A Deeper Shade of Green: The Social Layer of Green FSAs

By Ruth Rennie

Developing Green Firm Specific Advantages (GFSAs) allows firms to build business capacities and assets that enhance both economic and environmental performance.

However developing GFSAs focused solely on environmental management capacity will be inadequate to deliver sustainability and long term financial performance.

An additional set of GFSAs that build capacity to manage the social dimension of the people, planet, profit equation are required. These relate to the internalisation of the social contract, operational approaches that develop social equity, and communications approaches focused on inclusive constituency building.

Introduction

Sustainability frameworks build on the fundamental concept of the “triple bottom line” (TBL) balancing the needs of profit, planet and people. The TBL concept aims to broaden the focus of business performance from profit and loss to tracking and managing a company’s economic (not just financial), social, and environmental impact.

This enables companies to understand the full costs of doing business and calculate real value added.

Today risks associated with climate change, resource scarcity, increasingly stringent government regulation and consumer pressure for transparent and accountable business practice have shifted the focus of sustainability from a simple demonstration of corporate social responsibility to a core driver of commercial viability. Yet business leaders still seldom pay the same attention to people and planet targets as they do to achieving profitability (source: Elkington 2018).

The definition of “green” firm specific advantages (FSAs) first developed in the 1990s acknowledges that firms are likely to invest in better environmental performance only if they will also lead to higher economic returns.

Green FSAs (GFSAs) are business capacities and assets that allow firms to enhance both economic and environmental performance by enabling them to respond to and leverage evolving environmental challenges to achieve sustainable growth and competitive advantage. Developing GFSAs has a range of benefits for firms including cost and operational efficiencies, improved innovation and technological capabilities, enhanced product differentiation and market opportunities, and reputational enhancement (Singh et al 2014).

However, the definition of “green” FSAs related only to environmental management capabilities, creates an unbalanced framework that ignores critical capacities and assets that firms need to manage the social dimensions of sustainability that are increasingly critical to ensure both environmental and financial performance.

The need for wider set of Green FSAs

Though much of the sustainability industry of consultants and framework developers continue to equate “sustainability” and “green” approaches with environmentally-friendly and carbon neutral, the new generation of “green” frameworks explicitly link these issues with social equity and inclusion.

The United Nations calls for “Green Economies” which are “low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive” (UN Environment). The current “Green New Deal” policy resolution in the USA emphasises the role of environmental crises and economic transformation in exacerbating “systemic injustices” by disproportionately affecting already disadvantaged “frontline and vulnerable communities.” (Green New Deal Policy Resolution, 2019).

There is ample evidence that businesses are increasingly confronted with risks related to social equity and inclusion that threaten both their commercial and sustainability performance. In a recent survey 80 percent of businesses said they expected their company to be affected by changes to “the social contract” (defined as the general agreement on the rights and responsibilities of members of society[1]) over the next 10 years.

These include workforce risks related to payment of a living wage, technology replacing jobs, and erosion of worker benefits through efficiency measures such as outsourcing.

They also include risks from tensions arising from increasing social inequalities, and rising expectations of the role of business in solving social issues, creating a situation where “Social license to operate is at a higher standard than regulatory license to operate” (BRS 2017).

It is therefore not surprising that companies are now giving the highest priority in their sustainability efforts to social issues related to ethics, diversity, human rights and women’s empowerment, alongside climate change. (BSR 2018)

These trends highlight the limitations of cultivating GFSAs that address only a firm’s environmental management capacity to deliver long-term business sustainability or financial performance. Firms also need to develop “new green” FSAs to strengthen their ability to engage a wide range of stakeholders around a mutually beneficial social contract.

As with the GFSAs defined by Singh et al, the social set of GFSAs also need to be embedded into the firm’s planning and organisational practices, operational practices and communications. This effectively creates an additional layer of GFSAs related to “social management” (for want of a better term) as shown in the diagram below. These relate to the internalisation of the social contract, operational approaches that develop social equity, and communications approaches focused on inclusive constituency building.

[1] The full definition of “social contract” used in the survey was «the unwritten and tacit agreement that exists among members of society (individuals and organizations) that guides behavior and establishes rights and responsibilities of members of society.” (BSR 2017)

Fig 1: Green FSAs : Environmental and Social Management Dimensions

Social Contract Internalization Green FSAs

In the broadest terms Social Contract Internalization GFSAs relate to a firm’s capabilities to incorporate relevant social trends and expectations into strategic planning and develop strategies to mitigate risks related to the impact of their business operations, products and services on different social groups and wider patterns of inequality. Developing this perspective allows firms to internalise the social costs of products, technologies and business practices, and balance environmental management and operational efficiencies with social equity considerations.

