About “Stakeholder Capitalism”: The Public Debate

Here is the Transition — From the Long-Dominant Worldview of “Stockholder Capitalism” in a Changed World to…Stakeholder Capitalism!

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

October 2020

As readers of of G&A Institute’s weekly Sustainability Highlights newsletter know, the shift from “stockholder” to “stakeholder” capitalism has been underway in earnest for a good while now — and the public dialogue about this “21st Century Sign of Progress” has been quite lively.

What helped to really frame the issue in 2019 were two developments:

  • First, CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management firm (BlackRock) sent a letter in January 2019 to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to focus on societal purpose (of course, in addition to or alongside of corporate mission, and the reasons for being in business).
  • Then in August, the CEOs of almost 200 of the largest companies in the U.S.A. responded; these were members of influential Business Roundtable (BRT), issuing an update to the organization’s mission statement to embrace the concepts of “purpose” and further cement the foundations of stakeholder capitalism.

These moves helped to accelerate a robust conversation already well underway, then further advanced by the subset discussion of Corporate America’s “walking-the-talk” of purpose et al during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now we are seeing powerful interests weighing in to further accelerate the move away from stockholder primacy (Professor Milton Friedman’s dominant view for decades) to now a more inclusive stakeholder capitalism.  We bring you a selection of perspectives on the transition.

The annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland this year — labeled the “Sustainable Development Impact Summit” — featured a gaggle of 120 of the world’s largest companies collaborating to develop a core set of common metrics / disclosures on “non-financials” for both investors and stakeholders. (Of course, investors and other providers of capital ARE stakeholders — sometimes still the inhabiting the primacy space on the stakeholder wheel!)

What are the challenges business organizations face in “making business more sustainable”?

That is being further explored months later by the World Economic Forum (WEF-the Davos organizers) — including the demonstration (or not) of excellence in corporate citizenship during the Covid-19 era. The folks at Davos released a “Davos Manifesto” at the January 2020 meetings (well before the worst impacts of the virus pandemic became highly visible around the world).

Now in early autumn 2020 as the effects of the virus, the resulting economic downturn, the rise of civil protests, and other challenges become very clear to C-suite, there is a “Great Reset” underway (says the WEC).

The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window opportunity to “reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”

New ESG reporting metrics released in September by the World Economic Forum are designed to help companies report non-financial disclosures as part of the important shift to Stakeholder Capitalism.

There are four pillars to this approach:  People (Human Assets); Planet (the impact on natural environment); Prosperity (employment, wealth generation, community); and Principles of Governance (strategy, measuring risk, accounting and of course, purpose).

The WEF will work with the five global ESG framework and standard-setting organizations as we reported to you recently — CDSB, IIRC, CDP, GRI, SASB plus the IFAC looking at a new standards board (under IFRS).

Keep in mind The Climate Disclosure Standards Board was birthed at Davos back in 2007 to create a new generally-accepted framework for climate risk reporting by companies. The latest CDSB report has 21 core and 34 expanded metrics for sustainability reporting. With the other four collaborating organizations, these “are natural building blocks of a single, coherent, global ESG reporting system.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, another of the collaborators) weighed in to welcome the WEF initiative (that is in collaboration with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC) to move toward common ESG metrics. And all of this is moving toward “COP 26” (the global climate talks) which has the stated goal of putting in place reporting frameworks so that every finance decision considers climate change.

“This starts”, says Mark Carney, Governor, Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, “with reporting…this should be integrated reporting”.

Remember, the FSB is the sponsor of the TCFD for climate-related financial disclosure.  FSB is a collaboration of the central banks and treasury ministries of the G-20 nations.

“COP 26 was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and was postponed due to the pandemic. We are now looking at plans for a combined 26 and 27 meeting in November 2021.”  Click here for more information.

There is a lot of public dialogue centered on these important moves by influential players shaping and advancing ESG reporting — and we bring you a selection of those shared perspectives in our Top Stories in the Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.

Top Stories On Davos & More

And then there is this, in the public dialogue on Stakeholder Capitalism, adding a dash of “reality” from The New York Times:

1st in Series: The Software / IT Services Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

SERIES INTRODUCTION 
GRI & SASB In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

Notes from the G&A Institute Team on the series of commentaries by members of the G&A Sustainability Report Analyst Interns…

With the recent publication of the much-anticipated “Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2018” issued by US SIF showing that ESG has really hit the capital markets’ mainstream — with $1-in-$4 in the US (by professional investment managers now incorporating ESG).  And, with the recent petition urging mandatory ESG reporting — submitted to the Securities & Exchange Commission by institutional investors  — he need to develop a more standardized framework for corporate ESG reporting is more pressing than ever before.

A recent discussion paper — “Investor Agenda For Corporate ESG Reporting” — with inputs from the CFA Institute, ICGN, PRI, CERES, GSIA, GIIN, and the UNEP-FI — further highlights this issue.

Among other things, the discussion paper emphasizes the need for participants of the Corporate Reporting Dialogue (participants include reporting standard setters – GRI, SASB, CDP, IIRC,CDSB, ISO, FASB, and IFRS) to deliver on their promise to work together to develop a more unified agenda on ESG reporting.

