Getting Serious About SASB: Company Boards, Execs and Their Investors Are Tuning In. What About Accounting Firms?

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

February 26, 2020

The importance of the work over the recent years of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board in developing industry-specific ESG disclosure recommendations was underscored with the recent letters to company leadership from two of the world’s leading asset management firms.

Corporate boards and/or executive teams received two important letters in January that included strong advice about their (portfolio companies’) SASB disclosures. 

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained to corporate CEOs his annual letter:  “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance. Important progress in improving disclosure has been made – many companies already do an exemplary job of integrating and reporting on sustainability but we need to achieve more widespread and standardized adoption.” 

While no framework is perfect, BlackRock believes that the SASB provides a clear set of standards for reporting sustainability information across a wide range of issues, from labor practices to data privacy to business ethics. 

In 2020, BlackRock is asking companies that the firm invests in on behalf of clients to publish a disclosure in line with industry-specific SASB guidelines by year end (and disclose a similar set of data in line with the TCFD’s recommendations). 

In a thought paper, BlackRock explained that disclosures intended for investors need to focus on financially material and business relevant metrics and include supporting narratives. The recommendations of the TCFD and the SASB (standards) are the benchmark frameworks for a company to disclose its approach to climate-related risks and the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Absent such robust disclosure, investors could assume that companies are not adequately managing their risk. Not the right message to send to current and prospective investors in the corporation, we would say.

State Street Sends Strong Signals

Separately, State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) CEO Cyrus Taraporevala in his 2020 letter to corporate board members explained:  “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is a good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance – a matter of value, not values.” 

The asset management firm [one of the world’s largest] uses its “R-Factor” (R=“responsibility”) to score the performance of a company’s business operations and governance as it relates to financially material and sector-specific ESG issues.

The CEO’s letter continued:  The ESG data is drawn from four leading service providers and leverages the SASB materiality framework to generate unique scores for 6,000+ companies’ performance against regional and global industry peers. “We believe that a company’s ESG score will soon effectively be as important as it credit rating.”

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board

About SASB’s continuing progress:  Recommendations for corporate disclosure centered on materiality of issues & topics were fully developed in a multi-party process (“codified”) concluding in November 2018 for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors by a multi-party process.

The recommendations are now increasingly being used by public companies and investors as important frameworks for enhanced corporate disclosure related to ESG risks and opportunities. 

To keep in mind: A company may be identified in several sectors and each of these should be seriously considered in developing the voluntary disclosures (data sets, accompanying narrative for context).

Bloomberg LP (the company headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination) is a private company but publishes a SASB Disclosure report. (Bloomberg is the chair of SASB as well as the leader of his financial information firm.)

The company published “robust” metrics using the SASB on three industry categories for 2018: Internet & Media Services; Media & Entertainment; Professional & Commercial Services.

Bloomberg LP is privately-owned; this was an example for public company managements. The report explained:

“The nature of our business directs us to consult three industries (above). We provide a distinct table for each…containing topics we have identified as material and against which we are able to report as a private company. Quantitative data is followed by narrative information that contextualizes the data table and is responsive to qualitative metrics.”

Solid advice for company boards and executives beginning the expansion of disclosure using the SASB.

SASB Guidance

SASB provides a Materiality Map for each sector (SASB uses its SICS® – The Sustainability Industry Classification System) and provides a Standards Navigator for users. There is also an Engagement Guide for investors to consider when engaging with corporates; and, an Implementation Guide for companies (explaining issues and SASB approaches).

The fundamental tenets of SASB’s approach is set out in its Conceptual Framework: Disclosures should be Evidence-based; Industry-specific; Market-informed.  The recommended metrics for corporate disclosure include fair representation, being useful and applicable (for investors), comparable, complete, verifiable, aligned, neutral, distributive.

Accounting and Audit Professionals Advised: Tune In to SASB

Separate of the BlackRock and SSgA advice to companies and investors, accounting and auditing professionals working with their corporate clients are being urged to “tune in” to SASB.

