4th in Series: The Food Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

By Jessica Caron –  G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

A comparison of the SASB Meat, Poultry & Dairy Standard — which is designed for use by companies involved in the raising, slaughtering, processing and packaging of animal food product — to the GRI Standards must start with the observation that the GRI Standards are general and not industry-specific, asking about topics that apply to most business organizations (such as employee benefits).

The SASB industry standards focus on industry-specific ESG information — such as animal welfare.

The GRI Standards also, in being of value in generating a general portrait of any type of organization, suggest disclosure of a wide range of basic information — such as legal form and markets served as well as significant amounts of content with information directly related to corporate ESG strategies and performance.

The only basic information SASB Standards suggest in the category is information about the number of processing and manufacturing facilities, amount of animal protein produced by category, and percentage of animal protein production that is outsourced.

We should keep in mind SASB is investor-focused, and GRI is stakeholder focused (of course, including investors). And so the information suggested for disclosure by the reporter (the company disclosing) has different end users in mind when using either or both of the standards for corporate reporting.

The GRI Sector Disclosure:

The SASB suggested industry standards are more similar to the Sector Disclosures from the GRI G4, the predecessor of the GRI Standards. Each Sector Disclosure consists of additional disclosures and guidance for answering general GRI disclosures tailored to a certain industry, and thus attains the level of industry focus that the SASB standards have.

The GRI Sector Disclosure most similar to the SASB Meat, Poultry, and Dairy Standard is the Food Processing Sector Disclosure, which is designed for food processing companies rather than farmers, but including questions about a company’s supply chain, which does include farmers. The G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosure is discussed in more detail at the end of this commentary.

Being Prepared for Reporting:

In general, my advice is that corporate reporters should be prepared for using the GRI Standards to disclose much more information than the SASB Standards suggest.

For example, the GRI Standards by design suggest that a company should expect to report on every material ESG issue that affects the company, and the reporting in accordance with “Comprehensive” level reporting option prescribes a management approach (DMA) for every risk, opportunity, and topic mentioned in the issuer’s report. In comparison, SASB suggest a well-defined and narrower set of [material] data and suggests management approaches for just a few topics, such as water management risk.

Other Differences to Note:

The GRI Standards Disclosures have an entire section on economic issues; the SASB Standard does not. These issues are focused on the economic value generated, financial assistance received from the government, and benefit plan contributions. The GRI Standards also ask about anti-corruption practices and anti-competitive behavior (in the “Society” subcategory), which the SASB Standard does not.

The GRI Standards suggest more detailed information in general than the SASB Standard on environmental topics, but the SASB Standard’s suggested disclosures are at times more specific and are on the whole more industry-specific. The main environmental topics both standards deal with are energy, water, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, waste, and biodiversity.

The GRI Standards suggest information on an organization’s energy consumption, energy intensity, and reduction in energy consumption and requirements — in addition to the suggestion that at least one or all, depending on individual company’s materiality assessments, of the ESG issues — be discussed and a management plan provided for it. including energy issues.

In contrast, the only energy information the SASB standard asks for is how much total energy is consumed, and suggests a breakdown of that energy by grid electricity and renewable energy (where the GRI Standards do not).

Overlaps and Differences – E/Environmental:

The water disclosures for GRI and SASB do overlap a great deal – SASB even suggests discussion of water-related risks and management approaches; notably, use of the SASB Standards suggests companies to report water specific non-compliance incidents where GRI Standards has a disclosure which asks for the companies approach for environmental compliance overall.

In terms of the other three topics, SASB only suggests disclosure of Scope 1 GHG emissions, of the amount of animal waste generated, and of the percentage of pasture and grazing land managed to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation plan criteria in the biodiversity section.

GRI suggests much more information for all three of these topics (because the GRI Standards are general, they ask about waste only in general terms, but they do suggest disclosure of types of waste generated).

However, SASB suggests disclosure of management approaches for GHG emissions and waste management, whereas GRI suggests disclosure of management approach for each GRI topic considered to be material to the company. The NRCS conservation plan can also be considered as part of a management approach.

Using the GRI Standards For Reporting – More Detailed

GRI is more detailed – by far – than SASB in its suggested disclosures related to employees and their human rights; GRI Standards ask about benefits, labor-management relations, training and education, gender pay equality, diversity and equal opportunity, non-discrimination, forced or compulsory labor, human rights training for security personnel, and grievance mechanisms in addition to employee health and safety — which is the only employee-related topic mentioned in SASB Standards.

SASB Standards, do, however, suggest a description of how respiratory health conditions (a problem in animal feedlots) are managed and prevented, an issue which is much more industry-specific and not specifically mentioned even in the GRI G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosures.

GRI also asks many questions about a company’s product responsibility and impact on society, whereas SASB does not.

Addressing “S” — Social Issues

The social issues GRI Standards ask about are indigenous rights (in the “Human Rights” subcategory); contributions to and effects on local communities; anti-corruption, anti-competitive behavior; consumer privacy and health and safety; compliance; marketing, labeling; and, grievance mechanisms for effects on society. SASB Standards focus on food safety. (Note that the GRI Standards suggests a discussion of markets that ban imports of the company’s products, which is often a food safety issue for the meat, poultry, and dairy industry. SASB Standards address this under the “Food Safety” section; other food safety topics are covered in the G4 Sector Disclosures.)

About Supply Chain Content

Both GRI and SASB Standards address disclosures on supply chain information — the information suggested by SASB Standards specifically address biodiversity, animal welfare, water stress, and climate change resilience in the meat, poultry and dairy supply chain (including discussion of plans to manage climate change risks and opportunities in the supply chain). These are of course all very important issues in the meat, poultry and dairy sector.

GRI in comparison suggests more general information about screening for environmental and social issues and local suppliers. (The Sector Disclosures address in general terms, supplier compliance with sourcing policies and international standards.)

The G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosures — which are the closest equivalent to the SASB Meat, Poultry & Dairy standards — suggest additional information in many sub-categories, such as product safety, and additional guidance for many aspects. (For example, it is noted that financial assistance from government may marginalize small-scale producers and have negative impacts on public health.)