Social contract internalisation GFSAs therefore enable firms to develop socially sustainable workforce capacity and supply chain relationships. This includes adopting approaches to measure, report on and address the gender pay gap by which men are still paid more than women for equal work in nearly every country in the world (Rubery, 2019).

It also includes adopting proactive strategies to manage the full range of costs to workers, supply chain actors and communities associated with practices such as the dematerialization of products, sourcing of eco-friendly inputs, achieving resource efficiencies, outsourcing and technological innovation.

For example by assessing the social impact of a shift from producing or using non-renewable to renewable resources such as biofuels on producer communities smallholder agriculture, livelihoods and food security (UNRISD 2012). It also includes developing human resource management strategies that ensure workplace health and safety and freedom from discrimination and harassment, and proactive strategies to address inequalities in access to employment or livelihood opportunities.

Beyond this, firms can develop the capacity for product innovation and expansion to new market segments to address inequalities in access to sustainable products and services between different social groups.


Social Contract Internalization Green FSAs Example – Green Jobs

The International Labour Organisation (ILO)  defines “Green Jobs” as those that both provide employment in the production of green products and services or in environmentally friendly processes AND meet the criteria of decent work by ensuring productive work, a fair income, security and rights at work, social protection, social dialogue and gender equality (ILO 1 & 2).

Yet the social dimension is still often absent from “green” jobs.

A recent study of around 300,000 organisations in Portugal found that the green job sector employs workers with lower qualifications and has poorer provision and lower coverage of Occupational Health and Safety Services resulting in a higher incidence and severity of accidents at work (Moreira et.al, 2018).

Internalization of Social Contract Green FSAs would therefore help firms to mitigate risks and reduce costs of workplace accidents, and demonstrate commitment to reducing the vulnerabilities of low income workers.


Social Equity Development Green FSAs

Social equity development GFSAs recognize that the unequal distribution of risks and rewards within commercial value chains ultimately pose a threat to the long-term sustainability and financial viability of current business models. This is most apparent in the global commodity supply chains where price fluctuations and buying practices such as spot trading create high risk for producers and suppliers that threaten the whole supply chain.

Social equity development green FSAs enable firms to develop business practices and operational processes to share risk and balance the social equity of key actors in the supply chain such as developing long term supplier agreements and investing in producer capacity.

Building social equity in supply chains enables firms to ensure business continuity and implement effective environmental management with producers as long term partners. It also enables firms to develop speciality products based on quality, transparency and local knowledge, enhance brand value develop product portfolios, and satisfy growing consumer demand for authenticity and transparency (Brown 2018, Samper 2018).


Social Equity Development Green FSAs Example – Mars Sustainable in a Generation Plan drive a new approach to commodity sourcing.

Alongside actions to address GHG emissions, water stress, land use, and deforestation the Sustainable in a Generation Plan commits to meaningfully improve the working lives of one million people in its value chain to enable them to thrive.

To do this the company has adopted a new approach to commodity sourcing from known origins and in many cases known farms, with price and sustainability impacts evaluated side by side and generally from longer term partnership arrangements with fewer suppliers.”

In addition Mars is focusing on increasing income, respecting human rights and unlocking opportunities for women. The focus on cultivating long term buyer relationships and investing in the productivity and livelihoods of smallholder suppliers allows Mars to mitigate the risks that poverty discourages the next generation of farmers from participation in essential commodity supply chains. (Sustainable Brands 2018)


Inclusive Constituency Building Green FSAs

The concept of inclusive constituency building goes beyond reputation management, operational partnership development and targeted engagement with local stakeholders already identified in the GFSA framework. Rather it recognises the increasing consumer demand for businesses to demonstrate strong social purpose and to participate in a company’s broader vision. (Brown 2018, BBMG 2017).

A recent global survey shows at least half of consumers believe brands can do more to solve social ills than government and that it is easier for people to get brands to address social problems than to get government to take action. Moreover 57% report buying or boycotting brands based on the brand’s position on a social or political issue (Edelman 2018).

Inclusive constituency-building GFSAs enable firms to develop purpose driven narratives to engage consumers, investors, supply chain actors, local communities and wider stakeholders such as governments, regulators and NGOs in an ongoing relationship based on transparent communication and accountability to build a broad coalition of support for their activities products and services.

This allows firms to develop stronger brand value and engage proactively with employees, customers and peers as brand ambassadors. It also increases firms’ ability for early sensing of societal concerns and foster an organisation-wide culture of listening and engaging with stakeholders that creates goodwill, can transform conflict into productive collaborations and garners “benefit of the doubt” support in regulatory compliance and public approvals processes.

Inclusive constituency building GFSAs also build firms capacity to engage in constructive dialogue to drive product innovation, enhance creativity and strengthen employee motivation through the inclusion of wider perspectives (Sharma and Vrendenberg 1998).


