For the Board Room and C-Suite –Questions and Advice From the Harvard Business Review About Corporate ESG and Sustainability

Corporate managers & executives: is your board “sustainability/ESG fluent”? And if not – why not?

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

Attorney Silda Wall Spitzer and John Mandyck, CEO of Urban Green Council, writing in Harvard Business Review explain that while “some” board members have become increasingly “sustainability/ESG fluent” many companies [still] don’t expect their directors to understand sustainability or ESG and don’t provide board room education on the subject matter.

Those enterprises are at a competitive disadvantage, the authors believe. 

An important game-changer for the board room and C-suite to understand is the profound influence of ESG as investment professionals (institutional asset owners and their management firms) increasingly use ESG data, ratings, rankings, and scores to analyze their portfolio holdings (and screening prospective investments).

These ratings, rankings, scores and comprehensive ESG profiles provide a foundation of corporate ESG data and information from the independent ratings agencies that the asset owners and managers use to refine their models and apply to portfolio management policies and practices.

The HBR authors explain the basics of this for the publication’s broad management audience – those men and women at the top of the corporate pyramid who should be aware of, understand and be focused on their company’s ESG strategies, actions and outcomes (or current lack thereof!).

The company’s sustainability scores provided by third party organizations are based on corporate disclosure and performance in three main categories (environmental, social, governance).

Here at G&A Institute we see the leaders in large-cap space embracing sustainability / ESG as evident by the results of our annual survey of the S&P 500 Index® companies’ sustainability & responsibility reporting. 

From the rate of about 20 percent eight years ago, we now find 86% of the 500 large-cap firms are now publishing such reports — many using very innovative and robust approaches.

We’re seeing that the mid-cap and small-cap companies are catching on to the trend and beginning their own sustainability journey that will result in still broader disclosure and reporting.  But not all mid- and small-caps are on board yet. 

This is an area of tremendous opportunity for leadership by companies who make the first move in their sectors and differentiate themselves from their industry and investment peers.

In our conversations with managers at companies just starting out on their sustainability journey (or contemplating same), we explain that there is already a “public ESG profile” of the company “out there” and being studied by investors.

Perhaps, being studied by a good portion of the company’s current shareowner base, depending on the size of the company (the market cap), geography, sector or industry classification, or other factors.

The often- scattered and diverse elements of the existing ESG public profile come from the company’s financial filings, regulatory filings (such as for environmental data), financial and other analyst reports, the company’s web site postings, ESG “brochure-type” reports — and a host of ratings and scores created by the ESG ratings providers and used by investors.

There are more than 200 such ESG / sustainability ratings organizations of varying size and type.  The major influencers for institutional investors include ESG raters such as MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), and ESG data providers such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters.

What directors and executives of all public companies need to understand is that important decisions about their companies are being made in large measure now by the foundational work of these organizations and their many peers around the world.

And if the company does not tell the story of its sustainability journey, others will (and are).

Potential Impacts:

The work of the ESG ratings firms also can affect company-customer relationships; employee recruitment and retention; business partnerships and collaborations; relations with civic leaders and the communities the company operates in; for global players, the countries they operate in; the stock exchanges their issues trade on; their insurers and re-insurers views of the enterprise…and other aspects of corporate finance.

While “ESG” and “sustainability” may be seen as touchy-feely and “non-financial” concepts in some board rooms and C-suites, the material ESG issues are really about the company’s risk management profile, the quality of leadership at the top, competitive advantage, sustainability in the traditional investment view (the company has lasting power and is a long-term value proposition), and more.

As for being “non-financial”, the HBR authors point to a Harvard B-School study that found that $1 invested in a company focused on ESG resulted in $28 return vs. $14 for those companies not yet focused on ESG.  What director would not want to brag about this kind of achievement that is real and financial? It’s time to stop thinking of ESG as being touchy feely and squishy!

The HBR commentary is good basic overview for directors to help them understand the role of the board in overseeing and helping to shape the strategies and actions that will comprise their company’s sustainability journey. 

Author Silda Wall Spitzer is the former First Lady of New York State and co-founder and CEO of New York Makers, which curates NYS-made gifts and events that “define New York State”.  She is a former private equity director. Information at: https://newyorkmakers.com/

Co-author John Mandyck is CEO of Urban Green Council; its mission is to transform buildings in New York City and around the world through research, convening, advocacy and education. More information at: https://www.urbangreencouncil.org/aboutus

This Week’s Top Stories

What Boards Need to Know About Sustainability Ratings
(Friday – May 31, 2019) Source: Harvard Business Review – Corporate boards of directors must tackle questions about sustainability in a new and urgent manner. If they don’t, they will hear from investors about their lack of action. In just the latest indication of the investor… 

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…