The GRI Sector Disclosures also add information on sourcing practices to the procurement practices section (as discussed in the previous paragraph) and two new sections in the “Society” subcategory, on healthy and affordable food (which SASB does not mention) and animal welfare.

The GRI Sector Disclosures’ food safety questions relate to markets that ban the company’s products and the percentage of food manufactured in facilities accredited by a third party for food safety. SASB has more questions, including about recalls, and does ask about one third-party certification system, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

Focus on Food Issues

The GRI Sector Disclosures also have sections on nutrition — specifically, on fortified foods and food reduced in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars – and marketing and labeling, especially marketing to vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women.

The SASB Standard does not address these issues. However, other than dairy products, most animal-based foods are not fortified with nutrients or reduced in fat, sodium, or sugar, perhaps making the GRI Sector Disclosures in this area of little relevance to the meat, poultry and dairy industry specifically.

In conclusion, I see the SASB Standard and the GRI Standards + G4 Food Processing Sector Disclosure each covering most of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics relevant to the livestock industry, and together, the GRI and SASB standards fill in each other’s gaps to create a more complete ESG profile for any given company in the industry/sector.

Because some pieces of information are in differently-named categories across the standards, responding in the corporate reporting process to both standards does take a little extra work — but is very much possible and I think beneficial to do if the company seeks to be a sustainability leader in the industry (or industries) in which it operates.

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 first post in the series which includes explanations and the series introduction as well as the other posts in the series:

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

2nd in Series: The Agriculture Products Industry — GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

3rd in Series: The Electric Utilities & Power Generators Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

3rd in Series: The Electric Utilities & Power Generators Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

By Jess Peete – G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

It is often the case that many us may not give our monthly energy utility company a second thought — unless there is an issue with the power going out or the bill is too high.

However, for those of us working in the sustainability field, the Energy Utilities Industry is one of the most important industries to consider, regardless of where we live or do business.

This industry’s companies power our homes, power our businesses, and in so many ways power our modern lives.

Traditionally, the energy utilities & power generators industry relied on oil and coal to generate supply for the power grid. This historic reliance on fossil fuels has more recently become a major issue in focus for investors, and society, as the effects of climate change continue to grow and the impact of burning fossil fuels for energy become more apparent.

Because of these effects on the environment and atmosphere, the Energy Utilities and Power Generators sector is today considered “high impact”.

Key sustainability reporting frameworks – including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) — have sector-specific reporting standards (GRI has supplemental guidance that goes beyond their regular reporting requirements in order to more accurately measure the societal impact of the industry.)

Similarities and Differences in Standards

I’ve found that there is a great deal of similarity in the GRI Sector Supplements and SASB Industry standards for the Energy Utilities and Power Generation industry — but there are distinct differences as well.

The sector supplements only exist for GRI-G4, however, it is still advised for reporting organizations to now use the GRI Standards and incorporate the sector-specific disclosures from the GRI-G4 energy sector supplement to establish a more thorough industry-specific review of the total impact of the energy utilities sector.

The SASB Standards

SASB defines the materiality for the Energy Utilities sector reporting to include the following topics:

ENVIRONMENT

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Energy Resource Planning
  • Air Quality
  • Water Management
  • Coal Ash Management

SOCIAL CAPITAL

  • Community Impacts of Project Siting

HUMAN CAPITAL

  • Workforce Health & Safety

BUSINESS MODEL AND INNOVATION

  • End-Use Efficiency & Demand

LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE

  • Nuclear Safety & Emergency Management
  • Grid Resiliency
  • Management of the Legal & Regulatory Environment

Overall, the SASB standards appear to me to be quite comprehensive for a company to follow for their reporting — and would require reporting for many aspects of the electric power grid, including overall energy supply chain impacts.

For instance, SASB requires a calculation of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emitted related to operations — but also requires a qualitative reporting of management-level planning to reduce the GHG emissions (emitted both from the company and its customers).

SASB addresses this in terms of recommending corporate reporting on negative environmental impacts — such things as coal ash and potential hazards such as posed by nuclear plants.

The GRI Standards

There appears to be little to no mention of coal ash storage in the GRI Standards — unless a company chooses to include coal ash as effluence.

This type of reporting could also be included in a company’s disclosure of their management approach (DMA) in the GRI Standards Report.

One area where the GRI standards seems to have a stronger “urging” for corporate reporting is the Sector impact on water, which is incredibly important because the energy utilities sector is one of the biggest users of water (usually required for cooling).

GRI Standards, in this case, appear to take a more holistic approach to water consumption (measuring total stress) while SASB only requires reporting the water impact from high stress areas.

Conclusion:

Because of the high impact that energy production and distribution have on climate, local communities, and the economy, companies in the Sector using both the GRI Standards and GRI G4 Energy Supplement alongside the SASB Energy Utilities Sector Supplement will be able to create a sustainability report that measures the true impact and costs of operations.

Measuring and managing these material E&S issues can help to provide both companies and investors in the sector a better understanding of their businesses, and a clear pathway to keeping consumer costs low while shifting to an energy portfolio that is one more based on sustainable energy.

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 first post in the series which includes explanations and the series introduction as well as the other posts in the series:

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

2nd in Series: The Agriculture Products Industry — GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

4th in Series: The Food Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

2nd in Series: The Agriculture Products Industry — GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

By Emilie Ho – G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

During my analysis, I found that although many of the material disclosures that the SASB Standards suggest for disclosure by the Agriculture Products Industry are in line with the GRI’s Topic Disclosures, there are also a number of material topics that SASB advances for disclosure that do not have a related disclosure under the GRI Standards.

Interestingly, some of the material disclosures that do share overlap also have differences in what the two reporting frameworks suggest companies include in their sustainability reports. (Note that in the United States, use of both standards is voluntary for corporations.)

This commentary will explore some of these similarities and gaps between SASB and GRI to help corporate reporters better understand how these standards can be utilized for a company in the Agriculture Products Industry to report their environmental, social, and economic impacts more effectively.

