Which Are the “Best Of” Sustainable Companies in the Important Annual Rankings? Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – What Reflection for Our Company?

February 7 2020

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

Mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the most sustainable company of them all?  (Paraphrasing that most memorable line from the Queen in the Walt Disney Studios’ 1930s big screen classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,)

“Best Of” is being regularly applied now by a ever-widening range of third party players in examining the performance and achievements of U.S., North American and global companies’ sustainability efforts (and applying their methodologies to focus on an ever-widening list of ESG criteria for users of the lists, rankings and so on). 

The results are published for many or all to see – such as this week’s Corporate Knights’ “2020 Global 100” unveiling at the World Economic Forum in Davos — which we are sharing in our Top Stories of the week.

Looking at (or for) the “fairest” of them all, or the best-in-class, or most sustainable, or leading in corporate citizenship rankings, et al — there are now many more ESG ratings organizations, publishers, NGOs, investor coalitions, trade / professional associations, and others in the “ratings, rankings, scores and other recognitions” arena.

And these ratings, rankings, scores, best-of lists are published in many more forms and value-added variations.  Keeping current and in the ESG ratings & rankings game is a full-time job at many companies today.

The third party evaluation approach can be better understood in how they apply their research to arrive at rankings and ratings, and assigning scores, with shared (privately or publicly) rationale to explain the selections of the individual company for benchmark, or the rankings assigned. 

Therein, important stories are being told about companies on the list or assigned a high ranking or in an index. Investors can better understand the why and how of the selection.

(And, we should say, stories are told in the ratings & rankings et al processes about those companies that are omitted or not selected or having a lower rating compared to peers).

For example, look at investable products. S&P Global recently launched an index based on the widely-used benchmark, the S&P 500(R), focused on ESG performance. The bottom 25% — 100 companies! — were not included in the first go-round. Story subtly told – company is in or out.

Besides the welcomed opportunity for corporate leaders to bask in the sunshine of the valued third party recognitions (“look, we got in this year’s best companies list focused on…”), and to admire the reflection in the “best of mirror mirror” on the board room or C-Suite wall, there are very practical aspects to these things.

Such as: As explained, the inclusion of a corporation in a key ESG equity index / investing benchmark or investable product offering and more recently, reflections of the company in the mirror mirror of credit risk ratings and ratings opinions on fixed-income instruments.  

The decision to issue a “green” bond to the market may or will be affected by third party views of the planned issue – green enough or not! That’s beginning to happen in the EU markets.

The Positives

With the many in-depth third party examinations of companies’ ESG strategies and resulting outcomes (considering company’s actions, performance, achievements) now taking place, and with the results becoming more transparent, some of the scoring / ranking / etc results have the effect of enabling a more complete, accurate and comparable corporate ESG profile to be developed by the company.

With better understanding of the ranking & rating etc the issuer’s leadership can assign more resources to improve their public ESG profile, especially those developed by the key ESG rating agencies for their investor clients.

Important to understand in 2020: These close examinations of companies’ ESG performance are becoming more and more decision-useful for portfolio management for asset owners and managers.

And lenders, And bankers. And the company’s insurers. And business partners. And customers. And present and future employees wanting to work for a more sustainable, doing-the-right-thing company.

As board room top leaders better understand the importance of these ratings, rankings etc. exercises (and the importance of engaging with raters & rankers & list makers), with more internal resources allocated to the task of improving the profile — the company will tend to make more information publicly-available for the third party examinations.

The virtuous cycle continues — more information disclosed and explained, better ratings could result, year-after-year. As we always say, it is a sustainability journey.

More ESG information is now being made public by companies for delivery on critical ESG delivery platforms (such as on “the Bloomberg” and the Refinitiv Eikon platforms, in S&P Global platforms).

This in turn leads to better packaging of ESG data and narrative to inform and influence investors; and, leads to improved investment opportunity for being recognized as a leader in a particular space by key investor coalitions (ICCR, INCR, Investor Alliance on Human Rights, Climate Action 100+, and other).

