Expanding Public Debates About the “What” & “How” of Corporate ESG Disclosure

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

March 2, 2021

Corporate sustainability / ESG reporting — What to disclose? How to frame the disclosures (context matters!)? What frameworks or standards to use?  Questions, questions, and more questions for corporate managers to consider as ESG disclosures steadily expand.

We are tuning in now to many more lively discussions going on about corporate ESG / sustainability et al public disclosures and structured reporting practices — and the growing complexity of all this disclosure effort, resulting often in disclosure fatigue for corporate practitioners!

Corporate managers ponder the important question:  which of the growing number of ESG frameworks or standards to use for disclosures? (The World Economic Forum (WEF) describes some 600 ESG guidelines, 600 reporting frameworks and 360 accounting standards that companies could use for reporting.  These do vary in scope, quantity, and quality of metrics.)

In deciding the what and how for their reporting, public companies consider then the specifics of relevant metrics and the all-important accompanying narrative to be shared to meet users’ rising information needs…in this era of emergent “stakeholder capitalism”.

Of course, there is the question for most companies of which or what existing or anticipated public sector reporting mandates will have to be met in various geographies, for various sectors and industries, for which stakeholders.

We here questions such as — how to get ahead of anticipated mandates in the United States if the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) does move ahead with adoption of new rules or at least strong guidance for corporate (and investor) sustainability reporting.

The European Union is today ahead in this area, but we can reasonably expect the USA to make important moves in the “Biden Climate Administration” era.  (The accounting standards boards are important players here as well as regulatory agencies in the sovereign states.)

Company boards, executive committees, professional staff, sustainability team managers wrestle with this complex environmental (for ESG disclosure) as their enterprises develop strategies, organize data flows, set in place data measurement protocols, and assemble the ESG-related content for public disclosure. (And, for expanded “private sharing” with ESG ratings agencies, credit risk agencies, benchmark/index managers, to meet customer ESG data requests, and more).

The list of issues and topics of “what” to disclose is constantly expanding, especially as institutional investors (asset owners and their managers) develop their “asks” of companies.

Climate change topics disclosure is at the top of most investor lists for 2021. Human Capital Management issues have been steadily rising in importance as the COVID-19 pandemic (and spread of variants) affects many business enterprises around the globe.

In the USA, SEC has new guidance for corporate HCM disclosures.  Political unrest is an issue for companies.  Anti-corruption measures are being closely examined.

Diversity & Inclusion (including in the board room and C-suite) is growing in importance to investors.

Also, physical risk to corporate assets in the era of superstorms and changing weather patterns – what are companies examining and then reporting on?  Exec compensation with metrics tied to performance in ESG issues is an area of growing interest.

We are monitoring and/or involved in multiple discussions and organized initiatives in the quest to develop more global, uniform, comparable, reliable, timely, complete, and assured corporate sustainability metrics, and accompanying narrative.  And, to provide the all-important context (of reported data) – what does the data mean?  It’s a complicated journey for all involved!

This week we devote the content of this week’s Highlights newsletter to various elements of the public discussions about the many aspects of the journey.

Here at G&A Institute, our team’s recommended best practice:  use multiple frameworks & standards that are relevant to the business and meet user needs; these are typically then disclosed in hybridized report where multiple standards are harmonized and customized for the relevant industries and sectors of the specific company’s operations and reflect the progress (or even lack of) of the enterprise toward leadership in sustainability matters.

This approach helps to reduce disclosure fatigue for internal corporate teams challenged to choose “which” framework or standard and the gathering of data and other content for this year’s and next year’s ESG disclosures.

We shared our thoughts in a special issue of NIRI IR Update, published by the National Investor Relations Institute, the important organization for corporate investor relations officers:


Here are our top selections in the content silos for this week that reflect the complexity of even the public debates about corporate ESG disclosure and where we are in early-2021.

