So Where Is The Corporate Sustainability Journey a Half-Year Into the Dramatic Impacts of the Coronavirus?

August 19, 2020 — in the midst of a strange summer for all of us

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

The questions may be going around in your universe and the answers offered up, say, inside the corporate enterprise as the senior executives and function, business unit and other managers meet the challenges posed by the virus pandemic, related economic disruption and civil protests on a number of topics.  This is about Quo Vadis, Our Sustainability Journey!

The Conference Board is a century-old, well-regarded business organization founded by corporate CEOs who were focused on “knowledge-sharing” at the beginnings of modern corporate management theories.

Today, 1,200 companies are involved as member organizations, typically with varying managers’ participation in sections devoted to specific topics and issue areas. These include Economy, Strategy & Finance; ESG (including Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Governance); Human Capital Management (including Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) …and other focus areas that fit the functional needs of today’s companies.

At G&A Institute we closely follow the extensive research and insights regularly shared by the Board as part of its foundational mission – sharing knowledge. This week The Conference Board issued its survey results for the question(s) asked of corporate connections: “What impact, if any, do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on your company’s overall sustainability program?”

If we asked our corporate colleagues that question, we could expect the answers to be all over the place. The Board did ask, and the answers were “sharply divided”, staff reported.

The Conference Board conducted two different surveys — one at more than 200 companies, focused on generating responses from general counsel, corporate secretaries and investor relations execs; the other queries, at 40 companies with questions asked of dedicated sustainability executives.

Top line: Three-in-ten sustainability execs expect the current health crisis to increase emphasis on their “E” and “S” efforts – while only one-in-ten of their fellow governance execs agree with that premise.

Example: responding to whether or not COVID-19 “put general sustainability efforts on temporary hold,” only 7% of sustainability executives said yes, while 19% of legal, governance and IR folks felt that way.

The short survey results are available for you in a Top Story.

Says The Conference Board staff: “This divergence of opinions reveals companies need to reach an internal consensus on the crisis’ impact on their sustainability programs and be prepared to communicate [it] in a cohesive and consistent manner.”  Good advice!

Inside the corporate structure, people may have differing views on what is “sustainability,” what their own company’s sustainability programs are about, (Strategy? Actions? Engagements? Achievements? Third-Party Recognitions?) And senior execs may have different opinions about the real impact of the virus on the company’s operations — not all impacts are yet fully understood as the pandemic roars on around the world.

But there are positives being reported. For example, we are seeing reports every day now of increased productivity at some companies because people are at home and not wasting hours commuting.  Emails are being answered early in the morning and way after dark — increasing the firm’s communication and productivity.

What is the outside view of this, beyond the corporate sector?

While inside the corporate enterprise there may be differences of opinion on the direction of the sustainability journey, here’s some important “outside” news from Sam Meredith at CNBC: “Sustainable investment funds just surpassed US$1 trillion for the first time.”

He cited recent UBS research that the global public sector has been stepping up support for green projects. And, he cited a Morningstar report that spelled out factors contributing to the record 2Q inflows to ESG mutual funds.  Investors are putting their money where their “sustainability beliefs” may be, we could say.

Adding some intelligence to the results of our reading of The Conference Board survey results, Morningstar says: “…the disruption caused by the virus highlighted the importance of building sustainable and resilient business models based on multi-stakeholder considerations…”

Of course, there are no easy answers “inside” to harmonize the views of the executives responding to surveys about their company’s sustainability efforts.  But we can offer some advice.  Looking at the almost 2,000 corporate sustainability et al reports our team analyzed over the past year, we are seeing the formulas for success in the corporate sustainability journey.

People at the top (board room and C-suite) are the champions of the corporate sustainability efforts.  Strategy is set at the top and communicated effectively throughout the organization.  (“Strategem” is the root of the work — in ancient Greece, this was the work of the generals.  The leaders inside the company must lead the sustainability journey!)

Goals are to be set (carbon emissions reduction, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of waste to landfill, water usage and water discharge, and much more); progress is regularly measured and managed. And disclosed.

Serious attention is paid to the firm’s diversity & inclusion efforts and results; effective human capital management (HCM) is a priority at all levels, and in all geographies.

Meaningful engagements — internally and with external parties — are top priorities at multiple levels. Supply chain and sourcing efforts are monitored and bad actors and bad practices are eliminated, with management understanding that the firms in their supply network are part of their ESG footprint.

And the periodic public reporting on all of the above and more is based on the materiality of data and information — the stuff the investors want to know more about for their analysis and portfolio management.

Senior leadership understands that corporate sustainability is not about just “feeling good” but an important element of playing to win in the competition for capital and achieving industry leadership and being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.  As Morningstar advises, sustainability is part of the business model.

So in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the resulting economic and financial dislocations, the caring for the firm’s valuable human assets..quo vadis for your corporate sustainability journey?

Interesting conversations going on, for sure.  Read the survey results from The Conference Board survey and see what you agree/disagree.  Thanks to our colleagues at the board for all the management knowledge that they share.