The latter means a multiplier effect — quickly bringing the company’s sustainability news to more investors gathered in a community-of-interest on a topic.

(Think of the volumes of information now being made available by companies focused on GHG emissions, climate change risk, diversity & inclusion, labor rights, human rights, reducing ESG impacts on communities, greater supply chain accountability, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and more,)

Mirror, Mirror 2020: At the recent World Economic Forum meeting Davos, Switzerland, the “100 most sustainable companies of 2020” report was announced. 

Publisher Corporate Knights’ much-anticipated annual ranking of “most sustainable companies in the world” was the basis of the announcement. 

That annual survey looks at 7,400 companies having more than US$1 Billion in revenues, examining 21 KPIs. The stories of the companies from Fast Company and The Hill provide the details for you.  (This is the 17th year of the survey.)

At the Davos gathering this year, participants learned that almost half of the most sustainable companies were based in Europe (49); 17 were HQ in the U.S.A; 12 in Canada; 3 in Latin America, 18 in Asia, and one company in Africa.

For the U.S.A., Cisco Systems is highest ranked (at #4, thanks to $25 billion generated for “clean revenues” from products with “environmental core attributes”). The #1 company is worldwide is Orsted of Denmark (renewable energy).

Our G&A Institute team closely monitors these and many other third party rankings, ratings, scores, corporate ESG profiles, and other critical evaluations of companies. 

This is an example of the knowledge we gain in this [ratings/rankings] arena, which becomes a vital part of the various tools and resources we’ve created to help our corporate clients qualify for, get selected for, and lead in the various “best of lists”.

In sum, achieving better rankings, ratings, scores — so their mirror mirror on the wall question reflects back a very welcoming image! 

In these newsletters, we work to regularly share with you the relevant news items and other content that helps to tell the story of the dramatic changes taking place in both the corporate community and in the capital markets as as the focus on corporate ESG sharpens. Like this week’s Top Stories.

Top Stories for This Week

The 100 most sustainable companies of 2020   
Source: The Hill – A ranking of the most sustainable organizations was unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday. 

These are the most sustainable corporations in the world   
Source: Fast Company – Canadian research firm Corporate Knights releases its annual list of most sustainable corporations in the world, with some new entries in the top 10. 

For a the complete list and important background, go to:
Corporate Kings’ 2020 Global Ranking 

And also from Davos:
World Economic Forum calls on business chiefs to set net-zero targets   
Source: Edie.com – In a letter from the Forum’s Founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab and the heads of Bank of America and Royal DSM Brian Moynihan and Feike Sijbesma, businesses have been urged to respond to climate science through the… 

California – America’s Sovereign State of Sustainability Superlatives!

While the Federal Government Leaders Poo-Pooh Climate Change, the Sovereign State of California Continues to Set the Pace for America and the World!

Focus on The State of California – the America’s Sovereign State of Superlatives Including in the Realm of Societal Sustainability…

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

We are focusing today on the “Golden State” – California – America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

The U.S.A.’s most populous state is forceful and rigorous in addressing the numerous challenges of climate change, ESG issues, sustainable investing and other more aspects of life in this 21st Century.

Think about this: California is by itself now the fifth largest economy in the world. The total state GDP (the value of goods & services produced within the borders) is approaching US$ 3 trillion. The total U.S.A. GDP is of course the largest in the world (it includes California GDP) and then comes China, Japan, Germany… and the state of California!

The California population is about 40 million people – that means that roughly one-in-eight people in the U.S.A. live in the Golden State.

Stretching for 800+ miles along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, California is third largest in size behind Alaska (#1)  and Texas and takes the honor of setting the example for the rest of the U.S.A. in societal focus on sustainability.