At first glance, I found that the GRI Standards appear to seek more in-depth disclosures for some topics that they share in concept with the SASB Standards — but as a whole, the SASB Standards provide a more comprehensive view of agricultural practices due to the industry-specific disclosures and components suggested in its recommendations. These are not covered in as much depth under the GRI Standards.

As an example, SASB and GRI both include Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions as an area for disclosure, and the disclosure of GHG emissions suggested by the two Standards’ organizations both account for Scope 1 emissions and biogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

Similarities and Differences to Consider

However, although SASB asks agricultural organizations to describe their long-term and short-term strategies of managing Scope 1 emissions and emission-reduction targets—something that is not specifically outlined under the GRI’s Emissions Topic Disclosure — GRI does suggest organizations that choose to report on emissions include a management approach that is used to cover components such as the policies, commitments, and goals and targets as they relate to the reporting organization’s emissions.

GRI expects reporting organizations to provide a management approach disclosure (otherwise known as the DMA) for every material topic chosen, or else explain why the management approach was not included at the time of reporting.

While the discussion encouraged by the GRI’s DMA is similarly suggested for some of the topics covered by SASB, it is not found in the SASB’s emissions materiality topic. Many of the industry-specific disclosures included in SASB could thus be improved by being covered using this management approach section of the GRI.

Emissions and Energy Related Disclosure

The GRI Standard’s Emissions Topic Disclosure also has more topic-specific components available for reporting — such as Scope 2 and Scope 3 GHG emissions, emissions of ozone-depleting substances, and other significant air emissions.

In this way, the GRI Standards would appear to be more comprehensive for the emissions materiality topic that it shares with SASB.

The same observation is found in Energy, which is also available as a material topic under SASB and a disclosure topic in the GRI Standards.

SASB Standards suggest reporting organizations disclose their consumption of operational energy fleet fuel — both of which are also covered under GRI’s topic-specific categories of energy consumption within and outside of the organization.

Both GRI and SASB also account for the amount of energy reduced through the use of renewable energy.

However, GRI Standards additionally ask reporting organizations to disclose their energy intensity and the reductions in energy requirements of sold products and services achieved during the reporting period.

Since this topic will be coupled with a management approach under the GRI, the organization’s Standards would appear to cover more ground than SASB Standards in the Energy topic disclosures, since this discussion is not required for the Energy material topic under SASB — however, the company could choose to disclose it in the DMA section.

Addressing Labor/HR Issues

Suggested disclosure content that relates to labor is also more extensive under GRI than SASB.

SASB Standards cover Food Safety and Health Concerns as it relates to the number of recalls issued and strategies used to manage genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Fair Labor Practices and Workplace Health and Safety (as it pertains to whether farms are certified for fair labor practices, the data on injury rates, and how to assess, monitor and reduce exposure of employees to pesticides).  In comparison, the GRI Standards offer 19 available Social topics for companies to report on.

In particular, the labor/management relations and occupational health and safety topic specific disclosures share some overlap with those of SASB.

These topic-specific disclosures under the GRI Standards also suggest that companies report on hazard identification, risk assessment, promotion of worker health, prevention and mitigation of occupational health and safety impacts, and work-related injuries.

Agriculture-Specific Issues

SASB does take a more agriculture-focused approach because it asks specifically for data on topics such as recalls, GMOs, and farms certified for fair labor practices; these are not similarly asked for under the GRI Standards.

The Land Use and Ecological Impacts, Climate Change Impacts on Crop Yields, and Environmental and Social Impacts of Ingredient Supply Chains material issues identified by SASB are other examples where SASB takes a more comprehensive approach to reporting for the Agricultural industry’s specific issues.

These SASB Standards disclosures ask organizations to report on topics such as the amount of crop yields/lost, percentage of agricultural raw materials certified to third-party environmental/social standards, amount of pesticide consumption by hazard level, and volume of wastewater reused/discharged to the environment.

The available disclosures following the GRI Standards do not appear to directly encompass these agriculture-specific components (even in the GRI Food Processing Sector Supplement), making GRI reporting as a whole appear to be not as comprehensive for the Agriculture sector — despite GRI requiring more detail for those disclosures that do intersect with SASB.

Agricultural organizations that choose to report without following SASB Standards and / or the Food Processing Sector Supplement may, therefore, result in a more restricted view of those organizations’ agriculture-specific practices — despite them being in line with GRI Standards reporting.

My Conclusions

Moving forward, corporations in the Agricultural sector can improve their sustainability reports by using both the GRI Standards and the SASB Standards for the collection, measurement, analysis and reporting of their environmental, social, and economic data.

This integrative approach to reporting would enable corporations to create a much more comprehensive sustainability report, by allowing the enterprise to take advantage of both SASB’s industry-specific disclosure recommendations and GRI’s broader topic-specific recommendations.

# # #

Note about GRI’s Sector Disclosure — from the GRI’s website FAQ: “With the transition from G4 Guidelines to GRI Standards, the G4 Sector Disclosures remain valid. The use of the G4 Sector Disclosures is recommended for organizations using the GRI Standards, but is not a requirement for preparing a report in accordance with the Standards (see GRI 101: Foundation, Section 2 for more detail).”

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 first post in the series which includes explanations and the series introduction as well as the other posts in the series:

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.

#  #  #

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:

The State of Sustainable / ESG Investment in 2018: The State of Corporate Sustainability Reporting & How We Got Here

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

In this issue of our weekly newsletter we brought you two important Top Stories that capture the state of sustainable investing from varying points-of-view. 

We selected these research efforts for their value to both corporate managers and investment professionals.

  • Corporate staff can use the findings to “make the case” upward to C-suite and boardroom using both documents.
  • Investors not yet on board with Sustainable / ESG investing can gain valuable insights from both reports.

First is the report by Guido Giese and Zoltan Nagy at MSCI – “How Markets Price ESG” – addressing the question “have changes in ESG scores affected market prices?”

