are from the G&A Institute team.

Top Stories

The Financial Sector and Corporate Universe – the “ESG Factors” Are Now Everywhere When Companies Seek Capital

September 8 2020

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

The roots of today’s “sustainable investing” approaches go back decades; the organizing principle often was often around  what investors viewed as “socially responsible”, “ethical”, “faith-based” and “values” investing, and by other similar titles.

“SRI” over time evolved into the more dominant sustainable or ESG investing in the 21st Century — with many more mainstream investors today embracing the approach.

And busily shaping trends, there is a universe of ESG ratings agencies and information distributors providing volumes of ESG ratings, scores, rankings and opinions to institutional investor clients and a broad base of asset managers, index creators and more.

Recently, the three major credit risk agencies increased their focus on ESG factors for their investor and lending clients.

Access to and cost of capital for companies is a more complicated situation today for financial executives  — and the steady flow of “sustainable investing” products to asset owners and asset managers increases the importance of a publicly-traded firm “being in” the sustainable product for institutional and retail investors.

Such as having the company being present in an ever-wider range of ESG indexes, benchmarks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and now even options and futures.

All of this can and does increase pressures on the publicly-traded corporation’s management to develop, or enhance, and more widely promote the company’s “public ESG profile” that financial sector players will consider when investing, lending, insuring, and more.

The latest expansion / adoption of ESG approaches for investable products are from Cboe Global Markets.

The new “Cboe S&P 500 ESG Index”(r) options (trading starts September 21) will align with investor ESG preferences, says the exchange.

The traditional S&P 500 index is a broad-based equity benchmark used by thousands of investment managers and is the leading equities benchmark representing about 85% of total USA publicly-traded equities (all large-cap companies).  Availability to investment managers of the S&P 500 ESG Index is a more recent development.

The S&P 500® Index (equities) measures the stock performance of 500 large-cap companies whose issues are traded on US stock exchanges.  It was created in 1957.

The newer S&P 500 ESG Index targets the top 75% of companies in the 500 universe within their GICS® industry group.(Exclusions include tobacco, controversial weapons and UNGC non-compliance.) Asset managers link sustainability-focused products for investors to this index, including Invesco and State Street (SPDRs) for their ETFs.

Note that the S&P 500 ESG Index uses S&P DJSI ESG scores and other data to select companies for inclusion —  increasing the importance of the Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA) that for two decades has been used to create the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (“DJSI”). (The CSA is managed by SAM, now a unit of S&P Global.)

About Futures:  In November 2019 CME Group launched its CME E-mini S&P 500 ESG Index futures as a risk management tools — aligning, it pointed out, with ESG values.

About the CME Group: You probably know the Chicago-based firm by its units, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, New York Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Kansas City Board of Trade, and others.  The organization’s roots go back to 1848 as the Chicago Board of Trade was created. This is the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange trading such things as futures for energy, agriculture commodities, metals, interest rates, and stock indexes.

Investors have access to fixed-income instruments and foreign exchange trading (such as Eurodollars).  The “trading pit” with shouted orders and complicated hand signals are features many are familiar with. Of course CME has electronic platforms.

About Cboe Global Markets:  This is one of the world’s largest exchange holding companies (also based in Chicago) and offers options on more than 2,000 companies, almost two dozen exchanges and almost 150 ETFs.  You probably have known it over the years as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, established by the Chicago Board of Trade back in April 1973.  (The exchange is regulated by the SEC.)

The Cboe offers options in US and European debt and equity issues, index options, futures, and more.  The organization itself issued its own first-time ESG report for 2019 performance, “referencing” GRI, SASB, TCFD, SDGs, and the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE), Sustainable Stock Exchanges (SSE) initiatives. Now ESG is part of the mix.

Considering equities, fixed-income, stock indexes, futures, options, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, financial sector lending, “green bonds” and “green financing” – for both publicly-traded and privately-owned companies the ESG trends are today are very much an more important part of the equation when companies are seeking capital, and for the cost of capital raisedl.

And here clearly-demonstrated and communicated corporate ESG leadership is critical to be considered for becoming a preferred ESG issuer for many more investors and lenders.

Top Stories

Busy Summer 2020 for the World of ESG Players – Rating Agencies, Information Providers, UNGC & the SDGs…and More

August 27 2020

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

It’s been a very busy summer for organizations managing corporate reporting frameworks and standards, for ESG rating agencies, and for multilateral agencies focused on corporate sustainability and responsibility.