Most investors and public company boards and managements know that the large California pension fund fiduciaries (institutional investors) often set the pace for U.S. fiduciary responsibility and stewardship in their policies and activities designed to address the challenges of climate change, of global warming effects.

The state’s two large public employee pension funds —  CalPERS (the California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and CalSTRS (the California State Teachers’ Retirement System) have been advocates for corporate governance reforms for public companies whose shares are in their portfolios.

CalPERS manages more than US$350 billion in AUM; CalSTRS, $220 billion.

A new law in California this year requires the two funds to identify climate risk in their portfolios and to disclose the risks to the public and legislature (at least every three years)

CalSTRS and CalPRS will have to report on their “carbon footprints” and progress made toward achieving the 2-Degrees Centigrade goals of the Paris Accord.

Looking ahead to the future investment environment — in the  emerging “low carbon economy” — CalPERS is pointing more of its investments toward renewable energy infrastructure projects (through a direct investment program). The fund has invested in two solar generation facilities and acquired a majority interest in a firm that owns two wind farms.

Walking the Talk with proxy voting: long an advocate for “good governance,” CalPERS voted against 438 board of director nominees at 141 companies this year in proxy voting. CalPERS said this was based on the [companies’] failures to respond to it effort to engage with corporate boards and managements to increase board room diversity.

CalPERS’ votes including “no” cast on the candidacy of numerous board chairs, long-term directors and nominating & governance committee chairs. This campaign was intended to “create heat” in the board room to increase diversity. CalPERS had solicited engagements with 504 companies — and more than 150 responded and added at least one “diverse” director.  CalSTRS joins its sister fund in these campaigns.

During the year 2018 proxy voting season, to date, CalPERS has voted against executive compensation proposals and lack of diversity in board room 43% of the time for the more than 2,000 public companies in the portfolio.

Other fiduciaries in the state follow the lead of the big funds.

The San Francisco City/County Employee Retirement Fund

The San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System (SFERS) with US$24 billion in AUM recently hired a Director of ESG Investment as part of a six-point strategy to address climate risk.  Andrew Collins comes from State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) and the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB – based in SFO) where he helped to develop the ESG accounting standards for corporations in 80 industries.

The approach Collins has recommended to the SFERS Investment Committee:

  • Engagement through proxy voting and support for the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) proxy resolutions.
  • Partnerships with Climate Action 100+, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), Ceres, Council of Institutional Investors, and other institutional investor carbon-reducing initiatives.
  • Active ESG consideration for current and future portfolio holdings.
  • Use of up-to-date ESG analytics to measure the aggregate carbon footprint of SFERS assets; active monitoring of ESG risks and opportunities; continued tracking of prudent divestment of risky fossil fuel assets.

The staff recommendations for the six point approach (which was adopted) included:

  • Adopt a carbon-constrained strategy for $1 billion of passive public market portfolio holdings to reduce carbon emissions by 50% vs. the S&P 500 Index.
  • Hire a director of SRI to coordinate activities – that’s been done now.

As first step in “de-carbonization” the SFERS board approved divestment of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron (September 2018) and will look at other companies in the “Underground 200 Index”.  The pension fund held $523 million in equities in the CU200 companies and a smaller amount of fixed-income securities ($36MM).

Important background is here:  https://mysfers.org/wp-content/uploads/012418-special-board-meeting-Attachment-E-CIO-Report.pdf

There are 70,000 San Francisco City and County beneficiaries covered by SFERS.

At the May 2017 SFERS board meeting, a motion was made to divest all fossil fuel holdings.  An alternative was to adopt a strategy of positive investment actions to reduce climate risk. The board approved divestment of all coal companies back in 2015.

California Ignores the National Leadership on Climate Change

In 2015, the nations of the world gathered in Paris for the 21st meeting of the “Conference of Parties,” to address climate change challenges. The Obama Administration signed on to the Paris Accord (or Agreement); Donald Trump upon taking office in January 2017 made one of his first moves the start of withdrawal from the agreement (about a three year process).