MSCI examines the changes in companies ESG scores, “ESG momentum” — either strong or negative for the companies being rated. Using the firm’s model, the research showed that markets reacted “most sensitively” to improvements in a public company’s characteristics rather than to declines in ESG performance, among many other takeaways in the full report.

The takeaway is that changes in ESG profiles of companies certainly affect company valuations.  The change in ESG characteristics showed the strongest move in equity pricing over a one-year horizon compared to shorter or longer time frames.  The report contains a well designed, thorough methodology which clearly demonstrates the importance of a public company’s ESG profile.

The MSCI score, the authors point out, is a proxy for the ESG-related information that the market is processing. (All MSCI ESG scores are updated at least once a year.)  There’s good information for both corporate managers and investment professionals in the 25-page report.

The second report is a snapshot of the “State of Integrated and Sustainability Reporting 2018” — issued by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute (IRRCI)Sol Kwon of the Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2) is the author and colleague Heidi Welsh is editor.  (IRRCI and Si2 regularly publish research reports together.)

The report charts the evolution of corporate sustainability reporting, which got off to a modest start in the 1980s – then on to the 1990s when corporate sustainability reports as we know them today as investors and companies adopted ESG or Triple Bottom Line approaches.

Key:  Another transition is underway, writes author Kwon, the “value creation” (a/k/a shared value) which should lead to more holistic reporting of inputs and outputs…and the emergence of the integrated report.

In 2013, IRRCI had Si2 look at the state of integrated reporting among the S&P 500® companies and examined practices again for this year’s report.  (The earlier work focused on what companies were reporting without regard to status as “mandated” or “voluntary” disclosure.)  Much progress has been made – for one thing, investor attention on ESG matters is much higher today…making corporate sustainability reporting ripe for the next phase.

The details are set out for you in the IRRCI report including trends and examples in use of reporting frameworks (GRI, SASB, IIRC), Quality, Alignment with SDGs, Inclusion of Sustainability in Financial Reports, Investor Engagement / Awareness, Board Oversight, Incentives, and many other important trends.

This an important comprehensive read for both corporate managers and investment professionals, with a sweep of developments presented in an easy-to-read format.

Example:  What drives ESG integration into investment strategy?  The drivers are identified and presented in a graphic for you.

Important note for you regarding IRRCI:  in 2019 the organization’s intellectual properties will be assumed by the Weinberg Center at the University of Delaware.  The center conducts research and holds conferences on corporate governance and related issues and is headed by Charles Elson, one of the most highly-regarded thought leaders on corporate governance in the U.S.

Important Study on ESG Momentum by MSCI: 
https://www.msci.com/www/research-paper/how-markets-price-esg-have/01159646451

State of Integrated and Sustainability Reporting 2018:
https://irrcinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-SP-500-Integrated-Reporting-FINAL-November-2018.pdf

California – America’s Sovereign State of Sustainability Superlatives!

While the Federal Government Leaders Poo-Pooh Climate Change, the Sovereign State of California Continues to Set the Pace for America and the World!

Focus on The State of California – the America’s Sovereign State of Superlatives Including in the Realm of Societal Sustainability…

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

We are focusing today on the “Golden State” – California – America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

The U.S.A.’s most populous state is forceful and rigorous in addressing the numerous challenges of climate change, ESG issues, sustainable investing and other more aspects of life in this 21st Century.

Think about this: California is by itself now the fifth largest economy in the world. The total state GDP (the value of goods & services produced within the borders) is approaching US$ 3 trillion. The total U.S.A. GDP is of course the largest in the world (it includes California GDP) and then comes China, Japan, Germany… and the state of California!

The California population is about 40 million people – that means that roughly one-in-eight people in the U.S.A. live in the Golden State.

Stretching for 800+ miles along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, California is third largest in size behind Alaska (#1)  and Texas and takes the honor of setting the example for the rest of the U.S.A. in societal focus on sustainability.

Most investors and public company boards and managements know that the large California pension fund fiduciaries (institutional investors) often set the pace for U.S. fiduciary responsibility and stewardship in their policies and activities designed to address the challenges of climate change, of global warming effects.

The state’s two large public employee pension funds —  CalPERS (the California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and CalSTRS (the California State Teachers’ Retirement System) have been advocates for corporate governance reforms for public companies whose shares are in their portfolios.

CalPERS manages more than US$350 billion in AUM; CalSTRS, $220 billion.

A new law in California this year requires the two funds to identify climate risk in their portfolios and to disclose the risks to the public and legislature (at least every three years)

CalSTRS and CalPRS will have to report on their “carbon footprints” and progress made toward achieving the 2-Degrees Centigrade goals of the Paris Accord.

Looking ahead to the future investment environment — in the  emerging “low carbon economy” — CalPERS is pointing more of its investments toward renewable energy infrastructure projects (through a direct investment program). The fund has invested in two solar generation facilities and acquired a majority interest in a firm that owns two wind farms.

Walking the Talk with proxy voting: long an advocate for “good governance,” CalPERS voted against 438 board of director nominees at 141 companies this year in proxy voting. CalPERS said this was based on the [companies’] failures to respond to it effort to engage with corporate boards and managements to increase board room diversity.

CalPERS’ votes including “no” cast on the candidacy of numerous board chairs, long-term directors and nominating & governance committee chairs. This campaign was intended to “create heat” in the board room to increase diversity. CalPERS had solicited engagements with 504 companies — and more than 150 responded and added at least one “diverse” director.  CalSTRS joins its sister fund in these campaigns.

During the year 2018 proxy voting season, to date, CalPERS has voted against executive compensation proposals and lack of diversity in board room 43% of the time for the more than 2,000 public companies in the portfolio.

Other fiduciaries in the state follow the lead of the big funds.

The San Francisco City/County Employee Retirement Fund

The San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System (SFERS) with US$24 billion in AUM recently hired a Director of ESG Investment as part of a six-point strategy to address climate risk.  Andrew Collins comes from State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) and the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB – based in SFO) where he helped to develop the ESG accounting standards for corporations in 80 industries.

The approach Collins has recommended to the SFERS Investment Committee:

  • Engagement through proxy voting and support for the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) proxy resolutions.
  • Partnerships with Climate Action 100+, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), Ceres, Council of Institutional Investors, and other institutional investor carbon-reducing initiatives.
  • Active ESG consideration for current and future portfolio holdings.
  • Use of up-to-date ESG analytics to measure the aggregate carbon footprint of SFERS assets; active monitoring of ESG risks and opportunities; continued tracking of prudent divestment of risky fossil fuel assets.

The staff recommendations for the six point approach (which was adopted) included:

  • Adopt a carbon-constrained strategy for $1 billion of passive public market portfolio holdings to reduce carbon emissions by 50% vs. the S&P 500 Index.
  • Hire a director of SRI to coordinate activities – that’s been done now.

As first step in “de-carbonization” the SFERS board approved divestment of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron (September 2018) and will look at other companies in the “Underground 200 Index”.  The pension fund held $523 million in equities in the CU200 companies and a smaller amount of fixed-income securities ($36MM).

Important background is here:  https://mysfers.org/wp-content/uploads/012418-special-board-meeting-Attachment-E-CIO-Report.pdf

There are 70,000 San Francisco City and County beneficiaries covered by SFERS.

At the May 2017 SFERS board meeting, a motion was made to divest all fossil fuel holdings.  An alternative was to adopt a strategy of positive investment actions to reduce climate risk. The board approved divestment of all coal companies back in 2015.

California Ignores the National Leadership on Climate Change

In 2015, the nations of the world gathered in Paris for the 21st meeting of the “Conference of Parties,” to address climate change challenges. The Obama Administration signed on to the Paris Accord (or Agreement); Donald Trump upon taking office in January 2017 made one of his first moves the start of withdrawal from the agreement (about a three year process).

American states and cities decided otherwise, pledging to continue to meet the terms previously agreed to by the national government and almost 200 other nations – this is the “We are still in movement.”

The State of California makes sure that it is in the vanguard of the movement.

This Year in California

The “Global Climate Action Summit” was held in San Francisco in September; outgoing Governor Jerry Brown presided. The meeting attracted leaders from around the world with the theme, “Take Ambition to the Next Level,” designed to encourage collaboration among states, regions, cities, companies, investors, civic leaders, NGOs, and citizens to take action on climate change issues.

Summit accomplishments:  there were commitments and actions by participants to address: (1) Healthy Energy Systems; (2) Inclusive Economic Growth; (3) Sustainable Communities; (4) Land and Ocean Stewardship; and (5) Transformative Climate Investments.  Close to 400 companies, cities, states and others set “100 percent” renewable energy targets as part of the proceedings.

New “Sustainability” Laws

The California State Legislature passed the “100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018” to accelerate the state’s “Renewable Portfolio Standard” to 60% by year 2030 — and for California to be fossil free by year 2045 (with “clean, zero carbon sourcing” assured). Supporters included Adobe and Salesforce, both headquartered in the Golden State; this is now state law.

Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order directing California to achieve “carbon neutrality” by the year 2045 — and to be “net zero emissions” after that.

Building “De-Carbonization”

The state legislature this year passed a “Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) ” measure that is now law, directing the California Energy Commission to create incentives for the private sector to create new or improved building and water heating technologies that would help reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Water Use Guidelines

Water efficiency laws were adopted requiring the powerful State Water Resources Control Board to develop water use guidelines to discourage waste and require utilities to be more water-efficient.

About Renewables and Sustainable Power Sources

Walking the Talk: Renewables provided 30% of California power in 2017; natural gas provided 34% of the state’s electricity; hydropower was at 15% of supply; 9% of power is from nuclear. The state’s goal is to have power from renewables double by 2030.

California utilities use lithium-ion batteries to supplement the grid system of the state. PG&E is building a 300-megawatt battery facility as its gas-generating plants go off-line.

Insurance, Insurers and Climate Change Challenges

There are now two states — California and Washington — that participate in the global Sustainable Insurance Forum (SIF); the organization released a report that outlines climate change risks faced by the insurance sector and aims to raise awareness for insurers and regulators of the challenges presented by climate change. And how insurers could respond.

The Insurance Commissioner of California oversees the largest insurance market in the U.S.A. and sixth largest in the world — with almost $300 billion in annual premiums.  Commissioner Dave Jones endorsed the 2017 recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (the “TCFD”) and would like to see the now-voluntary disclosures be made mandatory by the G-20 nations. (The G-20 created the Financial Stability Board after the 2018 financial crisis to address risk in the financial sector).

In 2016 the Insurance Commissioner created the requirement that California-licensed insurance companies report publicly on the amount of thermal coal enterprise holdings in portfolio — and asked that the companies voluntarily divest from these enterprises.  Also asked: that insurers of investments in fossil fuel companies (such as thermal coal, oil, gas, utilities) survey or “data call” on these companies for greater public financial disclosure.

What About a Carbon Tax for California?

The carbon tax – already in place. California has a “cap and trade” carbon tax adopted in 2013; revenues raised go into a special fund that finances parks and helps to make homes more energy efficient. The per ton tax rate in 2018 was $15.00.  The program sets maximum statewide GhG emissions for covered entities in power and industrial sectors and enables them to sell allowances (the “trade” part of cap & trade). By 2020, the Cap and Trade Program is expected to drive more than 20% of targeted GhG emissions still needed to be reduced.

As we said up top, the “Golden State” – California – is America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

There is more information for you at G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” management briefing platform:

Brief:  California Leads the Way (Again) – State’s Giant Pension Funds Must Now Consider Portfolio Climate Risks & Report on Results – It’s the Law

 

 

Changes Ahead for Corporate Sustainability Reporting

This is a guest post by our colleague-in-sustainability, Jane DeLorenzo.  She recently completed the on-line Certificate in Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Strategies.  The platform is hosted by G&A Institute and developed in partnership with IntegTree LLC. This is a dual credentials course!  A certificate is issued by Swain Center for Executive & Professional Education at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and a separate certification is issued by G&A Institute.  This commentary is prepared as part of the completion of the coursework.  We are sharing it today to broaden understanding of the state-of-sustainability reporting – present and future.  Find out more about the dual certificate program here.