Inclusive Constituency Building Green FSAs Example – Amazon

Amazon is one of the most financially successful companies in the world, and has made environmental sustainability commitments to increase its use of renewable energy and make all amazon shipments net zero carbon, with a target of 50% by 2030. Yet the company’s financial and environmental management strategies are undermined by its failure to develop an inclusive constituency for its brand.

Amazon recently pulled out of a deal to set up a new headquarters in New York City, fearing damage to its reputation from a barrage of objections from politicians, unions, public housing residents, local community leaders and government institutions.

These objections echoed Amazon’s failure to address poor labor practices and anti-unionisation policies, or to contribute to alleviating social inequality issues to which it contributes, by threatening to halt growth in its home city of Seattle if the city approved a tax on large employers to fund homeless services and low-income housing (Sainato, 2018).

The failure of the deal has been attributed to Amazon’s failure to develop a robust strategy to build support amongst key stakeholders groups and miscalculation on how much it needed to engage with those audiences to make the development of the New York HQs a success (Goodman and Weise, 2019).


Conclusion

To adequately ensure sustainability including environmental management and financial performance, Firms need to develop an additional set of Green FSAs focused on the social dimension of the people, planet profit equation.

Social contract internalisation GFSAs that incorporate a social equity and inclusion perspective into strategic planning enable firms to develop socially sustainable workforce capacity and supply chain relationships and strengthen capacity for product innovation and market positioning.

Social equity development GFSAs that build capacity to rebalance risk and build inclusiveness in supply chains enable firms to ensure business continuity and implement effective environmental management strategies based on long term partnerships and to develop product differentiation.

Inclusive constituency building GFSAs that build capacity to engage stakeholders in a broad coalition of support for a firm’s activities products and services allow firms to develop stronger brand value, sense and respond to societal concerns and drive product innovation, creativity and employee motivation through constructive engagement with wider stakeholder perspectives.

REFERENCES

BBMG Globescan (2017), Brand Purpose in Divided Times, Four strategies for Brand leadership. http://bbmg.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BBMG_GlobeScan_BrandPurposeReport_2017.pdf

Britton-Purdy, Jedediah (2019) “The Green New Deal Is What Realistic Environmental Policy Looks Like”, The New York Times Feb. 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/opinion/green-new-deal-ocasio-cortez-.html

Brown, Nick (2018), “A Radical New Social Contract Concept from James Hoffmann”, Daily Coffee News, October 15, 2018, https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/10/15/a-radical-new-social-contract-concept-from-james-hoffmann/

BSR, Globescan (2017), The State of Sustainable Business 2017, Results of the 9th Annual Survey of Sustainable, Business Leaders, July 2017, https://www.bsr.org/reports/2017_BSR_Sustainable-Business-Survey.pdf

BSR, Globescan (2018), The State of Sustainable Business 2018, Results of the 10th Annual Survey of Sustainable, Business Leaders, 2018, https://www.bsr.org/files/event-resources/BSR_Globescan_State_of_Sustainable_Business_2018.pdf

Edelman (2017, 2018), Beyond No Brand’s Land, Edelman Earned Brand Study, https://www.edelman.com/earned-brand, / https://www.edelman.com/research/earned-brand-2017

Elkington, John (2018), “25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It”, Harvard Business Review, June 25, 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/06/25-years-ago-i-coined-the-phrase-triple-bottom-line-heres-why-im-giving-up-on-it

Goodman, J. David and Weise, Karen, (2019) “Why the Amazon Deal Collapsed: A Tech Giant Stumbles in N.Y.’s Raucous Political Arena”, The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/nyregion/amazon-hq2-nyc.html

Green New Deal Policy Resolution, G:\M\16\OCASNY\OCASNY_004.XML February 5, 2019 (3:27 p.m.) https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5729033/Green-New-Deal-FINAL.pdf

ILO 1 – What are Green Jobs? https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/green-jobs/news/WCMS_220248/lang–en/index.htm

ILO 2 – Decent Work, https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/decent-work/lang–en/index.htm

Kantor, Jodi and Streitfeld, David (2015), Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

Moreira, Sandra, Vasconcelos, Lia, Silva Santos, Carlos, (2018)“Occupational health indicators: Exploring the social and decent work dimensions of green jobs in Portugal” Work, vol. 61, no. 2, 2018 pp. 189-209, https://content.iospress.com/articles/work/wor182792

Rubery, Jill BBC (2019), “Is equal pay actually possible?, BBC News 22 February 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47212342

Sainato, Michael (2018) Exploited Amazon workers need a union. When will they get one?, The Guardian, Sun 8 Jul 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/08/amazon-jeff-bezos-unionize-working-conditions

Samper, Luis F. (2018), “A New World Coffee Order” Daily Coffee News, October 17, 2018, https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/10/17/a-new-world-coffee-order/

