Corporate ESG Stakeholders – Materiality Matters – Quality Over Quantity to Have Compelling Reporting

August 10 2020

By Pam Styles, Principal and Founder, Next Level Investor Relations, and G&A Institute Fellow

Will ESG/Sustainability be more or less in the forefront as economies attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?  Survey results vary, but a common theme is that materiality and quality of a company’s strategic sustainability focus and reporting will be expected.

Sustainability in Economic Recovery
A recent survey of publicly listed U.S. company executives by the Conference Board™ suggests that well over half (59%) believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have little or no negative impact on growing interest in company sustainability programs overall, while a majority within these results believe the pandemic may shift the focus of sustainability, e.g. more to people, supply chain, etc.

A survey of recent company announcements related to sustainability formed the basis for the article, Is sustainability undergoing a pandemic pause?  by Joel Makower, CEO of GreenBiz. He concludes that, “Unlike previous economic downturns, sustainability isn’t being jettisoned in the spirit of corporate cost-savings. It’s being kept alive as part of a pathway back to profitability.”

These are challenging but exciting times, and there is every reason to believe that ESG/sustainability can and will be in the forefront as companies, communities and countries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Materiality Matters
That said, heightened emphasis on materiality in sustainability reporting has gained traction, in response to perceived “greenwashing” by companies in sustainability communications.  The trap of greenwashing has been prevalent enough to frustrate many third-party stakeholders and gain attention across the field.

Most major voluntary frameworks for corporate sustainability reporting guidance now separately and collectively encourage companies to pay attention to the materiality of reported content. This includes GRI, SASB, IIRC, TCFD, CDP and others.

The Chartered Financial Association (CFA), the Big Four accounting houses, law firms and others are also stepping-up the pressure on corporations to bring sustainability reporting to a next level of materiality focus and quality.

Governance & Accountability Institute succinctly captures the breadth of concern,

“Materiality is an important cornerstone of an effective corporate sustainability process…Without an effective materiality process (and mapping) companies can waste time, effort, human resources and financial investment on issues that will provide little or no benefit in sustainability and responsibility reporting — or may even serve to further cloud and confuse the company’s stakeholders and shareholders…Companies committed to position themselves as recognized leaders in sustainability require the materiality determination process to be thorough, accurate, and effective to implement their Sustainability program.”

Compelling Reporting
Less-is-more… your company sustainability report need not be lengthy!  It needs to focus the reader on, where and how your particular company can effectively prioritize its sustainability efforts.

Those who read a lot of sustainability reports can quickly distinguish between sustainability platitudes and substantive content. The former can be perceived as a possible sign that the reporting company has not truly integrated sustainability into its business.”

As John Friedman writes in his newly-released book, Managing Sustainability, First Steps to First Class,

“For this reason, it is important, always, to adopt and use the language of business rather than advocacy or philanthropy when integrating sustainability into any business…too often sustainability professionals speak in terms of “doing well by doing good’ and the “Sustainable Development Goals” rather than the more compelling arguments that link sustainability programs to the established (and more familiar) business imperatives such as “improving business processes,” “implementing best practices,” and “return on investment.”

 A recent joint report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness report on ESG Reporting Best Practices, makes other relevant observations including:

“… materiality determination may differ based on the diverse characteristics of different companies…”

“… while the word “materiality” is used by some constituencies to connote different meanings, the term has a well-established definition under the U.S. federal securities laws”

 “Issuers preparing ESG reports should explain why they selected the metrics and topics they ultimately disclose, including why management believes those metrics and topics are important to the company.”

 “Disclosure should not be a tool for advancing interests that are not aligned with the company’s ability to create value over time”

 Company leadership may find that…

  • renewed attention to materiality can help streamline internal efforts and strengthen the basis of information that Company corporate communications and spokespersons rely on.
  • having a clear materiality basis enables your communications team to clearly indicate ‘n/a’ or ‘not material’ in some fashion, where applicable, as opposed to not responding or to staying silent within external sustainability reporting and questionnaire responses (obviously seek legal counsel as warranted).
  • having a clear ESG materiality basis can help avoid frustration, confusion, and misunderstanding in external communications – and, yes, minimize guessing or interpolation by third party stakeholders.
  • Renewed attention to materiality helps everyone focus on the substance of your company’s sustainability efforts, strategic positioning and reporting.

Ensuring the company’s sustainability and survival and contributing to the economic recovery post-pandemic are too important to waste time or money communicating trivial metrics.

Final Word
Sustainability is more important now than ever, as we urgently work together to lift our companies, economies and stakeholders up in the wake of the devastating pandemic.

