About Sustainability Ratings: CPAs Are Being Educated by Their Profession’s Journal – A Good First Effort to Push Information to All Levels of CPAs

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

The professional CPAs working inside a public company, or in the outside accounting firm working with a company may or may not yet be involved in assisting corporate managers in responding to a growing number of third-party surveys focused on the company’s ESG strategies, actions and achievements.  Responses to these periodic surveys and engagements by other means with the ratings and rankings organizations are increasingly shaping outcomes – that is, investor opinions of the company.

Many more companies are now receiving surveys from and responding to a growing number of third-party ESG rating providers – and as we are told by our corporate connections, very often managers are straining under the effort to effectively respond given the breadth of information sought and the information available in the corporation.

As we advise corporate managers, it is important to know that there is a publicly-available ESG profile of your company that investors are considering in various ways – and either you will shape the profile and tell the company’s sustainability progress story, or someone else will.  That “someone else” would be the global universe of ESG rating providers — and their output is directed to their investor clients. The ones who invest in, or could invest in, your company.

Savvy corporate managers of course “get it” and really make the effort to effectively respond to as many queries and surveys as possible.  But what about the internal financial managers and outside accountants – are they involved?  At some firms, yes, and other firms no — or not yet.

The Big Four are tuned in to corporate ESG / sustainability disclosure and reporting.  But many smaller CPA firms are not.

And among small- and mid-cap publicly-traded firms, the role of the ratings and rankings service providers could still be an unknown and under-appreciated factor in shaping the firm’s reputation, valuation, access to and cost of capital, and other considerations. The article in the influential CPA Journal this month is a worthwhile attempt to educate professional CPAs, whatever their position.

Five professors — co-authors and colleagues at the Feliciano School of Business, Montclair State University — explored the question, “Are Sustainability Rankings Consistent Across Rating Agencies?”  One obvious element in the piece that we noticed is something happening in both the corporate sector and investment community:  the fluid interchangeability of terms of reference.

Is what is being explored by the ESG ratings and rankings service providers and their investor clients performance related to …CSR (corporate social responsibility)…ESG performance factors (environment/social/governance)…corporate sustainability…corporate citizenship…sustainable investing?  Combinations? All of these?
The authors use the terms interchangeably, as do company managers and capital markets practitioners in discussing the ever-more important role that “corporate sustainability rating providers” play in investor decision-making.

They cite the 2014 overview of rating agencies by Novethic Research (7 international rating agencies, 2 non-financial data providers, 8 specialized agencies and 20 local/regional agencies). Several studies and books are identified as reference sources.

Specific CSR rankings examined for 2015 results:  Newsweek’s Greenest Companies; Forbes Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations; and, CSR Magazine Top 100 Global RepTrak companies.

We offer the perspectives of the Journal authors in our Top Story so that you can see what CPA’s will be reading in their Journal.

There are important points raised — but the three rankings examined do not cover the full breadth of the expanding universe of ESG rating organizations.  And we are light years away from 2015 in terms of the rating agencies’ influence.

The three rankings cited are not as “investor decision-useful” as would be the analytical work of teams at such firms as MSCI, Sustainalytics, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS); what was offered in 2015 doesn’t compare to the depth of ESG data available today via Bloomberg and T-R Eikon terminals; the RobecoSAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA) ratings that influence inclusion in the DJSI; and, volumes of information made available by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project).

The G&A Institute team assists corporate managers in responding to these important players and an ever-widening range of third-party ESG service providers.

We’d like to share three basic observations with you and with CPAs: (1) the third party queries are becoming more probing in the information and data sought; (2) the corporate response effort is much more organized and thorough these days; (3) the results of both of these efforts are increasingly important to, and utilized by, the institutional investment community (both asset owners and their managers).

So — the more information that CPAs have about sustainable investing and corporate ESG performance, the better equipped they’ll be to support their clients.  The article is a good start in this regard.

The journal authors are academics Betsy Lin, Silvia Romero, Agatha Jeffers, Laurence DeGaetano, and Frank Aquilino.

Top Story

Are Sustainability Rankings Consistent Across Ratings Agencies?
(Thursday – July 26, 2018) Source: CPA Journal – As more and more companies begin to devote serious attention to sustainability reporting, many different systems of rating the depth and effectiveness of sustainability efforts have arisen. The authors compare three leading…

New Online Materiality Mapping Tool to Help Corporate Responsibility / Sustainability Reporters

By Louis D Coppola @ G&A Institute..