Sharma, Sanjay and Vredenburg, Harrie (1998), “Proactive Corporate Environmental Strategy and the Development of Competitively Valuable Organizational Capabilities” Strategic Management Journal, 19: 729–753 (1998) http://www.jstor.org/pss/3094125

Singh Nitish, Yung‐Hwal Park, Carri R. Tolmie, Boris Bartikowski (2014), “Green Firm‐Specific Advantages for Enhancing Environmental and Economic Performance”, Global Business and Organizational Excellence, November/December 2014 pp6-17 https://doi.org/10.1002/joe.21580

Sustainable Brands (2018), Screw Incremental Improvements: Mars Is Changing How It Does Business, September 19, 2018, https://sustainablebrands.com/read/walking-the-talk-1/screw-incremental-improvements-mars-is-changing-how-it-does-business / See also – Henderson, James (2017) Mars CEO Grant F. Reid has said business needs to lead “transformational change” in order to tackle the most urgent threats facing the planet and its people, including a radical overhaul of supply chains”. Sep 08, 2017, https://www.supplychaindigital.com/scm/mars-ceo-transformational-business-change-needed-including-radical-rethink-supply-chains

UN Environment “About the Green Economy”? https://www.unenvironment.org/explore-topics/green-economy/about-green-economy https://www.unenvironment.org/regions/asia-and-pacific/regional-initiatives/supporting-resource-efficiency/green-economy

UNRISD (2012), Social Dimensions of Green Economy Research and Policy Brief 12, May 2012, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/143941/RPB%2012e.pdf

* * *

A message from G&A Institute

This is the “final paper” authored by Ruth Rennie as she completed the on-line, self-study “Certification in Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Strategies” hosted by Governance & Accountability Institute and developed by Professor Nitish Singh, Ph.D., Associate Professor of International Business at the Boeing Institute of International Business at Saint Louis University, and founder and consultant at IntegTree LLC; and, Instructor Brendan M. Keating, Adjunct Professor at Wilmington University and VP of IntegTree.

The professionals completing the course work receive certificates from the Swain Center for Executive & Professional Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and from G&A Institute.

The certification program provides a broad overview of key corporate responsibility challenges and strategies that will enable organizations to succeed in the 21st Century Green Economy.

Ruth Rennie is a Sustainability and Social Impact Consultant educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland (M.Phil. – Master of Philosophy, History; at Universite Paris 7 (Paris, France), Diplome d’Etudes Approfondies (DEA); and, Victoria University, New Zealand, Dip TESL (Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language). Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ruth-rennie/

Ruth’s email: rennie.ruth@gmail.com

More information on the CSR course is available at:

http://learning.ga-institute.com/courses/course-v1:GovernanceandAccountabilityInstitute+CCRSS+2016/about

Focus On The Corporate Sustainability Journey This Week – News & Opinion All Around the Topic in Various Communications Channels…

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

Remember the great Beatles’ song…Here, There and Everywhere?  That’s what seems to be happening with “Corporate Sustainability” these days.

The news and commentary seem to be everywhere now, with an examination of how the corporate sector is embracing the concept and developing strategies, action plans, assigning teams and moving forward to address ESG issues.

When we began our sustainability news, commentary and research sharing at Governance & Accountability Institute more than a decade ago, the items were few and far between, skimpy and more periodic than regularly appearing.

Today, a widening range of media and communications channels bring us the news of what the players in the corporate sector are doing — and how institutional investors and other key stakeholders are responding to same.

We see numerous news stories and commentary about what companies are doing in their sustainability journey…and how this matters in so many ways for the issuer (such as improved risk management, more effective investor relations, greater access to capital, enhanced reputation for recruiting and retaining human capital, preferred supplier status, and more).

G&A Institute is the data partner for the USA, UK and Republic of Ireland for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and in this role, we gather and analyze (and then database) the corporate sustainability and CR reports of literally hundreds upon hundreds of companies.

The progress we’ve seen companies making in their journeys is encouraging and pretty astounding if you think back just 10 years or so (to the dark days of 2008).

And so as companies move ahead in the journey and greatly expand their disclosure and reporting, the communication channels light up with the “sustainability” news, commentary and research focused on a company, a group of peers, investors, an industry or a sector.

We selected a few examples for you this week.  First, from the food processing industry, an examination by Kevin Piccione (he describes his company’s effort – Sealed Air, an early sustainability adopter).

He cites the World Economic Forum finding that most “sustainable companies” outperform their peers by a third – but only 2% actually achieve or exceed their sustainability goals. So why do they succeed?  A brief review for you.

The second article for you is Harry Menear’s more in-depth piece from Energy Digital, examining which companies stand out for “green credentials”.

His focus is on the Corporate Knight’s “Top 10 Sustainable Companies” roster, which is drawn from comprehensive research on 6,000 companies worldwide across all industries (for companies with US$1 billion revenues).