This urgency will require every company to play to its strengths, stretch where appropriate and produce compelling sustainability reports (website and other collateral communications too).  It will require strength of conviction that materiality matters – courage to clearly communicate when particular large or small performance elements of sustainability framework guidelines do not apply to your company and are simply not material for a framework response or third-party consideration.

Pamela Styles – Fellow G&A Institute – is principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC, a strategic consultancy with dual Investor Relations and ESG / Sustainability specialties.

Titles Matter to Provide Context and Direction – For Corporate Leaders and the Providers of Capital

May 14 2020

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

Shorthand terms in business and finance do matter – the “titling” of  certain developments can sum up trends we should be tuning in to.  Some examples for today: Sustainable Capitalism  – Stakeholder Primacy – Sustainable Investing – Corporate Sustainability – Corporate ESG Performance Factors – Environmental Sustainability – Corporate Citizenship…and more.

These are very relevant and important terms for our times as world leaders grapple with the impacts of the coronavirus, address climate change challenges, as well as addressing conditions of inequality, have/have not issues, questions about the directions of the capital markets, ensure issuer access to long-term capital…and more.  And, as influential leaders in the private, public and social sectors consider the way forward when the coronavirus crisis begins to wind down.

For investors and corporate sector leaders, the concept of shareholder primacy was more or less unchallenged for decades after World War II with the rise of large publicly-traded corporations – General Electric! — that dominated the business sector in the USA and set the pace other companies in the capital markets.

But as one crisis followed another – the names are familiar — Keating Five S&L scandal, Drexel Burnham Lambert and junk bonds, Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia Cable, Arthur Andersen, the Wall Street research analysts’ debacle (Merrill Lynch et al), Lehman Bros and Bear Stearns, Turing Pharmaceutics, on to Wells Fargo, Purdue Pharma and its role in the Opiod crisis – over time, increasing numbers of investors began to seriously adjust they ways that they evaluate public companies they will provide vital capital to in both equities and fixed-income markets.

Investors today in this time of great uncertainty are focused on: which equity issue to put in portfolio that will stand the test of time; whose bonds will be “safe”, especially during times of crisis; which corporate issuer’s reputation and long-term viability is not at risk; where alpha may be presented as portfolio management practices are challenged by macro-events.

This is about where the money will be “safer” overall, and provide future value and opportunity for the providers of capital – because there is great leadership in the board room and executive offices and resilience in crisis is being demonstrated.

As we think about this, the questions posed in context (virus crisis all around) are:  Why has sustainable investing gone mainstream?  What can savvy boards and C-Suite leaders do to exert leadership in corporate sustainability?  Where is sustainable capitalism headed?  How do we identify great leadership in the corporate sector in times of crisis?

Our choice of featured stories up top for you this week provide some interesting perspectives on these questions.

And, we’ve tried to illustrate the embrace of sustainability as a fundamental organizing principle today of great corporate leaders.  As well as explaining the continuing embrace of sustainable investing approaches of key providers of capital as a strategic risk management discipline — and proof of concept of acceptance of stakeholder primacy / sustainable capitalism in the 21st Century.

The other stories we’ve curated for you this issue of our newsletter help to broaden these perspectives that are offered up in these challenging times from thought leaders.

As the ancient blessing/curse goes:  May we live in interesting times.

Featured Stories – The Two Critical Halves of Sustainable Capitalism, Issuers and Providers of Capital…

Concept: A well-structured sustainability committee not only serves a critical coordinating function, but also steers sustainability right to the heart of the company and the company’s strategy. Let’s take a look at how boards at some of the world’s leading companies have tackled this…

How Can Boards Successfully Guide a Transition to Sustainable Business?
Source: Sustainable Brands – The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are set to unlock $12 trillion in new business opportunities by 2030. Yet many companies are still stuck in the past. Over the next decade, businesses can either adapt and thrive or deny and, says the organization…

The evidence suggesting that boardrooms should prioritize sustainability is growing rapidly. On the one hand, there are increased risks associated with not prioritizing sustainability. On the other hand, the figures show the huge opportunities sustainability offers businesses. As a result, more and more, sustainability is positioned at the top of boards’ agendas.

Boards must put sustainability at the top of their agenda to thrive
Source: GreenBiz – Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, there have also been glimmers of hope. A significant one is its impact on climate change. It’s estimated that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by 2.5 billion…

During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so than having the right systems in place, is and will be integral as we navigate uncharted territory:

Pivoting with Moral Leadership
Source: CECP – During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so…

Bears watching:  On 8 April 2020 the European Commission published a consultation paper on its renewed sustainable finance strategy (the “Sustainability Strategy”). The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the inevitable recent shift of focus to measures dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, this remains a top EU priority and the outcome of this consultation may significantly affect :

European Commission Consultation on the Renewed Sustainable Finance Strategy
Source: National Law Review – The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the…

State of Corporate Sustainability, GreenBiz Releases Latest Update — Top Lines: (1) We are making progress and (2) There are still challenges

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

It’s now three-quarters of the way through the year 2018 – what is the state of the Sustainability Profession?  John Davies, writing in GreenBiz (he’s VP & Senior Analyst), shares some interesting highlights gained through the firm’s recent report with us this week.