Former board member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Marc Siegel shared his thoughts with the New York State Society of CPAs in presenting: “SASB: Overview, Trends in Adoption, Case Studies & SDG Integration”.  The Compliance Week coverage is our Top Story in the newsletter this week.

Marc Siegel is a Partner in E&Y’s Financial Accounting Advisory Service practice, served a decade on the FASB board (managers and shapers of GAAP) and was appointed to the SASB board in January 2019.

He was in the past a leader at RiskMetrics Group and CFRA, both acquired by MSCI, and is recognized as a thought leader in financial services – his views on SASB will be closely followed.

With the growing recognition of the importance of SASB recommendation for disclosure to companies and the importance of SASB’s work for investors, he encouraged the gathered accountants to get involved and assist in implementing controls over ESG data, suggesting that SASB standards are a cost-effective way for companies to begin responding to investor queries because they are industry-specific. 

Accountants, he advised, can help clients by putting systems in place to collect and control the data and CPA firms can use SASB standards as criteria to help companies that are seeking assurance for their expanding sustainability reporting.

This is an important call to action for accounting professionals, helping to generate broader awareness of the SASB standards for those working with publicly-traded companies and for internal financial executives.

The G&A Institute team has been working with corporate clients in recent years in developing greater understanding of the SASB concepts and approaches for industry-specific sustainability disclosure and helping clients to incorporate SASB standards in their corporate reports. 

We’ve also been closely tracking the inclusion of references to “SASB” and inclusion of SASB metrics by public companies in their reporting as part of our GRI Data Partner work. ‘

The G&A Institute analyst teams examine and assess every sustainability report published in the USA and have tracked trends related to how companies are integrating SASB disclosures into their reporting. 

What began as a trickle of SASB mentions in corporate reports several years ago is now increasing and we are capturing samples of such inclusions in our report monitoring and analysis.

Over the past four+ years we’ve developed comprehensive models and methodologies to assist our corporate client teams incorporating SASB disclosures in their public-facing documents (such as their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reports, in Proxy Statements, for investor presentations and in other implementations).

Our co-founder and EVP Louis Coppola was among the first in the world (“early birds”) to be certified and obtain the SASB CSA Level I credential in 2015.

If you’d like to discuss SASB reporting for your company and how we can help please contact us at info@ga-institute.com

There’s information for you about our related services on the G&A Institute web site: https://www.ga-institute.com/services/sustainability-esg-consulting/sasb-reporting.html

Top Story

Benefits of sustainability reporting: takeaways for accounting 
Source: Compliance Week – According to former Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) member Marc Siegel, companies are being asked for sustainability information from many sides and are facing a bumpy road because they are under pressure due to pervasive… 

Critical Development for CDP Responders in 2018 & 19: CDP Introduces Additional Alignment With FSB Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures Recommendations

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

Corporate ESG Data, Data, Data – it’s now everywhere and being digested, analyzed and applied to corporate equity analytics and portfolio decision-making.

Whether your public company participates in the annual round of organizing responses to the ever-more comprehensive queries from leading ESG / sustainability / CR rating agencies or not, there is a public ESG profile of your company that investors (asset owners, managers and analysts) are examining and applying to their work.

If you don’t tell the story of your firm’s progress in its sustainability journey, someone else will (and is).  And if you have not embarked on the journey yet…and there is not much to disclose and report on…you are building the wrong kind of moat for the company.  That is, one that will ever-widen and impair access to capital and affect the cost of capital.  And over time, perhaps put the company’s issues on the divestiture list for key investors.

This sounds a bit dramatic, but what is happening in the capital markets these days can be well described as a dramatic shift in focus and actions, with corporate ESG strategies, actions, programs, achievements, and disclosure becoming of paramount importance to a growing body of institutional and retail investors.