The companies were scored on energy use, carbon, waste and clean air production, innovation expenditures, taxes paid, diversity of leadership, supply chain management, and other elements of the sustainability journey.  Which companies made the Top 10?  The link is below for your reading.

The third item is a note of caution from Bloomberg by Emily Chasan and Chris Martin — who point out that in the midst of the growing enthusiasm about corporate sustainability, there are some companies that investors call out for their “corporate greenwashing” (and they name names).  The authors cite the recent Ceres report on this (500 companies were analyzed).

They write:  Companies are still making questionable claims but accountability is rising.

Emily and Chris tell us companies (and their executives) are being forced now to admit to greenwashing (that is, “gushing” sustainability claims with a tenuous grip on reality).

Examined:  Mid-American; VW; Wal-Mart; Amazon; AB InBev SA.  There are perspectives shared on this by Calvert,  CalSTRS, BlackRock, Neuberger Berman, DWS Group, UBS.

And there are as always many items that our editors share this week in the Highlights, as we say, drawn for you from the many communications channels that our team monitors every day.  Let us know your thoughts as to how we are doing and what you would like to see!

This Week’s Top Stories

Achieving your sustainability goals does not mean sacrificing profits
(Thursday – August 16, 2018) Source: Food Processing – Nearly 90% of business leaders believe that sustainability is essential to remaining competitive and despite the clear link between sustainability and profit, only 2% of companies either achieve or exceed their sustainability…

Top 10 Sustainable Companies
(Monday – August 13, 2018) Source: Energy Digital – Which companies stand out for their green credentials? Energy Digital finds out.

Investors Are Increasingly Calling Out Corporate Greenwashing
(August 20, 2018) Source: Bloomberg – Corporate sustainability reporting has risen dramatically over the last few years, with 85 percent of the S&P 500 index producing annual corporate responsibility documents in 2018, up from just 20 percent in 2011, according to the Governance & Accountability Institute. That’s partially due to investor demand. Assets in sustainable investment funds grew 37 percent last year, according to data tracked by Bloomberg.

Conversation with Professor Baruch Lev at NYU: Is Accounting Outmoded?

The book: The End of Accounting.

July 17, 2017

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

Questions:  Is Accounting as we know it now outmoded … beyond Its usefulness to investors? We share with you today the views of a global thought leader on Accounting and Corporate Reporting — Dr. Baruch Lev of Stern School of Business at New York University.

Professor Lev’s shares his views of the vital importance of intangibles to investors, with his call for far greater corporate transparency being needed … including his views on the importance of CSR and sustainability.

His latest work:  The End of Accounting – and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers — authored by Dr. Baruch Lev and Dr. Feng Gu of the University of Buffalo/ SUNY.  The professors’  important new work is the result of three years of research and collaboration, In the book they that suggests new approaches are needed to reform “old” accounting practices to provide more information of value to investors, who are mostly ignoring corporate accounting.

And as read the book, we were thinking:  what about ESG – CSR – Sustainability – and other new approaches that do focus on many intangible aspects of corporate operations?  We had a conversation with Dr. Lev and share his views on this and more with you today.

After reading the book, readers may ask:  Is this about the “The End of Accounting?” Or, “The Beginning of Really Useful Financial Information for Investors?”  My view:  It’s both!

And we discuss needed reforms in corporate reporting, for you to think about:  Are U.S. public companies prepared to publish the authors’ recommendations for a Resources and Consequences Report for investors’ benefit?  Read on to learn more…

And for sustainability / CSR professionals: This is an important new work for your consideration that focuses on the importance of intangible information for investors to help guide their decision-making.

First, some background:

Accounting as we know it has been around for 500+ years. Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, the Italian mathematician (c 1447-1517) set out the principles of the double-entry bookkeeping system for the merchants of Old Venice in his 1494 work, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, a very important textbook of the day.

This “Father of Accounting” put forth the important concepts of ledgers, journals, credits and debits (and the balancing of same); A/R, A/P, Cost Accounting and much more. His is a rich legacy in the accounting and business worlds. **

But now, Professor Baruch Lev posits in his work with colleague Professor Feng Gu, we really need to reform this five-century-old approach to how we account for the financials and think and act way beyond the traditional.

Their Recommendations:

Let’s begin with the corporate “intangibles” – some investment professionals still speak of a company’s ESG / Sustainability / Responsibility strategies, programs and actions, achievements, and the burgeoning reportage of same (data & narrative) as addressing the intangibles (and not “the tangibles,” represented by the financial data).

But many analysts and asset managers look far beyond the financials to help determine the valuation of a public issuer. For example, veteran financial analyst Stephen McClellan, CFA, formerly VP and head of research for Merrill Lynch and author of the best seller, “Full of Bull,” has told conference audiences that as much as 80% of a corporate valuation may be based on the intangibles.