Among the major themes:  (1) Companies large and small see advances – progress – more companies are communicating what they are doing.  (2) Serious concerns, challenges, barriers are still ahead (look at what is happening to the US SEC and the dismissal of sound science by policymakers).

The Greenbiz report on the state of the profession is always eagerly awaited (every-other-year) and the latest (the 2018 report) is available for you (the link is in the Top Story).

GreenBiz presented results of its research on such items as gender pay equity trends; the embedding of the sustainability role(s) throughout the organization; more professionals coming in to the firm from outside vs. being promoted from within; and, the corporate sustainability programs becoming more sustainable.

There is also an interesting collection of news items we’ve selected for you that describes the range of activities within industries as companies of all sizes as the “corporate sustainability wave” gains momentum.  It’s below the Top Story for you.

This Week’s Top Story

The State of the Sustainability Profession, 2018
(Tuesday – September 25, 2018) Source: GreenBiz – That’s a significant change from 2011, when the Governance & Accountability Institute found just under 20 percent of S&P 500 companies were publishing such reports.

And we call your attention to:
Sustainable Brands Delivers Insight on How to Build Better Sustainability Metrics
(Friday – September 28, 2018) Source: Sustainable Brands – Sustainable Brands® reveals program, networking and activity highlights for its upcoming conference: New Metrics 2018. Nearly 400 business executives will convene October 29-31 at the Loews…

U.S. States and Cities — “Still In” to the Paris Agreement — and Great Progress is Being Made

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

This is our second commentary this week on the occasion of the first anniversary of the decision by the Trump White House in June 2017 to begin the multi-year process of formal withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris COP 21 climate agreement…

The action now is at the state and municipal levels in these United States of America.

Where for years the world could count on US leadership in critical multilateral initiatives – it was the USA that birthed the United Nations! – alas, there are 196 nations on one side of the climate change issue (signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement) and one on the other side: the United States of America. At least at the sovereign level.

Important for us to keep in mind: Individual states within the Union are aligned with the rest of the world’s sovereign nations in acknowledging and pledging to address the challenges posed by climate change, short- and longer-term.

Here’s some good news: The United States Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of 17 governors committed to upholding the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. These are among the most populous of the states and include states on both coasts and in the nation’s Heartland.

The Paris meetings were in 2015 and at that time, the USA was fully on board. That was in a universe now far far away, since the election of climate-denier-in-chief Donald Trump in 2016.

On to the COP 23 and the USA

In 2017, two years after the Paris meetings, the USA officially snubbed their sovereign colleagues at the annual climate talks. A number of U.S. public and private sector leaders did travel to Bonn, Germany, to participate in talks and represent the American point-of-view. This included Jerry Brown, Governor, California (the de facto leader now of the USA in climate change); former New York City Mayor (and Bloomberg LP principal) Michael Bloomberg; executives from Mars, Wal-mart and Citi Group.

While the U.S. government skipped having a pavilion at the annual United Nations-sponsored climate summit for 2017, the US presence was proclaimed loud and clear by the representatives of the U.S. Climate Action Center, representing the climate change priorities of US cities, states, tribes and businesses large and small who want action on climate change issues.

Declared California State Senator Ricardo Lara in Bonn: “Greetings from the official resistance to the Trump Administration. Let’s relish being rebels. Despite what happens in Washington DC we are still here.”

# # #

As the one year anniversary of President Trump’s announcement to leave the global Paris Agreement (June 1, 2018), state governors announced a new wave of initiatives to not only stay on board with the terms agreed to in Paris (by the Obama Administration) but to accelerate and scale up their climate actions.

Consider: The Alliance members say they are on track to have their state meet their share of the Paris Agreement emission targets by 2025.

Consider: The governors represent more than 40 percent of the U.S. population (160 million people); represent at least a US$9 trillion economic bloc (greater than the #3 global economy, Japan); and, as a group and individually are determined to meet their share of the 2015 Paris Agreement emissions targets.

Consider: Just one of the states – California – in June 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, became the sixth largest economy in the world, ahead of the total economy of France (at #7) and India (#8).

Consider: The US GDP is estimated at $19.9 trillion (“real” GDP as measured by World Bank); the $9 trillion in GDP estimated for the participating states is a considerable portion of the national total.

