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:

“Total Impact Valuation” – Monetizing the Enterprise’s “Cost-Benefit Analysis” of the Impact on Society? This is for CEOs – Advice From The Conference Board

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

Today’s question for corporate CEO’s:  Have you examined your company’s “Total Impact Valuation,” a new approach being advanced by The Conference Board, wherein the enterprises’ impact on society is monetized (cost/benefit evaluated and value attached)?

A small group of companies is doing these exercises. Think of their efforts to date as expanding the usual reporting of “Input/Output” to seriously consider (1) Outcomes, (2) Impacts, (3) Cost and Benefit to Society (and to the company).

Such firms as BASF (the German chemical giant), cement industry leaders Holcim/Ambjua Cement and LafargeHolcim, Samsung, Akzonobel (materials), ABN AMRO (Holland, financial services), Volvo (vehicles), and Argo (materials, Colombia) have been doing something along these lines and reporting results for a few years now on web sites, in sustainability reports, in financial statements, in a “total contribution report” or “value-added statement”, and by other means.

Some of these disclosures are third party assured (Argo’s is by Deloitte) and otherwise guided; the big accounting firms are involved (PwC and KPMG included).

This appears to us to have the potential to take corporate sustainability reporting to expanded (new) levels for at least the publicly-traded large caps – that is, if enough investors jump aboard the concept and ask for the information.  (Think about public discussion of the company’s “plus or minus” impact on society beyond the fences.)

Thomas Singer, Corporate Leadership research leader at The Conference Board, presents findings of his sampling of firms (those identified above) and shares his perspectives on the concept in Chief Executive Magazine – it’s our Top Story for you this issue.

BASF shares its “Value to Society” model (there’s a link to this in the article).  The company, explains Singer, monetizes more than 20 different types of environmental, social and economic impacts, including direct and indirect suppliers and even customer industries.

Author Thomas Singer turns out a good amount of strategic advice to company leaders and has been focusing more in his Director Notes on ESG and corporate sustainability.  There’s links to his papers and publications for you in the link.

A major drawback here in the U.S.A.: there is no standard benchmark for measuring progress or lack of, and to guide reporting; there is in turn no way to compare company “A” to “B” for investors, ratings analysts and others.

So what do you think – is this a “we’re a long way from Kansas, Toto” moment for corporate leaders in terms of expectations of shareholders and stakeholders for what the companies will share in their disclosures of the future?  (The “Kansas” reference being the bad old days practices of chemicals and other companies “externalizing” costs to society for environmental mismanagement and minimizing the actual costs of clean up in financial reports.)

The total value practice got underway in Europe – and we will be watching to see if U.S.-based public companies pick up on the concept. Especially those where their foreign peers have the modeling and techniques underway.  That is what happened with corporate sustainability and ESG reporting over time.

Top Stories

CEOs Need To Put This Sustainability Trend On Their Radar
(Tuesday – July 03, 2018) Source: Chief Executive – What if America’s CEOs could understand the full financial impact their company has on society? It could make them rethink their game plan for how they prevent workplace accidents, lessen air pollution, manage waste – the list…