Writing for investors, Professors Lev and Gu put forth their suggestions for dramatic accounting and corporate reporting reform. They “establish empirically” in their work that traditional corporate accounting is failing investors and reforms are needed.

Their recommendation: have companies publish a “Resources and Consequences Report” with five main elements:

  • Development of [Corporate] Resources;
  • Resource Stocks;
  • Preservation of Resources;
  • Deployment of Resources;
  • Value Created.

Some of the information could be financial, as in today’s disclosures. But other information could quantify data, and there could be qualitative information as well. (Sounds like we are looking at some of the sustainability reports of corporate sustainability leaders?)

The elements of the report the good professors recommend:

Development of Resources: Detailed descriptions for investors of the company’s important internal research efforts, the R&D advances, the further development of present technologies to leverage to create value, etc. After “proof of concept,” how does the R&D contribute to the value of the company?

Resource Stocks: The company’s intellectual properties, the assets that are the foundation of investor value. (Patents, trademarks, processes, etc. — all “intangibles” that are in fact very tangible to investors.)

Preservation of Resources: The safety/security of such things as a company’s digital assets, IT, IP, and so on; are there cyber attacks? Was there damage – to what extent? What does the company do about these attacks? How does the company manage and secure its acquired knowledge?

Deployment of Resources: As the company creates “value,” how are the strategic resources deployed? How does the company use its intellectual assets?

Value Created: Here the professors would like to see reported the dollar results of all of the above. Companies would describe the changes in Resource value(s), and describe the nature of value (for a company with a subscription model, what is the value of the individual subscription; what is the value of a brand, etc.)

Notes Dr. Lev: “We suggest and demonstrate a new measure: adjusted cash flows.”

Highlights of our conversation:

G&A Institute: Your new book offers very powerful arguments for fundamentally changing present-day corporate accounting and the way that investors do or do not pay attention to that accounting in their analysis and portfolio decision-making. There are a lot of vested interests in the present system; can the accounting and corporate disclosure and reporting systems be changed to reflect your recommendations?

Dr. Lev: Things change very slowly in accounting policies and practices. The systems is changing, in that public company managements are disclosing a considerable amount of information that is beyond that required for SEC filings, in the areas that we touch on in examples in our book. So there is progress. But not fast enough, I believe, to really serve investors.

G&A Institute: The SEC months ago published a Concept Release requesting public input on the present methods of corporate disclosure. We were encouraged to see more than a dozen pages in the document devoted the question of ESG metrics, sustainability information, and the like. Your thoughts on this?

Dr. Lev: We have not seen any further communication on this and there are no rules proposed. Will the new administration take any of this seriously?

Observes Dr. Lev: There are now many corporate financial statements that virtually no one understands. There is great complexity in today’s accounting. When we look at the US Environmental Protection Agency and environmental rules, we see that once rules are in place, they are constantly debated in the public arena. Unlike the EPA situation, there is presently no public interest in debating our accounting rules.

G&A Institute: Well, let me introduce here the subject of the SASB approach — the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB). Of course, the adoption of the SASB approach by a public company for adopting to their mandated reporting is voluntary at this time. What are your thoughts on this approach to this type of intangibles disclosure?

Dr. Lev: Well, the SASB recommendations are built on top of the present approach to accounting and reporting. In effect they leave the financial reporting system “as is,” with their rules built on top of a weak foundation as we outline in the book. I’ve said this at the SASB annual conference and my comments were very well received.

I did point out that the SASB approach is quite useful for investors. But the demand for voluntary disclosure by companies could create an invitation for lawsuits all over the world, if certain disclosures were made regarding a company’s environmental impacts.

G&A Institute: Well, aren’t investors seeking information such as environmental performance, as well as related risk, opportunity, more of the “E” of ESG strategies, performance, and metrics?

Dr. Lev: It depends on the setting. Our book was in process over a three-year period. My co-author and I devoted an entire year to analyzing hundreds of quarterly analyst (earnings) calls. Keep in mind that an analyst may have just one opportunity to ask the question. There were no — no — questions ever raised about ESG performance, corporate sustainability, and related topics. We reviewed, as I said, hundreds of earnings calls, with about 25-to-30 questions on each call.

G&A Institute: What kinds of questions may be directed to corporate managers on the calls about intangible items?

Dr. Lev: There were questions about the R&D efforts, the pipeline for example for pharma companies. Customer franchise was an important topic. Changes in U.S. patent law resulted in much more information being disclosed by the U.SPatent Office related to the filings. The entire argument made for patent filing, for example, and this is a subject the analysts are interested in.

G&A Institute: Are there any discussions, analyst and corporate, about ESG/sustainability?

Dr. Lev: Yes, these questions are mostly in the one-to-one conversations. A challenge is that in my opinion, the ESG metrics available are not yet at investment-grade. There is a good bit of investor interest and discussion with companies about sustainability. The factors are quite relevant to investors. But the “how-wonderful-we-are” communications by large public companies are not really relevant to investors.

