So Where Is The Corporate Sustainability Journey a Half-Year Into the Dramatic Impacts of the Coronavirus?

August 19, 2020 — in the midst of a strange summer for all of us

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

The questions may be going around in your universe and the answers offered up, say, inside the corporate enterprise as the senior executives and function, business unit and other managers meet the challenges posed by the virus pandemic, related economic disruption and civil protests on a number of topics.  This is about Quo Vadis, Our Sustainability Journey!

The Conference Board is a century-old, well-regarded business organization founded by corporate CEOs who were focused on “knowledge-sharing” at the beginnings of modern corporate management theories.

Today, 1,200 companies are involved as member organizations, typically with varying managers’ participation in sections devoted to specific topics and issue areas. These include Economy, Strategy & Finance; ESG (including Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Governance); Human Capital Management (including Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) …and other focus areas that fit the functional needs of today’s companies.

At G&A Institute we closely follow the extensive research and insights regularly shared by the Board as part of its foundational mission – sharing knowledge. This week The Conference Board issued its survey results for the question(s) asked of corporate connections: “What impact, if any, do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on your company’s overall sustainability program?”

If we asked our corporate colleagues that question, we could expect the answers to be all over the place. The Board did ask, and the answers were “sharply divided”, staff reported.

The Conference Board conducted two different surveys — one at more than 200 companies, focused on generating responses from general counsel, corporate secretaries and investor relations execs; the other queries, at 40 companies with questions asked of dedicated sustainability executives.

Top line: Three-in-ten sustainability execs expect the current health crisis to increase emphasis on their “E” and “S” efforts – while only one-in-ten of their fellow governance execs agree with that premise.

Example: responding to whether or not COVID-19 “put general sustainability efforts on temporary hold,” only 7% of sustainability executives said yes, while 19% of legal, governance and IR folks felt that way.

The short survey results are available for you in a Top Story.

Says The Conference Board staff: “This divergence of opinions reveals companies need to reach an internal consensus on the crisis’ impact on their sustainability programs and be prepared to communicate [it] in a cohesive and consistent manner.”  Good advice!

Inside the corporate structure, people may have differing views on what is “sustainability,” what their own company’s sustainability programs are about, (Strategy? Actions? Engagements? Achievements? Third-Party Recognitions?) And senior execs may have different opinions about the real impact of the virus on the company’s operations — not all impacts are yet fully understood as the pandemic roars on around the world.

But there are positives being reported. For example, we are seeing reports every day now of increased productivity at some companies because people are at home and not wasting hours commuting.  Emails are being answered early in the morning and way after dark — increasing the firm’s communication and productivity.

What is the outside view of this, beyond the corporate sector?

While inside the corporate enterprise there may be differences of opinion on the direction of the sustainability journey, here’s some important “outside” news from Sam Meredith at CNBC: “Sustainable investment funds just surpassed US$1 trillion for the first time.”

He cited recent UBS research that the global public sector has been stepping up support for green projects. And, he cited a Morningstar report that spelled out factors contributing to the record 2Q inflows to ESG mutual funds.  Investors are putting their money where their “sustainability beliefs” may be, we could say.

Adding some intelligence to the results of our reading of The Conference Board survey results, Morningstar says: “…the disruption caused by the virus highlighted the importance of building sustainable and resilient business models based on multi-stakeholder considerations…”

Of course, there are no easy answers “inside” to harmonize the views of the executives responding to surveys about their company’s sustainability efforts.  But we can offer some advice.  Looking at the almost 2,000 corporate sustainability et al reports our team analyzed over the past year, we are seeing the formulas for success in the corporate sustainability journey.

People at the top (board room and C-suite) are the champions of the corporate sustainability efforts.  Strategy is set at the top and communicated effectively throughout the organization.  (“Strategem” is the root of the work — in ancient Greece, this was the work of the generals.  The leaders inside the company must lead the sustainability journey!)

Goals are to be set (carbon emissions reduction, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of waste to landfill, water usage and water discharge, and much more); progress is regularly measured and managed. And disclosed.

Serious attention is paid to the firm’s diversity & inclusion efforts and results; effective human capital management (HCM) is a priority at all levels, and in all geographies.

Meaningful engagements — internally and with external parties — are top priorities at multiple levels. Supply chain and sourcing efforts are monitored and bad actors and bad practices are eliminated, with management understanding that the firms in their supply network are part of their ESG footprint.

And the periodic public reporting on all of the above and more is based on the materiality of data and information — the stuff the investors want to know more about for their analysis and portfolio management.

Senior leadership understands that corporate sustainability is not about just “feeling good” but an important element of playing to win in the competition for capital and achieving industry leadership and being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.  As Morningstar advises, sustainability is part of the business model.

So in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the resulting economic and financial dislocations, the caring for the firm’s valuable human assets..quo vadis for your corporate sustainability journey?

Interesting conversations going on, for sure.  Read the survey results from The Conference Board survey and see what you agree/disagree.  Thanks to our colleagues at the board for all the management knowledge that they share.

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