Top Stories

The Media – And Sustainability & CR Thought Leadership, For Both Topic-Focused and Mainstream Media Coverage

by Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

The “media” that we choose to get our news, commentary, research results, even crossword puzzles, movie reviews, the latest scientific papers and maybe information about what our friends are up to (such as “social media”) are usually self-selected.  

We tune in to what we want to read or watch or listen to…for information / education / entertainment…and it also helps to define us in many ways.

So here at G&A Institute as we broadly monitor for content related to both our day-to-day and long-term focus areas (the list of topics and issues is long), when we see these things pop up in “not-the-usual places,” we are cheered.

This weekend, for example, we picked up on the following, which were encouraging in that senior management publications are read beyond the folks involved in sustainable investing and corporate sustainability or ESG issues and topics.

In Focus:   MIT Sloan Management Review

This is the publication of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Sloan School of Management.  “Share Your Long-Term Thinking” was one feature article. Companies need to be more forthcoming about their strategies for long-term value creation when they communicate with investors — especially about ESG issues, write authors Tim Youmans and Brian Tomlinson.

Their observation is that over the past five years, CEOs have faced mounting pressure to produce short-term profits. CEOs do think about the long-term, have long-term plans (detailed and extensive) and these typically are closely held.  Result: corporate strategy and practice are not captured in investor communications.

They then offer six reasons why long-term plans should be disclose and how to do that.  One of these is to help investors understand ESG issues through the eyes of management — because a majority of investors see ESG factors as financially material and expect sound management of material ESG factors to deliver better performance over the long-term. 

Tim Youmans is engagement director for Hermes Equity Ownership Services and Brian Tomlinson is research director for the Strategic Investor Initiative at CECP.

They conclude for the magazine’s audience (aimed at corporate executives and senior managements in the main): “The long-term plan is a new tool in the regular sequence of periodic corporate-shareholder communications and represents an unprecedented opportunity for leading companies and investor together to drive sustainable value creation and help to clarify the role of the corporation in a sustainable society.”

That is not all for the MIT Sloan Management Review audience in the Spring 2008 issue.

“Why Companies Should Report Financial Risks From Climate Change” is another feature — this from Robert Eccles and Michael Krzus.  They  focused on the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Disclosures [recommendations].

“Investors and the rest of the world is watching to see how companies will respond to the TFCD recommendations” — the ask here is that company managements will expand their disclosure to report on the risks and opportunities inherent in climate change in such documents as the 10-k.

Boston Common Asset Management LLC and ShareAction organized a campaign with institutions representing US$1.5 trillion in AUM participating to pressure financial institutions (especially banks) to implement the recommendations.

Companies should follow the recommendations, authors Eccles and Krzus argue, because this could lead to evolving better strategies to adapt to climate change — and be able to explain these strategic moves to the their investors.

They focus on the oil and gas industry, looking at disclosures in 2016 by 15 of the largest industry firms listed on the NYSE.  A few have made good progress in adhering to the TCFD recommendations (so there is not a “blank slate”); there is work to be done by all of the companies in enhancing their disclosures to meet the four top recommendations (in governance, strategy, risk management and metrics and targets areas).

Their article is an excellent summation of the challenges and opportunities presented for such companies as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Sinopec, Statoil, Total, and others in oil & gas.

Bob Eccles is a well-known expert in corporate sustainability and sustainable investing and is visiting professor at Said Business School at the University of Oxford. Mike Krzus is an independent consultant and researcher and was a Fellow of G&A Institute.

Wait, there’s more!

The magazine’s columnists had important things to say as well.

Kimberly Whitler and Deborah Henretta penned “Why the Influence of Women on Boards Still Lags,” applauding the rise of the number of women on boards and offering two important criticisms — the growth rate is slowing and boards do that do have female members often limit their influence.

Although there are measurable positive results of female board inclusion — they cite Return on Equity averaging 53% higher in the top quartile than in the bottom — women still are not making more rapid inroads with fewer reaching the most influential board leadership positions, even with more women on boards than 10 years ago.

The authors set out ways for making more progress in board rooms.  And they advise: “For real, lasting change that wins companies the full benefits of gender-diverse decision-making, boards need to look beyond inclusion — and toward influence.”

Kimberly Whitler is assistant professor of business adminstration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business; Deborah Henretta is an independent board director on the boards of Dow Corning, Meritage Homes Corp, NiScource Inc and Staples (she was a Proctor & Gamble executive).

There is much more for executives and board members in the issue, which has the overall theme of: “In Search of Strategic Agility – discover a better way to turn strategy into results.”

The content we outlined here is powerful stuff (our own technical term) to crank into corporate strategy-setting, and savvy execs are doing just that, as we see here at G&A as we pour through the more than 1,500 corporate reports we analyze each year with titles such as Corporate Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Environmental Sustainability, and more.

And so it is very encouraging when we wander beyond the beaten path of reading the reliable staple of sustainability-oriented and CSR-oriented media to see what the senior management thought leadership media are doing!

We recommend that you read through the Spring 2018 Strategy magazine from MIT Sloan.  Link: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/