By Jane DeLorenzo  October 27, 2017

Now is the time for businesses and other organizations to take a closer look at their sustainability reporting; key considerations are what they report, why, how and which standards to use.

New standards released by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) will take effect July 1, 2018 — so the clock is ticking.

As more global companies produce sustainability reports, the process has become more complex. Competing standards and frameworks, increasing pressures from investors and other stakeholders, and the costs and resources involved to develop such reports can be challenging – and baffling to leaders.

While GRI is positioning and advocating to be the de facto global reporting standard, companies can select other frameworks, such as those of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) or the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).

There are important factors to consider. Organizations can opt for an integrated report that includes both financial and sustainability information, or they can issue a sustainability report that is separate from the annual financial report.

Producing no sustainability report is also an option, since all three of these standards are voluntary in the United States and most other countries. Companies should be aware, though, that stakeholders may cry foul if no report is produced.

What’s a company to do?

The Continued Evolution of Reporting

Sustainability reports tell the story of an organization’s impacts on economic, environmental and social issues. Many corporations began to examine their non-financial impacts following the environmental and social movements of the 1970s in Europe and the United States.[i]

Public outcry due to rising awareness of pollution and social inequities pushed companies to try to be more transparent. Shareowners were making the case that non-financial issues can and do impact a firm’s financial performance.

In the U.S., for example, emissions data reporting was spurred by Right-to-Know legislation and rules in 1986 that required accountability from companies that were releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.[ii]

Demand for environmental and social disclosures led to the formation of GRI in 1997 by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (now known as CERES) and the nonprofit Tellus Institute, both based in Boston. GRI later partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which had been promoting voluntary environmental reporting by companies and industry groups.

At a ceremony in 2002 announcing the move of the GRI headquarters from Boston to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, UNEP Executive Director Dr. Klaus Töpfer acknowledged GRI’s mission to develop a framework for voluntary sustainability reporting.

He commented: “An increasing number of stakeholders, including the investment community, share the goal of the GRI to raise the practice of corporate sustainability reporting to the level of rigour, credibility, comparability and verifiability of financial reporting.”[iii]

GRI launched its first sustainability reporting framework in the year 2000 and subsequently developed four versions of its guidelines (G1 through G4). Keeping current was a long-term challenge for companies reporting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Over time it became clear that a simplified, easier-to-update standard was needed. The new GRI Standards are meant to streamline and simplify the process.

As GRI marks its 20th year, the organization is attempting to “tackle the confusion among companies about the proliferation of different reporting frameworks,” according to GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin.[iv]

While some media reports claim GRI and SASB are competing frameworks, a 2017 article in GreenBiz, co-authored by Mohin and SASB Founder/CEO Jean Rogers, intended to dispel this perception.[v] The article states: “Rather than being in competition, GRI and SASB are designed to fulfill different purposes for different audiences. For companies, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job.”

Best Practices

Using the right tool, or standard, is the key to companies producing a successful report for their target audience.

While GRI is the widely-accepted framework for reporting sustainability initiatives to a broad audience, SASB focuses on reporting to the investor audience. This audience is interested in the link between sustainability and financial performance. Both GRI and SASB agree on a common goal: to improve corporate performance on sustainability issues.

Other organizations with similar goals include a list of initials and acronyms:  IIRC, CDP, ISO, OEDC, SDG and more. These are:

  1. IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Council) promotes integrated reporting to provide “investors with the information they need to make more effective capital allocation decisions,” according to its website.[vi]
  2. CDP (formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project) partners with organizations to measure their carbon footprint. Many companies use CDP alongside other reporting frameworks.
  3. ISO, the International Organization for Standardization developed ISO 26000 to help organizations improve their social responsibility efforts.
  4. OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its industrial economy member countries negotiate guidelines surrounding social responsibility.
  5. SDG stands for the United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals.” UN member states adopted the 17 SDGs with 169 targets that seek to protect the planet, end poverty, fight inequality and address other social injustices.

While CSR reporting has been widely voluntary, mandatory reporting is taking effect in some countries. In the European Union, large companies (more than 500 employees and certain assets and revenues) now face mandatory disclosure of environmental and social impacts beginning with their 2018 annual reports.[vii]

The EU published its own guidelines in 2017, but it allows companies to choose among the various standards. Laws requiring CSR reporting are also in effect in South Africa, China and Malaysia. Meanwhile, a growing number of stock exchanges around the world are issuing sustainability reporting guidance and requirements.

Companies that are just beginning the process to report on their sustainability impacts should find the new GRI Standards relatively simple to use. The Standards are free to download from the GRI website (www.globalreporting.org) by registering a company name and email address. Organizations can use all or some of the Standards, but they must notify GRI of their intended use.

The new Standards are made up of three modules (or manuals): (1) the Foundation, which describes the basic reporting principles; (2) General Disclosures, which outline required contextual information about an organization and how it operates; and (3) Management Approach, which requires organizations to state how they approach their selected sustainability topics or issues.

While the content and requirements are basically unchanged from the currently-used GRI G4, the Management Approach now takes center stage. A reporting company must provide information on how it “identifies, analyzes and responds to its actual and potential impacts.”[viii]

Once a company determines its approach to a key topic, this management approach might stay the same from year to year. Also, one management approach may apply to several key topics, which should make reporting more concise. The Standards include three additional modules that are organized according to topic categories: economic, social and environment.

Focusing on material (or key) topics, rather than a long list of topics, should also make the reporting process more concise as well as more meaningful to stakeholders. In other words, less is more. The new Standards direct companies to identify their key topics and then report on at least one of the topic-specific GRI disclosures.

For example, Company XYZ determines from stakeholder feedback that the topic of waste will be included in its sustainability report. Both the new GRI standards and G4 guidelines include five disclosures on waste. The new Standards require reporting on one disclosure so Company XYZ can report more in depth on this key topic.