Consider these important developments:

  • The influential Barron’s editors, reaching hundreds of thousands of investors every week, beginning in Fall 2017 made coverage of corporate sustainability and sustainable investing a mainstay of the magazine’s editorial content.
  • Morningstar, the premier ranker of mutual fund performance, added sustainability to the analysis of funds and ETFs with guidance from Sustainalytics, one of the major ESG rating firms (and Morningstar made a significant investment in the firm).
  • SustainableInvest, headed  by Henry Shilling, former leader on sustainability matters for Moody’s Investor Service, noted that in 2Q 2018 as the proxy season was ending, 2018 voting was notable for the high level of “E” and “S” proposals, some achieving majority votes in shareholder voting at such firms as Anadarko Petroleum, Kinder Morgan and Range Resources.  Assets in 1,025 sustainable funds analyzed added $14 billion during 2Q and ended in June at US$286 billion; more than $1 billion was new net cash inflows, demonstrating investor interest in the products.

Significant:  according to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulations, two-thirds of investor-submitted proxy resolutions focused on having the company follow through on the 2-degrees scenario (testing) were withdrawn and company boards and managements agreed to the demand for climate risk reporting.

The FSB TCFD Impact on Corporate Sector and Financial Services Sector

The Financial Stability Board, an organization founded by the central bankers and financial leaders of the G-20 nations, created a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (“TCFD”) to develop climate-related financial disclosures for adoption by financial services sector firms and by publicly-traded companies in general.

The 32-member Task Force, headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced financial recommendations for companies and investors in June 2017.

The essence of the recommendations:

  • Corporate boards and managements should focus on the risks and opportunities present and in the future taking into account a global temperature risk of 2-degrees Centigrade (3.5-F), and in the future, 4-C and even 6-C global temperature rises.

The risks (presented are not just to the affected companies but to the financial sector institutions investing in the company, institutions lending funds to the company, carriers insuring the company, etc.).

The risks and opportunities related to climate change should be thoroughly analyzed using the scenario testing that the company uses (an example would be projecting future pricing, regulations, technologies, and “what ifs” for an oil and gas industry company).

The company should consider in doing the scenario testing and analyzing outcomes the firm’s corporate governance policies and practices; strategies for the long-term; risk management policies and resources; establishing targets; and, putting metrics in place for measuring and managing climate risk.  Then, the next step is disclosing this to investors and other stakeholders.

Key Player:  CDP and its Wealth of Corporate, Institutional and Public Sector Data

The CDP – formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project – was founded almost two decades ago (2000) as a United Kingdom-based not-for-profit charity at the urging of the investment community, to gather corporate “carbon” data.

Timing:  soon after the start of meetings of the “Conference of the Parties” (or “COP”), organized by the United Nations as the Climate Change Conferences. (The “UNFCCC”.)

In the mid-1990s, the Kyoto Protocol emerged that legally-bound nations to their pledge to reduce Greenhouse Emissions (GHGs).  The U.S.A. did not sign on to the global protocol during the tenure of President George W. Bush, and the agreement reached in Paris at the COP meeting in 2015 was finally agreed to by President Barack Obama.

And then began the process of withdrawal under President Donald Trump.  The U.S.A. is now the prominent holdout (among the community of 197 nations signed on) in the global effort to address global warming before the danger point is passed.  In Paris, the COP agreed that the threshold was 2-degrees Centigrade.

Today, a growing universe of investors and many other stakeholders are increasingly focused on the role of carbon emissions in the framing of questions about what to do as scientists charted the warming of Earth’s climate.

And so — ESG / environmental data is critical to the mission of determining “what to do” and then implementing measures to address climate change challenges.

The Critical Role of CDP 

CDP over almost two decades since its founding has become the premier repository of corporate data related to climate change – with more than 6,000 companies’ data collected and shared in organized ways with the investment community.  (That includes the ESG data of half of the world’s public companies by market cap.)

The CDP emissions data focused has broadened over 16 years to now include water, supply chain, forestry (for corporates) and environmental data from more than 500 cities and some 100 states and regions available to investors.

Key user base:

  • 650-plus institutional investors with US$87 trillion in Assets Under Management.
  • Corporate Supply Chain members (such as Wal-Mart Stores) that collect data from their suppliers through CDP—a universe of 115 companies with over $3.3 trillion in combined purchasing power.

When the TCFD recommendations were being developed, CDP announced a firm commitment to align with the task force recommendations.

Following their release of the Task Force recommendations in July 2017, CDP held public consultations on a draft version of the TCFD-aligned framework. The current 2018 Climate Change questionnaire that corporations received from CDP is fully aligned with the TCFD recommendations on climate-related disclosures related to governance, risk management, strategy, and metrics and targets.

The TCFD recommendations are already aligned with the majority of CDP’s longstanding approach to climate change disclosure, including most of the recommendations for climate-related governance, strategy, risk management as well as metrics and target disclosure.

However, this year CDP has modified some questions and added new ones — the most impactful being on climate-related scenario analysis to ensure complete alignment.

Some modifications include:

The Governance section now asks for more information about oversight of climate change issues and why a company doesn’t have board-level oversight (if applicable). CDP also requests information about the main individual below the board level with the highest responsibility — and how frequently they report up to the board.

Next, in the risks and opportunities section, CDP now asks for the climate-related risk & opportunity identification, and assessment process.

As in past years, questions are posed in the Business Strategy module to allow companies to disclose whether they have acted upon integrating climate-related issues into their strategy, financial planning, and businesses.

CDP has also added a question for high impact sectors on their low carbon transition plans, so data users can gauge and further understand the sustainable and strategic foresight that these companies aim to achieve.

CDP also added a new question on scenario analysis, explaining that scenario analysis is a strategic planning tool to help an organization understand how it might perform in different future states.

A core aim of the TCFD recommendations is for companies to improve their understanding of future risks and develop suitable resilience strategies.

Finally, the TCFD recommendations highlighted five (5) sectors as the most important. In 2018, CDP rolled out sector-specific questions for the four non-financial sectors that the TCFD highlighted (they are energy, transport, materials, and agriculture).

TCFD also highlighted the financial sector – looking forward, in 2019, CDP is planning to release a financial sector-specific climate change questionnaire.

The TCFD resources for investors and corporate managers are embodied in three documents – (1) the Main Report; (2) an Implementation Annex; (3) the Technical Supplement for Scenario Analysis.  These are available at:  www.fsb-tcfd.org

G&A Institute Perspectives:

Our team has been assisting corporate managers in organizing the response to the CDP annual survey and we’ve tracked over the years the steady expansion of information requested of companies.

Our advice to companies not reporting yet:  get started!  The CDP staff members are very cooperative in assisting new corporate reporters in understanding what data are being sought (and why) and providing answers to questions.

CDP’s founding CEO Paul Simpson cautions:  “Big companies:  get better at telling those who hold the purse strings how climate risks could affect your bottom line.”

And so, our mission at G&A includes helping corporate issuers tell a better sustainability and ESG story, including the story told in the data sets communicated to 650-plus institutional investors by CDP!

CDP data is everywhere, we advise clients, including for example being part of the volumes of ESG data sets that Bloomberg LP shares on its terminals (through the terminal ESG Dashboard).

On the supply chain side, we point out that more than US$3 trillion is the collective spend of companies now addressing their supply chain sustainability factors and environmental impacts (customers see suppliers as part of their own CDP footprint).  Corporate leaders in this effort include Apple, Honda and Microsoft, CDP points out.

Resources:

CDP’s Technical Notes on the TCFD are available at: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/guidance_docs/pdfs/000/001/429/original/CDP-TCFD-technical-note.pdf?1512736184

The “A” List of CDP naming the world’s business leaders on environmental performance (160 firms) is at: https://www.cdp.net/en/scores-2017

The CDP USA Report 2017, focused on key findings on Governance, ESG and the Role of the Board of Directors is available at: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/891/original/CDP-US-Report-2017.pdf?1512733010

There’s an excellent interview with CDP CEO/Founder Paul Simpson at: http://www.ethicalcorp.com/disruptors-paul-simpson-atypical-activist-who-woke-c-suites-climate-risk

You can check out Henry Shilling’s SustainableInvest.com at: https://www.sustainableinvest.com/second-quarter-2018-sustainable-funds-investing-review/