Convetit Embeds Materiality Mapping Tool Into Virtual Stakeholder Engagement ThinkTanks
G&A Institute Data Sets Available As Important Element of the Tool

Convetit LogoAs corporate managers transition from the GRI 3.1 framework to G4, they may experience daunting challenges.  One important consideration for report creators:  the critical GRI G4 requirement of engaging stakeholders to determine materiality for corporate sustainability reporting.

Enter Convetit, a new online stakeholder engagement platform, which has added a turnkey solution a Materiality Mapping Tool that embeds an interactive matrix into virtual “ThinkTanks”. This tool  can be used to engage with stakeholders to plot material issues on a dual-axis grid weighing significance to stakeholders against business impact that can then be exported for integration into corporate sustainability reports.

TomOMalley-HeadshotExplains Convetit Co-Founder / CEO Tom O’Malley:  “Convetit ThinkTanks introduce a new, more efficient and effective practice of interacting with key stakeholders at their convenience across time zones. globally, over a matter of days in asynchronous dialogues.  This enables companies to collaboratively identify, prioritize, validate, and review their material sustainability issues with our Materiality Mapping Tool.”

Advantage: Convetit ThinkTanks are designed to help companies save on the cost, calendaring, and carbon associated with traditional real-time engagement – such as in-person meetings, conference calls, and webinars.  This approach empowers companies and stakeholders to integrate meaningful, in-depth dialogue into their regular routines.

G&A Institute Collaboration:  To help jumpstart materiality determinations, Convetit pre-loaded templates of the top 15 material GRI aspects (each representing an issue) in each of 35 sectors based on research of more than 1,200 GRI sustainability reports by the Governance & Accountability Institute for its report, Sustainability – What Matters.

Louis_Coppola_3608Notes Governance & Accountability Institute Executive Vice President Lou Coppola:
“Our Sustainability – What Matters research makes for a perfect starting point for Convetit’s Materiality Mapping tool.  If your sector or industry or investment peer companies consider the 15 GRI aspects we found most often in the 1,200-plus surveyed sustainability reports to be the most worthy for their reporting, then it only makes sense to see if your stakeholders agree that these are your company’s most material issues…or not.”

Convetit’s business model is fueled by the corporate sustainability field’s longstanding practices of Stakeholder Engagement and Materiality – which are increasingly coming into sharper focus and converging.

In addition to GRI G4’s enhanced attention on these two interrelated practices, the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) includes both Materiality and Stakeholder Relationships as Guiding Principles.

BillBaue-Headshot-Jacket-6-7-12-small-squareAdds Convetit Co-Founder and Chief Engagement Architect Bill Baue: “The increasing alignment between GRI, and IIRC around the core practices of stakeholder engagement and materiality enhances the demand for simple yet sophisticated platforms such as Convetit’s virtual ThinkTanks that embed our Materiality Mapping tool. Convetit ThinkTanks can augment or replace traditional stakeholder engagement, supplanting arms-length, tick-box surveys with direct, authentic interaction with key stakeholders over enough time for creative collaboration to emerge.”

About G&A Institute (www.ga-institute.com)
G&A Institute is a New York-based, private sector company providing sustainability-focused services and resources to corporate and investment community clients, including: Issue Counseling & Sustainability Strategies; Sustainability Reporting; Materiality Assessments; Stakeholder Engagement; Benchmarking; Investor Relations; Communications; Coaching, Team Building & Training;  Issues Monitoring & Customized Research; Third Party Recognitions.  G&A is the exclusive Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

About Convetit (convetit.com)
Convetit is a secure, agile platform for hosting meaningful dialogue over defined time periods (from days to weeks) in virtual ThinkTanks. These time-bound, asynchronous forums remove the logistical barriers of organizing and managing stakeholder engagement. Convetit’s facilitation tools enable you to convene stakeholders and thought leaders to vet issues and ideas — including material sustainability impacts — in discussion threads that augment (or even replace) real-time gatherings.

Contacts for information:

Tom O’Malley
Co-Founder & CEO, Convetit
tom@convetit.com

Bill Baue
Co-Founder & Chief Engagement Architect, Convetit
bbaue@verizon.net

Louis D. Coppola
Executive VP – Governance & Accountability Institute
Advisor to the Convetit team
lcoppola@ga-institute.com

The DJSI – Analytical Game Changer in 1999 – Sustainable Investing Pacesetter in 2014

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

updated with information provided to me by RobecoSAM for clarification on 17 September 2014.

It was 15 years ago (1999) that an important — and game-changing  “sustainability investing” resource came in a big way to the global capital markets; that year, S&P Dow Jones Indices and Robeco SAM teamed to create the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices. This is described by the managers as “…the first global index to track the financial performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide,” based on analysis of financially material economic, environmental and social (societal) factors. Breakthrough, game-changing stuff, no?