G&A Institute: What kinds of information about the CSR or environmental sustainability intangibles, in your opinion, is of importance to investors?

Dr. Lev: Think about the special capabilities of the public corporation. The organization typically has special capacity to do good. Not just to donate money, which is something the shareholders could do without the company. But to share with the stakeholder, like a community organization, the special know how and other resources to make good things happen. The world really expects this now of companies. Call it Corporate Social Responsibility if you like.

The Cisco Example

Explains Dr. Lev:  Cisco is a fine example of this. The Company has a Networking Academy, and they invite people to enroll and take free educational courses to learn more about networking. There have been millions of people graduating from this academy and receiving certificates. Cisco management leverages its special capacity in doing this. And it is a good idea if you think about the impact of this far-sighted approach to generate more interest in and business with Cisco.

The Home Depot Example

Another example he offers is Home Depot. The company teams with an NGO – Kaboom — to build playgrounds for children. In terms of special capacity, HD does provide materials, but also provides company legal talent to help situate the playgrounds in the neighborhood. That is far more than throwing money at a community need.

Dr. Lev Observes:  I think one of the issues is that the terminology is not clear. CSR — what is it? Good or bad for investors? Having good ideas and special capabilities is key, I think.

We asked about Dr. Milton Friedman’s Views on CSR

G&A Institute: This brings us to one of your former colleagues, Dr. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, who famously wrote in a New York Times magazine article that CSR is, in effect, hokum, and not the business of the company. Shareholders well being should be the main focus, and through dividends and other means, if a shareholder wants to give the money away, they can do that…not the company.

Dr. Lev: I was a student of Dr. Friedman and later a colleague at the University of Chicago after I got a Ph.D. He was a brilliant man. In my opinion, he was the greatest economist of the 20th Century and I put him on a pedestal. He liked to introduce a subject and then generate great debate on his suggestions, which he felt people could accept or reject. That, I think, is the case with his famous commentary on CSR. See, we are still debating his views today. He was proved right so many times during his time.

G&A Institute: Let’s conclude this talk with a question: Do you see a value for investors in accepting, or better understanding, such terminology as CSR and sustainability and sustainable investing?

Dr. Lev: Yes, these are important approaches for companies and investors. Four years ago I devoted a chapter to CSR in my book, “Winning Investors Over.” My views are fully set forth in the recent article, “Evaluating Sustainable Competitive Advantage,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Journal of Applied Corporate Finance.

Notes Dr. Lev:  About “CSR” — there are other terms used, of course. Varying titles are very confusing. It is not always clear what CSR or sustainability may mean. For example, the Toyota Prius is a good approach to auto use. Is manufacturing that car “good CSR,” or just good business? A measure of sustainability? CSR is hard to define, sometimes. Good corporate citizenship is good for business and good for society, I believe.

G&A Institute: Thank, you Dr. Lev, for sharing your thoughts on accounting and the reforms needed, in your book and in this conversation.

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Footnotes:

The book:: The End of Accounting – and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers … by Dr,Baruch Lev (Philip Bardes Professor of Accounting and Finance at the NYU Stern School of Business and Dr. Feng Gu (Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Accounting and Law at the University of Buffalo).

Published by Wiley & Sons, NY NY. You can find it on Amazon in print and Kindle formats.

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Dr. Baruch Lev is the Philip Bardes Professor of Accounting and Finance at New York University Leonard Stern School of Business; he teaches courses in accounting, financial analysis and investor relations. He’s been with NYU for almost 20 years.

Dr. Lev is author of six books; his research areas of interest are corporate governance, earnings management; financial accounting; financial statement analysis; intangible assets and intellectual capital; capital markets; and, mergers & acquisitions.

He has taught at University of Chicago; the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv University (dean of the business school); University of California-Berkeley (business and law schools). He received his Bachelor of Accounting at Hebrew University; his MBA and doctorate (Accounting/Finance) are from the University of Chicago, where he was also a professor and (student of) and then academic colleague of Nobel Laureate (Economic Sciences-1976) Dr. Milton Friedman (1912-2006).

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Dr. Milton Friedman’s article — “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”; published in The New York Times Magazine, issue of September 13, 1970. The commentary for your reading is here: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html

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** Thanks to the “International Accounting Day” account of Luca Pacioli’s life, his work and his legacy. There is information available at: http://accountants-day.info/index.php/international-accounting-day-previous/77-luca-pacioli

We’re a Long Way from NYC’s Stonewall Inn, But Still a Ways to Go for Corporate LGBT Policies, Says Investor Coalition

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

We’ve come a long way since the gay & lesbian communities mobilized and began in earnest their civil rights campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s and into the1990s. It was the New York City Police Department’s wrongheaded “raid” on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village neighborhood in June 1969 that provided the important spark for the long-term, winning campaign by LGBT community for equal rights and equal protection under the laws of the land. “Stonewall” became a rallying cry for the next installment of the continuing “journey” of the civil rights movement in the United States.