TOP STORIES

The ever-evolving world of ESG investing from a few different points of view. What are the providers of capital examining today for their portfolio or investable product decision-making?  Here are some shared perspectives:

Big News: US SIF Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends 2020 Released

Big News:   As 2020 Began, $1-in-$3 of Professionally Managed AUM in the United States Had ESG Analysis and/or Portfolio Management Strategies Applied…US$17.1 Trillion Total

November 2020 — Every two years, since 1996, the influential trade organization for sustainable, responsible and impact investment (US SIF) conducts a year-long survey of professional asset managers to determine the total of USA-based assets under management (“AUM”) that have ESG analysis and/or portfolio management applied.

The Trends report just released charts the AUM with ESG analysis and strategies in the United States at $16.6 trillion at the start of 2020 – that’s 25X the total since the first Trends report in1996, with compounded growth rate of 14 percent. (The most rapid growth rate has been since 2012, says US SIF.)

Consider: This means that today, $1-in-$3 of professionally managed assets in the United States follows analysis and/or strategies considering ESG criteria. (The total of US assets under professional management at the start of 2020 was $51.4 trillion.)

This is a dramatic 43% increase over the survey results of the 2018 Trends report – that effort charted a total of $11.6 trillion in ESG-managed AUM in the USA at the start of 2018.

The survey respondents for the current Trends report identified the ESG-focused AUM practices of 530 institutional investors; 384 money managers; 1,204 community investment institutions – all applying environmental, social, and corporate governance criteria in their portfolio management.

What are top ESG issues identified by money management professionals in the survey effort?

  • Climate Change-Carbon: $4.18 trillion – #1 issue
  • Anti-Corruption: $2.44T
  • Board Room Issues: $2.39T
  • Sustainable Natural Resources/Agriculture: $2.38T
  • Executive Compensation: $2.22T
  • Conflict Risk (such as repressive regimes or terrorism, this cited by institutional investors): $1.8T

Note that many strategies and ESG analysis and portfolio management approaches can be overlapping.

Lisa Woll, US SIF Foundation CEO explains: “Money managers and institutional investors are using ESG criteria and shareholder engagement to address a plethora of issues including climate change, sustainable natural resources and agriculture, labor, diversity, and political spending. Retail and high net worth individuals are increasingly using this investment approach, with $4.6 trillion in sustainable investment assets, a 50% increase since 2018.”

The 2020 Trends report counts two main strategies as “sustainable investing” – (1) the incorporation of ESG factors in analysis and management of assets and (2) filing shareholder resolutions focused on ESG issues.

What are the top issues for the professional asset owners, their managers, and other investment professionals participating in the survey? Gauging the leading ESG issues for 2018-to-2020, examining the number of shareholder proposals filed, the Trends report charts the following in order of importance:

  • Corporate Political Activity
  • Labor & Equal Employment Opportunity
  • Climate Change
  • Executive Pay
  • Independent Board Chair
  • Special Meetings
  • Written Consent
  • Human Rights
  • Board Diversity

Looking at the 2020 Trends report, we have to say — we’ve certainly come a long, long way over the years. When first Trends survey was conducted at the end of 1995, the total AUM was just US$639 billion. The shift to sustainable, responsible, impact investment was underway! (The report released on November 16th is the 13th in the series.)

For information about the US SIF Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends 2020, and to purchase a copy of the report: https://www.ussif.org/trends

Governance & Accountability Institute is a long-time member of the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) and a sponsor of the 2020 Trends report. US SIF is the leading voice advancing sustainable and impact investing across all asset classes.

Members include investment management and advisory firms, mutual fund companies, asset owners, research firms, financial planners and advisors, community investment organizations, and not-for-profits. The work is supported by the US SIF Foundation that undertakes educational and research efforts to advance SIF’s work.

Louis Coppola, G&A EVP and Co-founder, is chair of the SIF Company Calls Committee that arranges meetings of SIF member organizations with publicly-traded companies to discuss their ESG/Sustainability efforts.

US SIF Trends 2020 Report Published November16, 2020: