Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

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

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories

Today, We Have Corporate ESG Comparisons Galore – The Institutional Investor Has Access to Volumes of ESG Data Sets & Information – Where Can Others Find Scores, Rankings and Ratings of Public Companies?

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

These days the comparisons of companies ESG strategies and performance in sectors and industries and among investment peers (those companies chasing similar sources of capital) are continuing to gain momentum. 

There is a sizable universe of third party players — ESG raters, rankers, scorers — busily analyzing, measuring and charting company ESG performance.

These organizations assign proprietary scores, rankings, ratings and various kinds of comparisons (company-to-company, company to industry etc) for their investor-clients. (The institutional asset owners and their asset management firms.)

Companies typically get to see how they are doing when they inspect their ESG service provider profiles…but those data and information sets are not always publicly available. They are the secret sauce provided to investors — institutions holding equity or bonds or researching candidates for investment.

So how should the person without access to the major ESG service providers’ confidential output understand where the public company sits in the views of the analysts (at least the highlights, such as scores assigned)? 

Slowly but steadily some of the volumes of information provided to investor clients by the major ESG ratings agencies are making their way into public view. 

For example, you can see a public company’s Sustainalytics highlights on Yahoo Finance. For Apple Inc. / NASDAQ: AAPL “ESG Total Score” information, click here.

Our colleagues at CSR Hub® share a number of Ratings & Rankings and other CSR and ESG highlights on their web site and their “ESG Hub” information (which is available on the Bloomberg Terminal®)  CSR Hub is at: https://www.csrhub.com/

Now a neat presentation comes our way from Visual Capital, authored by Jenna Ross.  This is a mapping of “The Countries with the Most Sustainable Corporate Giants”. 

Remember BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s letter to corporate CEOs urging them to serve a social purpose to deliver not only financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society? 

Following on that theme, Corporate Knights “2019 Global 100 Report” data and ranking of the “most sustainable corporations in the world” is presented in visualization format.

Corporate Knights scores companies on a mix of metrics after screening for those with at least US$1 billion in revenues and sufficient sustainability reporting:  resource management; employee (or human capital) management; financial management; “clean” revenue; supplier performance. 

The United States comes out at the top of the charting with 22 of the 100 companies on the list, followed by France (11), Japan (8), Finland and United Kingdom 7), and Canada (6).  No company in China or India made the list.

Of the “Top 10-star players” only one is from the USA – the REIT Prologis Inc.  Denmark has two companies; the rest are one-off listings from other countries.

Author Jenna Ross sums up: “It’s clear that sustainability is a strong differentiator in the business community.  The world’s largest – and smartest – companies are leading the charge towards a greener, more equitable future.” 

We think you’ll find the charting of this Global 100 fascinating and very useful – and there are many other clever and useful visual presentations on the web site.  Check out our Top Story for this week.

This Week’s Top Stories

Mapped: The Countries With the Most Sustainable Corporate Giants   
(Wednesday – May 08, 2019) Source: Visual Capitalist – Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.