The states involved are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The initiatives announced on June 1, 2018 include:

Reducing Super Pollutants (including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the Greenhouse Gases, and harnessing waste methane (another GhG).

Mobilizing Financing for Climate Projects (through collaboration on a Green Banking Initiative); NY Green Bank alone is raising $1 billion or more from the private sector to deploy nationally).

Modernizing the Electric Grid (through a Grid Modernization Initiative, that includes avoidance of building out the traditional electric transmission/distribution infrastructure through “non-wire” alternatives).

Developing More Renewable Energy (creating a Solar Soft Costs Initiative to reduce costs of solar projects and drive down soft costs; this should help to reduce the impact of solar tariffs established in January by the federal government).

Developing Appliance Efficiency Standards (a number of states are collaborating to advance energy efficiency standards for appliances and consumer products sold in their state as the federal government effort is stalled; this is designed to save consumers’ money and cut GhG emissions).

Building More Resilient Community Infrastructure and Protect Natural Resources (working in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Council on Science and the Environment, to change the way infrastructure is designed and procured, and help protect against the threats of floods, wildfires and drought).

Increase Carbon Storage (various states are pursuing opportunity to increase carbon storage in forests, farms and ecosystems through best practices in land conservation, management and restoration, in partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, American Forests, World Resources Institute, American Farmland Trust, the Trust For Public Land, Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation).

Deploying Clean Transportation (collaborating to accelerate deployment of zero-emissions vehicles; expanding/improving public transportation choices; other steps toward zero-emission vehicles miles traveled.

Think About The Societal Impacts

The powerful effects of all of this state-level collaboration, partnering, financial investment, changes in standards and best practice approaches, public sector purchasing practices, public sector investment (such as through state pension funds), approvals of renewable energy facilities (such as windmills and solar farms) in state and possibly with affecting neighboring states, purchase of fleet vehicles…more.

California vehicle buyers comprise at least 10% (and more) of total US car, SUV and light truck purchases. Think about the impact of vehicle emissions standards in that state and the manufacturers’ need to comply. They will not build “customized” systems in cars for just marketing in California – it’s better to comply by building in systems that meet the stricter standards on the West Coast.

US car sales in 2016 according to Statista were more than 1 million units in California (ranked #1); add in the other states you would have New York (just under 400,000 vehicles sold); Illinois (250,000); New Jersey (250,000) – reaching to about million more. How many more vehicles are sold in the other Coalition states? Millions more!

(Of course, we should acknowledge here that the states not participating yet have sizable markets — 600,000 vehicles sold in Florida and 570,000 in Texas.)

Project that kind of effect onto: local and state building codes, architectural designs, materials for home construction; planning the electric distribution system for a state or region (such as New England); appliance design and marketing in the Coalition states (same issues – do you design a refrigerator just for California and Illinois?).

There are quotes from each of the Coalition governors that might be of use to you. (Sample: Jerry Brown, California: “The Paris Agreement is a good deal for America. The President’s move to pull out was the wrong call. We are still in.”) You can see them in the news release at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a4cfbfe18b27d4da21c9361/t/5b114e35575d1ff3789a8f53/1527860790022/180601_PressRelease_Alliance+Anniversary+-+final.pdf

# # #

In covering the 2017 Bonn meetings, Slate published a report by The Guardian with permission of the Climate Desk. Said writers Oliver Milman and Jonathan Watts: “Deep schisms in the United States over climate change are on show at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, where two sharply different visions of America’s role in addressing dangerous global warming have been put forward to the world.

“Donald Trump’s decision [to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement] has created a vacuum into which dozens of city, state and business leaders have leapt, with the aim of convincing other countries that the administration is out of kilter with the American people…”

# # #

At the US City Level

Jacob Corvidae, writing in Greenbiz, explains how with the White House intending to withdraw, cities are now in the driver’s seat leading the charge against climate change.

Cities have more than half of the world’s populations and have the political and economic power to drive change.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is the Coalition helping cities to make things happen. The C40 Climate Action Planning Framework is part of a larger effort to make meaningful progress toward carbon reduction goals and build capacity at the municipal level. Cities are expected to have a comprehensive climate action plan in place by 2020. This will include 2050 targets and required interim goals.

The cities have the Carbon-Free City Handbook to work with; this was released in Bonn in 2017 at COP 23. There are 22 specific actions that can (1) drive positive impacts and (2) create economic development. This September the Carbon-Free Regions Handbook will be available. There is information for you about all of this at: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/every-action-how-cities-are-using-new-tools-drive-climate-action

The clarion call, loud and clear: We Are Still In!  Watch the states, cities and business community for leadership on meeting climate change issues in the new norms of 2018 and beyond.