Previously, some companies felt compelled to report on a greater number of topics and disclosures in order to be ranked favorably by rating agencies like Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters. These ratings not only can affect a company’s stock price, but they also can influence a company’s CSR strategy.

According to a 2016 study on rating agencies, about 33 percent of companies said inquiries from sustainability analysts shaped their overall business strategy.[ix]

Implications and Conclusion

Regardless of which sustainability reporting guidelines an organization chooses, the number of companies producing voluntary or mandatory reports is growing.

The process itself can give companies a clearer picture of their impacts and progress meeting their CSR targets. These insights help companies develop strategies to identify risks and opportunities within their realm of sustainability.

Because the GRI framework has been widely accepted globally, its new Standards will likely have a strong impact on the future of reporting. But it’s also likely that the leadership of corporations will continue to take a closer look at the link between sustainability and financial performance. Consequently, other frameworks that focus on both financial and non-financial impacts could gain acceptance.

GRI, SASB, IIRC and other frameworks are all driving improvements in sustainability reporting. As GRI’s Mohin explained: “In order to be more impactful, reporting needs to be concise, consistent, comparable and current. Brevity and consistency are key to successfully managing and understanding the insights delivered by the reported data.”[x]

Reporting must consider the financial bottom line if a company is to be both profitable and sustainable. What matters is that organizations need to be mindful of their reasons for reporting and how sustainability reporting can make an impact internally and externally. Honest, balanced and transparent reporting will ultimately benefit companies, their stakeholders and society-at-large.

Author:  Jane DeLorenzo is Principal of Sustainable Options, specializing in sustainability report writing and editing, and compliance with GRI reporting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The on-line Certificate in Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Strategies provides a broad overview of key corporate responsibility challenges and strategies that will enable organizations to succeed in the 21st Century Green Economy.  The Program Developer is Nitish Singh, Ph.D., Associate Professor of International Business at the Boeing Institute of International Business at Saint Louis University with Instructor Brendan M. Keating.

Information is here:  http://learning.ga-institute.com/courses/course-v1:GovernanceandAccountabilityInstitute+CCRSS+2016/about

# # #

References:

[i] Brockett, A. and Rezaee, Z. (2015). Corporate Sustainability: Integrating Performance and Reporting. Retrieved from https://www.safaribooksonline.com/library/view/corporate-sustainability-integrating/9781118238066/chapter02.html

[ii] Environmental Protection Agency, United States. (n.d.) Timeline of Toxics Release Inventory Milestones. Retrieved from  https://www.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program/timeline-toxics-release-inventory-milestones

[iii] CSRwire (2002, April 22). Global Reporting Initiative Announces Move to Amsterdam. Retrieved from http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/15359-Global-Reporting-Initiative-Announces-Move-to-Amsterdam

[iv] GRI (2017, October 4). Q&A with GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/information/news-and-press-center/Pages/QA-with-GRI-Chief-Executive-Tim-Mohin.aspx

[v] Mohin, T. and Rogers, J. (2017, March 16). How to approach corporate sustainability reporting in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.greenbiz.com/article/how-approach-corporate-sustainability-reporting-2017

[vi] International Integrated Reporting Council. (n.d.) Why? The need for change. Retrieved from https://integratedreporting.org/why-the-need-for-change/

[vii] European Commission, Belgium. (n.d.) Non-financial reporting. Retrieved from    https://ec.europa.eu/info/business-economy-euro/company-reporting-and-auditing/company-reporting/non-financial-reporting_en

[viii] GRI (n.d.) GRI 103: Management Approach. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/standards/gri-standards-download-center/gri-103-management-approach/

[ix] Sustainable Insight Capital Management (2016 February) Who are the ESG rating agencies? Retrieved from https://www.sicm.com/docs/who-rates.pdf

[x] GRI (2017, October 4). Q&A with GRI Chief Executive Tim Mohin. Retrieved from https://www.globalreporting.org/information/news-and-press-center/Pages/QA-with-GRI-Chief-Executive-Tim-Mohin.aspx

 

Conversation with Professor Baruch Lev at NYU: Is Accounting Outmoded?

The book: The End of Accounting.

July 17, 2017

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

Questions:  Is Accounting as we know it now outmoded … beyond Its usefulness to investors? We share with you today the views of a global thought leader on Accounting and Corporate Reporting — Dr. Baruch Lev of Stern School of Business at New York University.

Professor Lev’s shares his views of the vital importance of intangibles to investors, with his call for far greater corporate transparency being needed … including his views on the importance of CSR and sustainability.

His latest work:  The End of Accounting – and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers — authored by Dr. Baruch Lev and Dr. Feng Gu of the University of Buffalo/ SUNY.  The professors’  important new work is the result of three years of research and collaboration, In the book they that suggests new approaches are needed to reform “old” accounting practices to provide more information of value to investors, who are mostly ignoring corporate accounting.

And as read the book, we were thinking:  what about ESG – CSR – Sustainability – and other new approaches that do focus on many intangible aspects of corporate operations?  We had a conversation with Dr. Lev and share his views on this and more with you today.

After reading the book, readers may ask:  Is this about the “The End of Accounting?” Or, “The Beginning of Really Useful Financial Information for Investors?”  My view:  It’s both!

And we discuss needed reforms in corporate reporting, for you to think about:  Are U.S. public companies prepared to publish the authors’ recommendations for a Resources and Consequences Report for investors’ benefit?  Read on to learn more…

And for sustainability / CSR professionals: This is an important new work for your consideration that focuses on the importance of intangible information for investors to help guide their decision-making.

First, some background:

Accounting as we know it has been around for 500+ years. Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, the Italian mathematician (c 1447-1517) set out the principles of the double-entry bookkeeping system for the merchants of Old Venice in his 1494 work, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, a very important textbook of the day.