The 1960s/1970s were the era of civil rights protests — we were involved in or witnessed and were affected by the civil rights / voting rights movement; the counter-culture “revolution” (remember the hippies?); the drive for adoption of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution); and the anti-war movement protests against the conflict in Vietnam.  These were catalysts as well for the LGBT equal rights warriors of the decades that followed the 1969 Stonewall protests.

Finally, in recent years, after years of campaigning by LGBT advocates, most states have been adopting protective measures to protect the LGBT community.  Same gender marriage is a reality in many U.S. jurisdictions.

On November 7, 2014 The New York Times carried an update — it was a “milestone year” for LGBT rights advocates, the publication explained.  Voters in the 3Ms — Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – favored same-sex marriage; the first openly-gay US Senator (Tammy Baldwin) was elected by Wisconsin voters.

Still, there was vocal and often fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and equal protection under the law for LGBT citizens.

About LGBT Policies and the US Corporate Community

Many large companies (estimate:70 companies in the S&P 500 Index to date) have adopted non-discrimination policies to protect LGBT employees in the United States, says the 2014 Corporate Equality Index (a national benchmarking tool of the Human Rights Campaign).

We see these policies and programs for inclusion described in the many sustainability and responsibility reports we examine as exclusive data partner for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for the United States of America.

Still, legal protections for LGBT citizens are not sufficient in numerous US jurisdictions. “Homophobic” policies and attitudes still reign in too many US cities and states and local communities.

And policies, attitudes, practices in other countries?  Well, that’s really a problem, say sustainable & responsible investment advocates — and steps are being taken to address the situation.

The S&R investment advocacy campaign is focused on the LGBT employees of US firms working overseas.  In countries like Russia, one of the world’s largest industrial economies, which has harsh anti-LGBT policies. The US investor group points out that 79 countries consider same sex relationships illegal; 66 countries provide “some” protection at least in the workplace; and in some countries, homosexuality is punishable by death.

In a business environment that continues to globalize in every aspect, with American large-cap companies operating everywhere, the investor coalition is calling on US companies to extend their LGBT policies on anti-discrimination and equal benefits policies to employees outside the United States. A letter was sent by the coalition to about 70 large-cap companies (the signatories manage US$210 billion in assets.

Shelley Alpern, Director Social Research & Shareholder Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management explains: “Today, most leading U.S. corporations now have equitable policies on their books for their [American-based] LGBT employees. Ther’s a dearth of information on how many extend policies outside of the U.S. In starting this dialogue, we hope to identify best practices and start to encourage all companies to adopt them.”

The objective of the shareowner advocacy campaign is to stimulate interest in the issue and create a broad dialogue that leads to greater protection of LGBT employees of US companies operating outside of the United States.

Mari Schwartzer, coordinator of shareholder advocacy at NorthStar Asset Management compliments US firms with effective non-discrimination policies and states:  “While we are pleased that so many companies have adopted non-discrimination policies in the USA which incorporate equal protections for LGBT employees, the next phase of implementation is upon us — we must ensure that international employees are receiving equal benefits and are adequately protected.  Particularly those stationed in regions hostile to LGBT individuals…”

Signatories of the letters sent to companies include these sustainable & responsible investing advocates:  Calvert Investments; Jantz Management; Miller/Howard Investments; Office of the Comptroller of New York City; Pax World Management; Sustainability Group/Loring, Wolcott & Coolidge; Trillium Asset Management; Unitarian Universalist Association; Walden Asset Management; Zevin Asset management.

Companies contacted include:  Aetna, AIG, Allstate, Altria, Amazon, American Express, Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, Baxter, Best Buy, Boeing, Cardinal health, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco, Citigroup, Coca Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Costco, CVS Health, Delta, Dow Chemical, DuPoint, EMC, FedEx, Ford Motor, General Electric, General Dynamics, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, Home Depot, Honeywell, Human, IBM Ingram Micro, Intel, J&J, JPMorgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, McDonalds, McKesson, Merck, MetLife, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, PepsiCo, Pfizer, P&G, Prudential, Sears, Sprint, Starbucks, Target, Texas Instruments, United Continental, United HealthGroup, United Technologies, UPS, Verizon, Visa, Walgreen, Walt Disney, Walmart, Wellpoint, Wells Fargo.

Summing up the heart of the issue for investors (and corporate employees):  “Corporations must take the extra step to ensure consistent application of LGBT-inclusive workplace policies throughout their operations, regardless of location,” said Wendy Holding, Partner, the Sustainability Group of Loring, Wolcott & Coolidge.