As part of our company’s role as the GRI Data Partner in the USA, UK and Republic of Ireland, G&A Institute’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns analyze thousands of sustainability reports each year and contribute the information to the GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database. This is the largest publicly-accessible sustainability disclosure database in the world (with now over 50,000 sustainability reports included, dating back to the start of the GRI).

Many of the corporate reports the G&A analysts process use the GRI Standards — and a number have now started to implement aspects of the SASB Standards as well in their disclosure and reporting process, depending on their sector and industry categories.

In their ongoing work, G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns have been comparing the two standards for disclosure in specific industries as they carefully examine the corporate reports, and consider two standards’ alignment, similarities and differences.

In this series G&A’s Sustainability Report Analyst-Interns share their own perspectives as they have analyzed reports and noticed similarities and differences.

* * *

We begin our series of shared perspectives with the perspectives of Minalee Busi, looking at the Software and IT Services Industry.

Comments by Minalee Busi – G&A Sustainability Report Analyst-Intern

Discussion regarding sustainability reporting is usually more focused in context of resource intensive industries, and the Software and IT Services sector is often left out.

With sustainability being a major factor in competitive advantage and investor decision-making, Software and IT Services companies need to re-think their sustainability reporting strategies, if they are not already at that point.

SASB identifies a limited number of material issues for the industry for corporate reporting, such as:
• environmental footprint of hardware infrastructure,
• data privacy and freedom of expression,
• data security,
• recruiting and managing a diverse skilled workforce, and
• managing systematic risks from technology disruptions.

Environmental Disclosures

The disclosure suggestions set forth by both the SASB and GRI Standards are in fact quite comparable, and in alignment with each other for some topics.

For example, both standards suggest companies to report on the energy consumed (both renewable and non-renewable) — but with different reporting boundaries.

SASB suggests reporting consumption within the organization — and the GRI Standards ask to additionally include consumption outside of the company.

However, GRI Standards also include disclosures in terms of energy reduction due to conservation and efficiency initiatives — which SASB disclosures do not include.

Similarly, though both the disclosure frameworks require information about water withdrawal and consumption, GRI also expects detailed reporting on water discharge into different water bodies, with information such as whether water was treated before discharge and whether they follow international standards on discharge limits.

The GRI Standards also include disclosure on recycling — which although not very comprehensive, is completely non-existent in the SASB sector disclosure.

Given the increasing e-waste generated by the IT industry, both GRI and SASB could consider including more detailed disclosures in this area for addressing material risks companies face.

Addressing Data Security/Privacy

In terms of data security, both standards include suggestions of disclosures related to data breaches and the number of users affected. But since SASB disclosures are designed to be industry-specific standards, more detailed reporting requirements in terms of data privacy and freedom of speech are found in SASB — including information on secondary usage of user data and monetary losses as a result of legal proceedings associated with user privacy.

Other such additional detailed areas of sector-/industry-specific disclosures by SASB which are not specified in the GRI standards are topics under managing systematic risks — such as performance issues, downtime and service disruptions due to technological impediments; and, activity metrics related to data storage, processing capacity and cloud-computing.

Disclosures with respect to monetary losses due to legal proceedings around intellectual property protection and competitive behaviour can also be found in the SASB Standards.  These disclosures can be loosely be aligned with the GRI disclosures under non-compliance with laws in the socio-economic arena.

S/Social Reporting

With respect to the “S” (social domain) of corporate ESG reporting, both of the standards suggest reporting on employee diversity, with GRI focusing on categories such as age, gender and minority representation and SASB additionally suggesting reporting on data related to the percentage of employees who are (1) foreign nationals and (2) located offshore.

Interestingly, although SASB disclosures are industry specific standards and the IT industry is mainly dependent on human and intellectual capital, there is no specific suggestion of reporting on training and education of employees.

GRI Standards appear to be filling this gap with suggestions of detailed disclosures on average training hours, upskilling and transition assistance programs and information related to employee performance reviews.

Sustainability Reporting Criteria

The GRI Standards have extensive sustainability reporting criteria, of which a major portion of the disclosures fall under the “General Disclosures” — which include materiality, measurement approaches, consistency and comparability of reporting, external assurance, supply chain information, sustainability strategies, and ethics and integrity. This to me is seemingly more transparent as compared to the SASB Standards.

Another such area is stakeholder engagement, which exists in the SASB Standards only in the form of percentage of employee engagement.

The category of Discussion and Analysis under SASB Standards does require reporting on strategic planning about each of the material topics identified, which can be mapped to the Management Approach (DMA) disclosures recommended under each material Topic-specific disclosure area of the GRI Standards.

Alignment – and Gaps

With the above overview, the SASB disclosures and GRI Standards can be seen in alignment with respect to some material topics while having some gaps in others.

However, since both the standards are developed to address the needs different stakeholders – with GRI aiming a broader set of stakeholders and the SASB majorly targeting mainstream U.S. investors — they should not be seen by report preparers as being in competition with each other.

I believe that the efforts of the CDP and important sustainability reporting standards-setters such as GRI and SASB will certainly be welcomed by companies and other stakeholders now struggling to keep up, but the question remains if such collaborations can ultimately lead to the desired standardised sustainability reporting framework that many investors actively seek.

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Note:  This commentary is part of a series sharing the perspectives of G&A Institute’s Analyst-Interns as they examine literally thousands of corporate sustainability / responsibility reports.  Click the links below to read the other posts in the series: