Corporate Sustainability Performance – Setting the Stage for ESG Data Analysis by Humans and AI Bots Alike

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

There is an expansive reservoir of ESG data – a.k.a. key performance indicators (KPIs) – across growing corporate ESG disclosure and reporting, commercially advertised metrics and/or data sets subscription access, and proprietary third-party rater, ranker and data provider analytical systems.

While voluntary reporting frameworks and the various third parties jockey for dominance and survival, who is using all this data — and how?

Currently, there are too many ESG-related KPIs and data sets for companies and investors to get a handle on, respond or analyze.  It is impossible to predict how many more KPIs will enter the mix or how soon third-party relationships will naturally consolidate the number of KPI expectations, simply driven by necessity for their own business models’ sustainability.

The corporate disclosure side of this issue is explored in:
The End User Side

Just like corporations, investors have to prioritize which KPIs matter and what reporting framework KPIs, public access information sources, licensed and/or proprietary databases they can rationalize for focus.

CFA-PRI recently joined forces to survey 1100 investment professionals.  Survey results show that fixed income inclusion of ESG in investment decision-making is rapidly catching-up with equity investors.

Source: UNPRI

Analogous to portfolio diversification theory, the number of investments (in both time and money) in ESG data sources has got to naturally reach some optimal number needed to optimize risk/return. Beyond that there is an entire sustainable finance ecosystem too large to address in a simple blog post.

Data Use

There is not an honest person alive who can tell you that they can stay on top of all the current and increasing company ESG data they could analyze, germane to their investment decision-making.

Research of Value

In addition to 90% of S&P 500 companies, Governance & Accountability Institute just announced its annual research update that 65% of Russell 1000 companies also published sustainability reports in 2019 (up from 60% in 2018), including 39% by companies in the smallest half of the index (up from 34% in 2018).

Important Perspective

An article highlighting takeaways from the recent NIRI “Big I – Investor & Issuer Invitational Forum”, quoted speaker Dan Romito, SVP of Business Development & Product Strategy at Nasdaq:

“There is an explosion of non-fundamental data…especially in ESG data…The
SEC found that 90% of data now used in the capital markets has been created during the past two years.”

Artificial Intelligence

AI use as a tool to consume, filter and analyze, huge reservoirs of ESG data is increasingly valuable in investment decision-making. AI providers are jockeying for differentiation and capital.  For instance:

  • AI is being used by investors, such as BlackRock, to not only analyze ESG data that companies are disclosing, but to uncover other information, such as ESG impacts from satellite images of pollution to cars in a parking lot, voice inflection and more.
  • FactSet just announced, on October 20th, a definitive agreement to acquire TrueValue Labs. Founded in 2013, TrueValue is a pioneer in AI-driven ESG data. It applies AI-driven technology to over 100,000 unstructured text sources in 13 languages, to identify positive and negative ESG behavior. Its coverage spans over 19,000 public and private companies.
  • TrueValue LabsTM had previously announced on January 23, 2020, that it was introducing its patent-pending concept of Dynamic Materiality, indicating that every company, industry and sector has a unique materiality signature. The company head of research noted that, “Given how central materiality is to ESG investing and fiduciary duty, it is critical to understand the mechanisms by which ESG factors impact the operational and financial performance of companies.”

The Human Element

“While AI can unearth key data for investors seeking sustainable investments, discerning unreliable information will be a key challenge and humans will not be replaced any time soon.” – as stated in the article titled,  How can AI help ESG investing? –  S&P Global, Sept 2020

“AI is not a replacement for human intelligence, but rather a way to further it… The strategic value of alternative datasets, in particular ESG data, in the financial sector is becoming increasingly visible. As only relevant data has decision-making utility, supervised machine learning is emerging as the most effective mechanism to generate strategic value for businesses.” – Cutting through the noise: demystifying the buzz around artificial intelligence in financial decision-makingRepRisk, Sept 2020

The Final Word

In only the last few years, it became obvious that ESG/Sustainability had finally gone mainstream.  It took over twenty years to catch-on, since the first voluntary ESG reporting framework, GRI, was founded in 1997.  Now it is time to buckle-up for the ride… practically everything ESG/Sustainability-related is advancing at orders of magnitude faster pace than anything we’ve experienced thus far!

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.

Addressing Supply Chain Challenges in the COVID-19 Era

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

Since the concept of a “new world order” helped to usher in a new era in global trade some 30+ years ago with the end of the Cold War, barriers to trade have continued to tumble. “GATT” (the “General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade” continuing rounds of global trade talks that began in 1947 under United States leadership) gave way to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.  New rules were applied, and trade continued to become “more liberalized”.  Corporate interests responded with dispersal of many their operations.

Large manufacturing companies spread out their sourcing to many new areas of the world, building a substantial network of suppliers in far-off lands. Mid-sized and smaller firms followed the example and began to source globally.  Manufacturing moved from “home country” to be situated in many other countries over time.

As companies set up their operations in many countries and sourced almost everywhere on the globe; fleets of cargo vessels plied the seas with stacks of containers on their decks.

Result:  today’s diverse, complex, spread out networks of tier one, two and three suppliers, and non-home country factories and facilities — many in China and East Asia and Pacifica nations — have dramatically changed the face and very nature of “home country companies” (such as those based in North America and Western Europe).

Therein, we find the risk!  Today we present two commentaries for you on today’s global supply chains and how to make these more links less risky and more sustainable — and to address the inherent risk in the global supply chain mix.

Writing in SupplyChainBrain, David Cahn suggests “…it is essential for companies and their supply chains to realize that customers prefer to engage with organizations that are focused on environmental sustainability. Significant opportunities exist for leveraging people, processes and technologies to achieve operational efficiencies.”

He suggests five steps in “the Pursuit of Sustainability” that spans the corporate enterprise.  His five areas “ripe for improvement” include: sourcing; manufacturing; recycling; packaging; transportation. There are numerous tips in each of the categories that may be of value to your organization in his commentary.

Author David Cahn is global marketing director for Elemica, a Digital Supply Network for manufacturers that automates and provides visibility into supply chains.

Visibility and understanding the risks inherent in supply chains is important and our second commentary for you comes from our colleague Pam Styles, who poses the question:  “what’s in your supply chain mix”?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed countless concerns for corporate managers, and for investors and providers of capital — including global supply chain management issues, Pam writes.  And, she suggests, ESG/sustainability practitioners may be able to offer unique vantage to assist the debrief in collaboration with company supply chain experts and management teams.

Her comments are directed at investor relations officers (IROs) who are on point to answer analyst and investor questions about supply chain risks and issues as well as to corporate ESG practitioners.

Pam concludes: When it comes to Sustainability – climate change is important but supply chain is urgent.  Pam is a long-time Fellow of G&A Institute and a valued collaborator on client projects. She is a long-time member of NIRI and the NIRI Senior Roundtable.

Featured Stories

The Pursuit of Sustainability Spans the Enterprise
Source: Supply Chain Brain – These days, it’s essential for companies and their supply chains to realize that customers prefer to engage with organizations that are focused on environmental sustainability. Significant opportunities exist for leveraging…

Corporate ESG Stakeholders – Supply Chain Management – What’s in Your Supply Chain Mix?
Pam Styles commentary in G&A Institute’s Sustainability Update blog:
Does your company regularly review and remediate identifiable aggregate risks across the company’s supply chain and associated third-party relationships?

 

Musing About the Alphabet Soup of ESG – SRI – CSR … et al!

Blog post

March 16, 2017

by Hank Boerner and Louis CoppolaG&A Institute

Often in our conversations with managers at companies that are new to corporate sustainability and especially new to publishing corporate sustainability reports, we often move into exploration of the various terms and titles applied to corporate sustainability.

SRI.  ESG.  Sustainability.  Corporate Citizenship.  Corporate Responsibility. 

Or, Corporate Social Responsibility.  Shorthand:  CSR, CR.  What else!

And on the investment side, in our discussions with financial analysts, or asset managers, we’re discussing socially responsible investing, sustainable & responsible investing (both SRI) and more recently, sustainable & responsible & impact investing — the “S&R&I”).

This alphabet soup of titles, characterizations, approach classifications and so on is usually confusing to corporate managers not well versed in matters related to corporate sustainability.

And, to investors new to sustainable investing, sustainable & responsible investing, impact investing, analyzing corporate ESG analytics…those managers also have questions on what all these terms really mean (And ask: is there a substantive difference between terms?).

Each year as the data partners for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in the U.S.A., United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, we analyze and database more than 1,500 reports each year (most are published by corporations; there are also institutional and public sector reports). Here we see firsthand every day this alphabet soup of terms playing out:

  • Corporate Responsibility / Corporate Social Responsibility (CR/CSR)
  • Corporate Citizenship (an older but still popular titling, especially among large-caps)
  • Corporate Sustainability (more often leaning toward environmental management, growing out of the traditional EHS functions at operating companies)
  • Environmental Update / Progress Report
  • Corporate Ethics

The Investment Community Point-of-View

And for investors:  There is also Faith-based investing and ethical investing, and a few other terms.  (“Green Bonds” are coming on strong!)

Many institutional investor  — asset owners and their managers, and their analysts — are seeming to favor “ESG” because it better captures the entirety of the three main issues buckets (Corporate Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance strategies, performance and issues) that make up what most investors consider to be a pretty good definition of corporate sustainability.

As corporate sustainability consultants and advisors, working closely with managements to help them effectively engage with investors on ESG issues, and so we see the term ESG becoming more and more of a preferred term for these discussions.

Consider, too, the familiar Bloomberg terminal on the desks of many investors is helping to bring volumes of corporate ESG data through the Bloomberg ESG Dashboard.

The Views of the Professional Analyst

The CFA Institute, the global education, training, testing and certification, and professional standards organization for financial analysts (“Charterholders” use the CFA professional designation) addressed this alphabet soup in its recent guide for investment professionals — “Environmental, Social and Governance Issues in Investing” (published in 2016).

The guide authors explain:  “The practice of environmental, social and governance issues in investing has evolved significantly from its origins in the exclusionary screening of listed equities on the basis of moral values. A variety of methods are now being used by both value-motivated and values-motivated investors considering ESG issues across asset classes.”

(The guide was authored by Usman Hayet, CFA; Matt Orsagh, CFA, CIPM; with contributions by Kurt N. Schacht, JD, CFA; and Rebecca A. Fender, CFA.)  Consider their views:

E:  Looking at the environmental components (the “E”), CFA Institute, investor concerns include climate change and fossil fuel assets [becoming stranded], water stress…that means that corporate ESG KPIs should be carefully examined.

S:  Looking at the social (“S”), the authors point out that labor relations can have a direct and significant impact on financial performance.

G:  Looking at corporate governance (“G”), the authors note that these were previously seen as a concern for value-motivated investment, and the E and S issues were relevant mainly for values-motivated investors.  Not anymore  — ESG issues are relevant for all long-term investors.

The CFA authors explain that there are various labels for the same issues and ESG common theme underlying the various labels is an emphasis is on ESG issues.

We Are Leaning in the Direction of….

In our work we prefer to use “Sustainability” or “ESG”, which we think best encapsulates the entirety of what we consider to be the issues in focus for institutional and individual investors.  And therefore we advise that the company’s ESG key performance indicators should be a priority concern for the board, C-suite and various level of management and corporate function areas, because of the importance of access to capital, cost of capital, and so on.

The corporate ESG performance and reporting on same might be positioned under an oversight umbrella in the corporate structure. We see these ESG activities being in the province of legal, public affairs, human resources, supply chain management, operations, EHS, investor relations, finance, corporate communications, and so on.

At times, however, we do find that some people in the corporate community hear the term “Sustainability” they automatically think only of environmental-related issues — (“E”) which of course, are just one part of what we consider sustainability to be.

And yes, all of this is still not clear cut, is it?  Varying terms and titles will probably be used for a while.

As explained, we prefer ESG when we are working with our sustainability consulting clients because this term includes the three main issue areas or buckets of issues — and says what it means. Using “ESG” tends to  make sure that it’s clear that our work includes three “bucket” areas – Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance.  (Not just Environmental!)

And the clearer we can be with our terminology, and more specific, the better off we will all be.

But Investors Are Not Asking….

Managers at many companies that we communicate with, especially in our investor relations sustainability consulting, will say, “Why don’t our analysts ask questions about sustainability on our quarterly calls?”

Erika Karp, formerly of UBS and founder of Cornerstone Capital in New York City often responds to this key question during her public presentations (Cornerstone is an ESG-focused investment firm.)

Erika:  “You’re wrong, they are asking!  If you peel back the layers of the “E” (climate, biodiversity, water, energy, waste etc); the “S” (employee retention, training, community engagement, human rights, labor contracts, benefits); and the “G” (executive compensation, proxy resolutions, board makeup, board independence, board skills, board diversity, critical issues management, and oversight of the company’s key functions) — then you can listen to the quarterly calls and you will see that you are in fact getting questions on sustainability (or ESG issues).”

We agree with Erika!  And this line of discussion points even more to the problems with our terminology in this space.

Of course, even though the analyst may not be asking: “Hey, so what about your sustainability?” the analysts and asset managers on your  calls may be or are asking about the individual elements that make up sustainability, and some of these ESG KPI’s are more important than others.  It’s important to recognize that these are Sustainability issues that they are asking you about!

As We Move Ahead…

All of this terminology discussion is our industry’s challenge, and somewhat of an educational problem in that we need to better inform others about the intricacies and the complexities that make up “Corporate Sustainability” so that there is deeper understanding of the full breadth and depth and importance of the ESG performance areas — and of the full impacts on a company’s reputation, valuation and more.

Of course, there are variations in which of these ESG issues is important (or material!), depending on industry and sector, size and geography.

We think that as we move along, “ESG” will continue to be a more preferred term for many analysts looking holistically at a public issuer. ESG will likely to continue to catch on because this approach will more clearly reflect the “completeness and complexity” of the various issue buckets that make up the corporate sustainability journey – ESG represents what it means and says what it is!

The Early Evolvement of SRI – and the Lasting Legacy

Looking back, the emergence of the Socially Responsible Investing approach (SRI #1), starting with screening out the shares of companies from portfolios (tobacco, gaming, etc.) may have a lasting legacy for some in the investment community.  More and more investors are now using the term, Sustainable & Responsible Investing (SRI #2), and even Sustainable & Responsible & Impact Investing (SRI #3 also!). These are gaining currency in the mainstream analyst and asset management communities.

And so, this is not necessarily a new discussion about titles and terminologies – it has been going on for quite some time.  In April 2009, when one of us (Hank) was editing the National Investor Relations Institute monthly magazine — IR Update — he offered up a commentary: ” Stay Tuned: More Initials for the IRO — These Could Spell Long-Term Success… Or Market Failure for Corporate Issuers ”

It was about ESG – SRI – CSR – even TARP (remember that?) — in that almost a decade-ago column, we noted that a 2008 survey of asset owners and managers, two terms were emerging as the preferred references:  ESG and Sustainability best summed up their approach.  We think this still rings true today.

It’s still an interesting read:  http://www.hankboerner.com/library/NIRI%20IR%20Update/2009/Boerner2009Apr.pdf

What are you thinking about this?  Do weigh in — please share your thoughts in the comments area below — weigh in on the dialogue!

What are your preferred terms in the daily conversation about…….