American states and cities decided otherwise, pledging to continue to meet the terms previously agreed to by the national government and almost 200 other nations – this is the “We are still in movement.”

The State of California makes sure that it is in the vanguard of the movement.

This Year in California

The “Global Climate Action Summit” was held in San Francisco in September; outgoing Governor Jerry Brown presided. The meeting attracted leaders from around the world with the theme, “Take Ambition to the Next Level,” designed to encourage collaboration among states, regions, cities, companies, investors, civic leaders, NGOs, and citizens to take action on climate change issues.

Summit accomplishments:  there were commitments and actions by participants to address: (1) Healthy Energy Systems; (2) Inclusive Economic Growth; (3) Sustainable Communities; (4) Land and Ocean Stewardship; and (5) Transformative Climate Investments.  Close to 400 companies, cities, states and others set “100 percent” renewable energy targets as part of the proceedings.

New “Sustainability” Laws

The California State Legislature passed the “100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018” to accelerate the state’s “Renewable Portfolio Standard” to 60% by year 2030 — and for California to be fossil free by year 2045 (with “clean, zero carbon sourcing” assured). Supporters included Adobe and Salesforce, both headquartered in the Golden State; this is now state law.

Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order directing California to achieve “carbon neutrality” by the year 2045 — and to be “net zero emissions” after that.

Building “De-Carbonization”

The state legislature this year passed a “Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) ” measure that is now law, directing the California Energy Commission to create incentives for the private sector to create new or improved building and water heating technologies that would help reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Water Use Guidelines

Water efficiency laws were adopted requiring the powerful State Water Resources Control Board to develop water use guidelines to discourage waste and require utilities to be more water-efficient.

About Renewables and Sustainable Power Sources

Walking the Talk: Renewables provided 30% of California power in 2017; natural gas provided 34% of the state’s electricity; hydropower was at 15% of supply; 9% of power is from nuclear. The state’s goal is to have power from renewables double by 2030.

California utilities use lithium-ion batteries to supplement the grid system of the state. PG&E is building a 300-megawatt battery facility as its gas-generating plants go off-line.

Insurance, Insurers and Climate Change Challenges

There are now two states — California and Washington — that participate in the global Sustainable Insurance Forum (SIF); the organization released a report that outlines climate change risks faced by the insurance sector and aims to raise awareness for insurers and regulators of the challenges presented by climate change. And how insurers could respond.

The Insurance Commissioner of California oversees the largest insurance market in the U.S.A. and sixth largest in the world — with almost $300 billion in annual premiums.  Commissioner Dave Jones endorsed the 2017 recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (the “TCFD”) and would like to see the now-voluntary disclosures be made mandatory by the G-20 nations. (The G-20 created the Financial Stability Board after the 2018 financial crisis to address risk in the financial sector).

In 2016 the Insurance Commissioner created the requirement that California-licensed insurance companies report publicly on the amount of thermal coal enterprise holdings in portfolio — and asked that the companies voluntarily divest from these enterprises.  Also asked: that insurers of investments in fossil fuel companies (such as thermal coal, oil, gas, utilities) survey or “data call” on these companies for greater public financial disclosure.

What About a Carbon Tax for California?

The carbon tax – already in place. California has a “cap and trade” carbon tax adopted in 2013; revenues raised go into a special fund that finances parks and helps to make homes more energy efficient. The per ton tax rate in 2018 was $15.00.  The program sets maximum statewide GhG emissions for covered entities in power and industrial sectors and enables them to sell allowances (the “trade” part of cap & trade). By 2020, the Cap and Trade Program is expected to drive more than 20% of targeted GhG emissions still needed to be reduced.

As we said up top, the “Golden State” – California – is America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

There is more information for you at G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” management briefing platform:

Brief:  California Leads the Way (Again) – State’s Giant Pension Funds Must Now Consider Portfolio Climate Risks & Report on Results – It’s the Law