If you are a corporate manager — or a sustainable investment professional — do tune in to some of the changes that will affect your work in some ways. Here’s a quick summary:

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services
For four decades, ISS has been the go-to source on governance issues for proxy voting and corporate engagement guidance for major fiduciaries (pension funds are an example).

Two years ago, “E” and “S” ratings were added for investor-clients.

Now, ISS ESG (ISS’s responsible investing unit) is providing “best-in-class fund ratings” that assess the ESG performance of 20,000 firms. Funds will be rated 1-to-5 (bottom is 1) – this to be a broad utility resource for investment professionals. And for corporate managers – ISS ESG scores along with those of other ESG ratings agencies are a factor in whether your company is included in indexes, benchmarks, maybe ETFs and mutual funds that are being rated.

Bloomberg LP
It’s launching E, S & G scores for thousands of firms (highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to a sector).

First sector up is Oil & Gas, with 252 firms rated. Also, there are new Board Composition scores, with Bloomberg assessing how well a board is positioned to respond to certain G issues. (Note that 4,300 companies are being rated – probably including yours if you are a publicly-traded entity.)

And in other news:

UN Global Compact and the SDGs
The UNGC observes its 20th anniversary and in its latest survey of companies, the organization asked about the SDGs and corporate perspectives of the 17 goals and 169 targets. The findings are in the blog post for you.

MSCI
This major ESG ratings agency expanded its model for evaluating company-level alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. New tools will help capital markets players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products.

Global Reporting Initiative
The GRI continues to align its Universal Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that a GRI report becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

GRI Standards were updated and planned revisions include moving Human Rights reporting closer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other inter-governmental instruments.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board
The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is now available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in mainstream documents (like the 10-k). This is similar to what the TCFD is recommending for corporate disclosure.

This is a small part of what has been going on this summer. We have the two top stories about ISS and Bloomberg and a whole lot more for you in the G&A Sustainability Update blog.

For your end-of-summer/get-ready-for-a-busy-fall schedule!

Top Stories

The G&A Blog with many more organizations and their actions here.

Corporate Sustainability Reporting – Frameworks, Standards, Guidance – Summer 2020 Update

Have You Heard? Despite the Global Crises, Corporate ESG/Sustainability Reporting Momentum Continues to Build – Here, Some Updates For You on Focused on Corporate ESG Reporting Frameworks and Standards

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

This has been a challenging year. In January when I do my usual “crystal-balling” for the new year, the coronavirus was fast-spreading in Wuhan, China, and the world outside had not yet awakened to the serious threat the early infections posed to we humans.

The U.S. equities market looked very promising – but the markets would tank in March and then slowly recover. (As we write this the Nasdaq numbers and S&P 500 Index® levels have investors cheering – look at Nasdaq and the S&P 500!)

Despite the upheavals in 2020, Reporting Standards and Frameworks are continuing to evolve and especially to become more investor-focused

Investors, public companies’ executives, and sustainability reporting Standards and Frameworks organizations are not slowing the pace on advancing ESG / Sustainability / Corporate Purpose / Sustainable Investing et al, and advancing the cause by various means in this Summer 2020.

In the event that you have been busy this spring and summer (haven’t we all!) and perhaps missing something here and there, here are news items & developments for you to illustrate the forward momentum and increasing importance of ESG “etc” matters.

This update is focused on ESG reporting frameworks, standards and ESG disclosure guidance – this is the daily work of the team at G&A Institute.

UN Global Compact Celebrates 20 Years – And Builds on the Progress

It is 20 years now since the founding of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and the organization released its look back/look ahead report, “Uniting Business in the Decade of Action”. Each year the Compact surveys its participants to gauge the progress being made (or not).

This year the survey included a review of progress in complying with the Ten Principles of the Global Compact – and – corporate contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2020 Survey Findings:

  • 30% of companies responding believe they have targets sufficiently ambitious to meet the 2030 goals of the SDGs.
  • Fewer than a third of respondents consider their industry moving fast enough to deliver on prioritized goals.
  • Good news: 84% of UNGC corporate participants are taking some kind of action on SDGs.
  • Not-so-good: only 46% are embedding the goals into their core business.
  • Only 37% are designing business models to “contribute” to the 17 goals.
  • 61% say that their company provides some kind of product/service that contribute(s) to the progress of the SDGs (that level was 48% in 2019).
  • 57% measure their own operations’ impact on the SDGs.
  • 13% extend this to their supply base; and only 10% extend this to raw materials and product use.
  • 29% of companies advocate publicly to encourage action on the SDGs (this is a slide down from over half of companies in 2019).

Many companies focus on Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; and Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; less traction was noted for “socially-focused” goals (reducing inequality, gender equality, peace & justice).

The General Secretary of the United Nations has called on corporations to align their operations and strategies with the Ten Universal Principles of the Global Compact.

We are half-a-decade in now since goals adoption – with only one decade to go (years 2020 to 2030) to achieve the objectives.

More than 10,000 companies and 3,000 non-business entities (“signatories”) are participating in achieving the goals in some way, operating in 160 countries — and so, the UNGC has become the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Has your company signed on to the UNGC? Selected SDGs to build into your core business strategy and models? There is guidance for you in the UNGC report. https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/20th-anniversary-campaign

About the SDGs – MSCI’s New “SDG Net Alignment Factors”

MCSI, one of the major ESG rating firms providing significant research and analysis results to its global investor clients, expanded the model for evaluating company-level alignment to the UN SDGs.

The new tools will help capital market players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products. 

Subscribers to the firm’s Sustainable Impact Metrics now have access to the SDG Net Alignment Factors, which measures revenue exposure to “sustainable impact solutions and support actionable thematic allocations in line with impact frameworks like the UN SDGs.”

This approach will help investors to better understand what a company is doing with respect to the SDGs, what progress the company is making (or not), and related metrics that are being disclosed.

Institutional investor clients can use the information provided in developing sustainable investing products and services.

Corporate managers should be aware that the SDGs are getting more attention now as the last decade is upon us for achieving progress on the 17 goals/169 underlying targets.

MSCI’s Approach

The MSCI approach was developed in collaboration with the OECD and takes a “net impact” perspective to evaluate alignments of companies based on product and operations for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and there are 169 underlying targets for these).

The approach to “help institutional investors:

  • Measure and report on the degree of SDG alignment.
  • Develop SDG-themed investment products.
  • Meet rising demand to channel capital toward addressing the objectives of the Goals.
  • Identify companies better aligned with the SDGs based on a well-rounded framework that looks beyond [corporate] disclosure and considers positive and negative alignment.

Corporate board members and C-suite leaders note: In evaluating your company, MSCI’s approach will include qualitative categories indicating the degree of alignment and scores that assess:

  • Each public company’s overall Net Alignment for each of the 17 SDGs.
  • Product alignment – focusing on products and services with positive and negative impacts.
  • Operational alignment – internal policies of the company, operating practices to address SDGs targets, involvement in controversial activities.

The new SDG Net Alignment Framework is built on the MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics; these include:

  • New Sustainable Agriculture and Connectivity categories to provide additional areas where products and services align with the SDGs.
  • Expanded Fixed-Income coverage to align the MSCI ESG Ratings corporate coverage universe, bringing impact coverage to 10,000+ equity and fixed-income issuers.
  • Introduction of more granular “E” impact revenue sub-categories to enable a flexible application of MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics to a broad range of impact and sustainability frameworks.

The new service for MSCI clients began in August.

Note the OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and part of its mission is to establish evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges.

GRI – The Choice of Many Corporate Reporters for Guidance

The Global Reporting Initiative has its roots in the United States, with foundational elements put in place by (in that day) socially responsible investors, a few companies, and some NGOs.

In 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil in the waters over several days. In response, in Boston, Trillium Asset Management under the direction of Joan Bavaria worked to create a new organization — the “Coalition for Environmentally Responsible EconomieS” (now, known simply as Ceres) and created the Valdez Principles for companies to sign (to pledge to be more environmentally-responsible).

These became the Ceres Principles and over time contributed to the creation of the GRI and its first framework (“G1”).

The framework was continually evolving, becoming G3 and G4 and what would be G5 (Generation 5) are now the GRI Standards, a powerful guide for public companies to use to examine and decide on “what” to disclose against the Standards.

Companies can choose to report against “Core” or “Comprehensive” levels.

GRI has also aligned the Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that publishing a “GRI Report” becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

Note: G&A Institute is the designated Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In this role, we gather and analyze every report published in these countries and provide the analysis to GRI for inclusion in its comprehensive, global report database.

This is the largest collection of corporate sustainability reports going back to the first issued using “G1” in 1999-2000.

What’s happening now:

In June GRI announced an update to the “Universal Standards”. These are planned revisions such as address concerns in Human Rights reporting to move GRI Standards “closer” to inter-governmental instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Materiality” will be “re-focused” so that companies will report the importance of issues to stakeholders – rather than the customary approach of disclosing the results of a materiality assessment with focus on the company’s view of issues (regarding the economy, environmental matters, and people or human assets).

This will mean much more engagement with stakeholders to determine their perspectives to guide disclosures using the Universal Standards.

In the past, part of the guidance from the GRI was focused on “sectors”. Now, the organization is reviving Sector Guidance, which will support the Universal Standards. The sector guidance will link where possible with other frameworks and initiatives.

These steps are in the “disclosure draft” stage, with GRI gathering input to move to final adoption in 2021. GRI is inviting organizations – including companies – to be part of a “Global Standards Fund” to “safeguard and increase GRI’s to deliver the leading sustainability standards that encourage organizations to embrace responsible business practices.” It hopes to raise 8 million euros by 2022.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board – Guidance Issued

The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in their “mainstream” reports. (That is, “the annual reporting packages required to audited financial results under the corporate compliance or securities laws of the country in which they operate.”)

Think of the 10-k in the United States or annual report in the United Kingdom, and similarly required filings.

The guidance is similar to that of the TCFD  recommendations – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (organized by the Financial Stability Board, an arm of the G-20 nations, with the Task Force headed by Michael Bloomberg).

Important note: CDP advises that connecting CDP data with the CDSB Framework will help companies to successfully fulfill the TCFD recommendations.

The CDSB has been working on the Standards since 2007, and over time reflected on such developments as the 2015 Paris Agreement (or Accord) on climate risk.

In discussions with company managers and in our monitoring of corporate disclosure as the GRI data partner in the U.S.A., we see a wide range of opinions on just what “integrated reporting” should look like.

For some companies (not to be cute here) it boils down to have a 10-k and ESG report at the same time, often combined. Side-by-side, stapled in effect for a printed report.

Other firms may put financial/economic information up top and then build out a sustainability report with volumes of ESG data. We don’t see a lot of tieing the implications of that data to financial results, with top and bottom line impacts clearly spelled out.

Bloomberg – Launching E, S & G Scores – Oil & Gas Sector First Up, Along With Board Composition Scores for Thousands of Firms

This month Bloomberg announced it was launching new, proprietary ESG scores for 252 companies in the Oil & Gas Sector – and Board Composition scores for more than 4,300 companies. The scores are available in the professional services terminals service.

For the “E” and “S” scores of the companies in the Oil & Gas Sector, Bloomberg is highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to the sector.

For the Board Composition scoring, Bloomberg says it is assisting investors with information to assess how well a board is positioned to provide diverse perspectives, supervision of management, and assess potential risks in the current board structure.

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services – New Data Points For Investors

The long-time governance ratings and proxy guidance organizations were originally focused on “G” – governance practices – and expanded its work into “E” and “S” scoring and evaluations two years ago. (The “G” work goes back four decades.)

Now, “ISS ESG” (the responsible investment arm) is providing “best in class” fund ratings that assess the ESG performance of 20,000-plus firms around the world.

The new ratings will draw on ISS’s ESG ratings, governance data, norm-based research, energy and extractives’ screens, SDG impact ratings, carbon emissions analysis, shareholder voting outcomes, and more…resulting in a composite, holistic picture of a fund’s ESG performance.

Funds will be rated on a relative scale of “1” (bottom” to “5”, based on the fund’s standing within the Lipper Global Benchmark class.

The service is intended to have broad utility for investment professionals, such as fund managers and investment advisors.

This is still one more layer to add to the complexity of the capital markets competition for public companies.

G&A Institute Perspectives:
Inside the publicly-traded company, there may be a lively discussion going on among participants as the sustainability disclosures are prepared – for example, legal teams may frown certain ESG data revelations at times.

“Who is asking for this” may be a determinant in “what” gets disclosed. Lots of negotiations go on, we can tell you. 

But every year, more and more ESG data sets and narratives are published and corporate leaders in sustainability reporting set the pace for industry and sector.

The various reporting frameworks, guidance, standards that are available to corporate managers are a positive – here, including the framework (guidance) presented by the Standards of the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board. Information: https://www.cdsb.net/

G&A Institute closely monitors the corporate sustainability reporting arena and will share with you more updates as we see the need.  

Lots going on in Summer 2020 — be in touch with us if you have questions about any of this!  We’d like to be your sherpas and guides and navigators on the corporate sustainability journey!