Note “financially material” – not “intangible” or “non-financial,” as some capital market holdouts initially (and continue to) described the sustainable investing approach.  There were but handfuls of “sustainability-driven” companies in world capital markets for selection for the World benchmark.  1999 — -that year the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was assembling its first comprehensive framework for corporate reporting (G#) byond the numbers alone.  Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was a steadily maturing organization mounting proxy campaigns to challenge the risky behavior of major companies that were polluting the Earth.  The Investor Responsibility Research Center (IRRC) was the go-to source for information on corporate behaviors, particularly related to corporate governance issues.  (And CG issues were rapidly expanding – the governance misbehaviors of unsustainable companies such as of Enron, WorldCom, et al, were not yet as evident as when they collapsed three years later.). Robert Monks and Nell Minow were active in Hermes Lens Asset Management, continuing to target poorly managed companies and encouraging laggard CEOs to move on. (Monks’s book, “The Emperor’s Nightingale,” was just out that year.)

Over the next 15 years, the managers of DJSI benchmarks steadily expanded their analysis and company-picking; the complex now offers choices beyond “World” —  of Dow Jones Sustainability Asia Pacific; Australia; Emerging Markets; Europe; Korea; and North America.

A handful of “sustainability-driven” companies have been aboard “World” for all of the 15 years; this is the honors list for some investors:  Baxter International (USA); Bayer AG; BMW; BT Group PLC; Credit Suisse Group; Deutsche Bank AG; Diageo PLC; Intel (USA); Novo Nordisk; RWE AG; SAP AG; Siemens AG: Storebrand; Unilever; United Health Group (USA).  Updated:  And Sainsbury’s PLC.

Though the DJSI indices have been availble to investors for a decade-and-a-half, it is only in the past few years that we hear more and more from corporate managers that senior executives are paying much closer attention.  “The CEO wants to be in the DJSI,” we frequently hear now.

Each year about this time the DJSI managers select new issues for inclusion and drop some existing component companies.  Selected to be in the World:  Amgen; Commonwealth Bank of Australia; GlaxoSmithKline PLC.  Out of the DJSI World:  Bank of America Corp; General Electric Co; Schlumberger Ltd.

DJSI managers follow a “best-in-lcass” approach, looking closely at companies in all industries that outperform their peers in a growing number of sustainability metrics.  There are about 3,000 companies invited to respond to RobecoSAM’s “Corporate Sustainability Assessment” — effective response can require a considerable commitment of time and resources by participating companies to be considered.  Especially if the enterprise is not yet “sustainability-driven.”  We’ve helped companies to better understand and respond to the DJSI queries; it’s a great exercise for corporate managers to better understand what DJSI managers consider to be “financially material.”  And to help make the case to their senior executives (especially those wanting to be in the DJSI).

updated informationRobecoSAM invites about 2,500 companies in the S&P Global Broad Market Index to participate in the assessment process; these are enterprises in 59 industries as categorized by RobecoSAM, located in 47 countries.

The new G$ framework from GRI, which many companies in the USA, EU and other markets use for their corporate disclosure and reporting, stresses the importance of materiality — it’s at the heart of the enhanced guidelines.  The head of indices for RobecoSAM (Switzerland), Guido Giese, observes:  “Since 1999, we’ve heled investors realize the financial materiality of sustainability and companies continue to tell us that the DJSI provides an excellent tool to measure the effectiveness of their sustainability strategies.”

Sustainability strategies — “strategy” comes down to us through the ages from the Ancient Greek; “stratagem”…the work of generals…the work of the leader…generalship…”  Where top leadership (and board) is involved, the difference (among investment and industry peers) is often quite clear.

At the S&P Dow Jones  Index Committee in the USA, David Blitzer, managing director and chair of the committee, said about the 15 years of indices work: “Both the importance and the understanding of sustainability has grown dramatically over the past decade-and-a-half…the DJSI have been established as the leading benchmark in the field…:”

The best-in-class among the “sustainability-driven” companies that we see in our close monitoring as GRI’s exclusive Data Partner in the USA, UK and Ireland, the company’s senior leadership is involved, committed and actively guiding the company’s sustainability journey.  And that may be among the top contributions to sustainable investing of DJSI managers over these 15 years.

Congratulations and Happy Anniversary to RobecoSAM and S&P Dow Jones Indices (a unit of McGraw Hill Financial).  Well done!  You continue to set the pace for investors and corporates in sustainable investing.