Corporate Sustainability Reporting: Changes in the Global Landscape – What Might 2021 Bring?

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

Change is a-coming – quite quickly now – for corporate sustainability reporting frameworks and standards organizations.  And the universe of report users.

Before the disastrous October 1929 stock market crash, there was little in the way of disclosure and reporting requirements for companies with public stockholders. The State of New York had The Martin Act, passed in 1921, a “blue sky law” that regulates the sales and trades of public companies to address fraud issues.  That was about it for protecting those buying shares of public companies of the day.

Under the 100 year old Act, the elected New York State Attorney General is the “Sheriff of Wall Street — and this statute is still in effect. (See: AG Eliot Spitzer and his prosecution of the 10 large asset managers for analyst shenanigans.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected two-term governor of NY before his election to the highest office in November 1932, brought along a “brains trust” to Washington and these colleagues shaped the historic 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Securities Exchange Act to regulate corporate disclosure and Wall Street activities.

Story goes there was so much to put in these sweeping regulations for stock exchanges, brokerage houses, investor protection measures and corporate reporting requirements that it took two different years of congressional action for passage into law in the days when Congress met only briefly and then hastened home to avoid the Washington DC summer humidity and heat.

The Martin Act was a powerful influence on the development of foundational federal statutes that are regularly updated to keep pace with new developments (Sarbanes-Oxley, 2002, updated many portions of the 1934 Act).

What was to be disclosed and how? Guidance was needed by the corporate boards and executives they hired to run the company in terms of information for the company’s investors. And so, in a relatively short time “Generally Applied Accounting Principles” began to evolve. These became “commonly accepted” rules of the road for corporate accounting and financial reporting.

There were a number of organizations contributing to GAAP including the AICPA. The guiding principles were and are all about materiality, consistency, prudence (or moderation) and objectivity like auditor independence verifying results.

Now – apply all of this (the existing requirements to the Wild West of the 1920s leading up to the 1929 financial crash that harmed many investors — and it reminds one of the situations today with corporate ESG, sustainability, CR, citizenship reporting.  No generally applied principles that all can agree to, a wide range of standards and frameworks and guidance and “demands” to choose from, and for U.S. companies much of what is disclosed is on a voluntary basis anyway.

A growing chorus of institutional investors and company leaders are calling for clear regulatory guidance and understanding of the rules of the road from the appointed Sheriffs for sustainability disclosures – especially in the USA, from the Securities & Exchange Commission…and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), now the two official keepers of GAAP.

FASB was created in the early 1970s – by action of the Congress — to be the official keeper of GAAP and the developer of accounting and reporting rules.  SOX legislation made it official; there would be two keepers of GAAP — SEC and FASB.  GAAP addressed material financial issues to be disclosed.

But today for sustainability disclosure – what is material?  How to disclose the material items?  What standards to follow?  What do investors want to know?

Today corporates and investors debate the questions:  What should be disclosed in a consistent and comparable way? The answers are important to information users. At the center of discussion: materiality everyone using corporate reports in their analysis clamors for this in corporate sustainability disclosure.

Materiality is at the heart of the SASB Standards now developed for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors. Disclosure of the material is an important part of the purpose that GAAP has served for 8-plus decades.

Yes, there is some really excellence guidance out there, the trend beginning two decades ago with the GRI Framework in 1999-2000. Publicly-traded companies have the GRI Standards available to guide their reporting on ESG/sustainability issues to investors and stakeholders.

There is the SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA), now managed entirely by S&P Global, and available to invited companies since 1999-2000. (SAM was RobecoSAM and with Dow Jones Indexes managed the DJ Sustainability Indexes – now S&P Global does that with SAM as a unit of the firm based in Switzerland.)

Since 2000, companies have had the UN Global Compact principles to include in their reporting. Since 2015 corporate managers have had the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to report on (and before that, the predecessor UN Millennium Development Goals, 2000-2015). And the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations were put in place in 2017.

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in February 2010 issied “guidance” to publicly-traded companies reminded corporate boards of their responsibility to oversee risk and identified climate change matters as an important risk in that context.

But all of these standards and frameworks and suggested things to voluntarily report on — this is today’s thicket to navigate, picking frameworks to be used for telling the story of the company’s sustainability journey.

Using the various frameworks to explain strategy, programs, actions taken, achievements, engagements, and more – the material items. Profiling the corporate carbon footprint in the process. But there is no GAAP to guide the company for this ESG reporting, as in the example of financial accounting and reporting.

Institutional investors have been requesting more guidance from the SEC on sustainability et al reporting.  But the commission has been reluctant to move much beyond the 2010 risk reminder guidance even as literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies expand their voluntary disclosure.  And so we rely on this voluntary disclosure on climate change, diversity & inclusion efforts, political spending, supply chain management, community support, and a host of other ESG issues. (Human Capital Management was addressed in the recent Reg S-K updating.)

We think 2021 will be an interesting year in this ongoing discussion – “what” and “how” should companies be disclosing on sustainability topics & issues.

The various providers of existing reporting frameworks and standards and those influencing the disclosures in other ways are moving ahead, with workarounds where in the USA government mandates for sustainability reporting do not yet exist.

We’ve selected a few items for you to keep up with the rapidly-changing world of corporate ESG disclosures in our Top Stories and other topic silos.

There are really important discussions!  We watch these developments intently as helping corporate clients manage their ESG / sustainability disclosures is at the heart of our team’s work and we will continue to keep sharing information with you in the Highlights newsletter.

More about this in The Wall Street Journal with comments from G&A’s Lou Coppola: Companies Could Face Pressure to Disclose More ESG Data (Source: The Wall Street Journal)
TOP STORIES

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…