This “Father of Accounting” put forth the important concepts of ledgers, journals, credits and debits (and the balancing of same); A/R, A/P, Cost Accounting and much more. His is a rich legacy in the accounting and business worlds. **

But now, Professor Baruch Lev posits in his work with colleague Professor Feng Gu, we really need to reform this five-century-old approach to how we account for the financials and think and act way beyond the traditional.

Their Recommendations:

Let’s begin with the corporate “intangibles” – some investment professionals still speak of a company’s ESG / Sustainability / Responsibility strategies, programs and actions, achievements, and the burgeoning reportage of same (data & narrative) as addressing the intangibles (and not “the tangibles,” represented by the financial data).

But many analysts and asset managers look far beyond the financials to help determine the valuation of a public issuer. For example, veteran financial analyst Stephen McClellan, CFA, formerly VP and head of research for Merrill Lynch and author of the best seller, “Full of Bull,” has told conference audiences that as much as 80% of a corporate valuation may be based on the intangibles.

Writing for investors, Professors Lev and Gu put forth their suggestions for dramatic accounting and corporate reporting reform. They “establish empirically” in their work that traditional corporate accounting is failing investors and reforms are needed.

Their recommendation: have companies publish a “Resources and Consequences Report” with five main elements:

  • Development of [Corporate] Resources;
  • Resource Stocks;
  • Preservation of Resources;
  • Deployment of Resources;
  • Value Created.

Some of the information could be financial, as in today’s disclosures. But other information could quantify data, and there could be qualitative information as well. (Sounds like we are looking at some of the sustainability reports of corporate sustainability leaders?)

The elements of the report the good professors recommend:

Development of Resources: Detailed descriptions for investors of the company’s important internal research efforts, the R&D advances, the further development of present technologies to leverage to create value, etc. After “proof of concept,” how does the R&D contribute to the value of the company?

Resource Stocks: The company’s intellectual properties, the assets that are the foundation of investor value. (Patents, trademarks, processes, etc. — all “intangibles” that are in fact very tangible to investors.)

Preservation of Resources: The safety/security of such things as a company’s digital assets, IT, IP, and so on; are there cyber attacks? Was there damage – to what extent? What does the company do about these attacks? How does the company manage and secure its acquired knowledge?

Deployment of Resources: As the company creates “value,” how are the strategic resources deployed? How does the company use its intellectual assets?

Value Created: Here the professors would like to see reported the dollar results of all of the above. Companies would describe the changes in Resource value(s), and describe the nature of value (for a company with a subscription model, what is the value of the individual subscription; what is the value of a brand, etc.)

Notes Dr. Lev: “We suggest and demonstrate a new measure: adjusted cash flows.”

Highlights of our conversation:

G&A Institute: Your new book offers very powerful arguments for fundamentally changing present-day corporate accounting and the way that investors do or do not pay attention to that accounting in their analysis and portfolio decision-making. There are a lot of vested interests in the present system; can the accounting and corporate disclosure and reporting systems be changed to reflect your recommendations?

Dr. Lev: Things change very slowly in accounting policies and practices. The systems is changing, in that public company managements are disclosing a considerable amount of information that is beyond that required for SEC filings, in the areas that we touch on in examples in our book. So there is progress. But not fast enough, I believe, to really serve investors.

G&A Institute: The SEC months ago published a Concept Release requesting public input on the present methods of corporate disclosure. We were encouraged to see more than a dozen pages in the document devoted the question of ESG metrics, sustainability information, and the like. Your thoughts on this?

Dr. Lev: We have not seen any further communication on this and there are no rules proposed. Will the new administration take any of this seriously?

Observes Dr. Lev: There are now many corporate financial statements that virtually no one understands. There is great complexity in today’s accounting. When we look at the US Environmental Protection Agency and environmental rules, we see that once rules are in place, they are constantly debated in the public arena. Unlike the EPA situation, there is presently no public interest in debating our accounting rules.

G&A Institute: Well, let me introduce here the subject of the SASB approach — the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB). Of course, the adoption of the SASB approach by a public company for adopting to their mandated reporting is voluntary at this time. What are your thoughts on this approach to this type of intangibles disclosure?

Dr. Lev: Well, the SASB recommendations are built on top of the present approach to accounting and reporting. In effect they leave the financial reporting system “as is,” with their rules built on top of a weak foundation as we outline in the book. I’ve said this at the SASB annual conference and my comments were very well received.

I did point out that the SASB approach is quite useful for investors. But the demand for voluntary disclosure by companies could create an invitation for lawsuits all over the world, if certain disclosures were made regarding a company’s environmental impacts.

G&A Institute: Well, aren’t investors seeking information such as environmental performance, as well as related risk, opportunity, more of the “E” of ESG strategies, performance, and metrics?

Dr. Lev: It depends on the setting. Our book was in process over a three-year period. My co-author and I devoted an entire year to analyzing hundreds of quarterly analyst (earnings) calls. Keep in mind that an analyst may have just one opportunity to ask the question. There were no — no — questions ever raised about ESG performance, corporate sustainability, and related topics. We reviewed, as I said, hundreds of earnings calls, with about 25-to-30 questions on each call.

G&A Institute: What kinds of questions may be directed to corporate managers on the calls about intangible items?

Dr. Lev: There were questions about the R&D efforts, the pipeline for example for pharma companies. Customer franchise was an important topic. Changes in U.S. patent law resulted in much more information being disclosed by the U.SPatent Office related to the filings. The entire argument made for patent filing, for example, and this is a subject the analysts are interested in.

G&A Institute: Are there any discussions, analyst and corporate, about ESG/sustainability?

Dr. Lev: Yes, these questions are mostly in the one-to-one conversations. A challenge is that in my opinion, the ESG metrics available are not yet at investment-grade. There is a good bit of investor interest and discussion with companies about sustainability. The factors are quite relevant to investors. But the “how-wonderful-we-are” communications by large public companies are not really relevant to investors.

G&A Institute: What kinds of information about the CSR or environmental sustainability intangibles, in your opinion, is of importance to investors?

Dr. Lev: Think about the special capabilities of the public corporation. The organization typically has special capacity to do good. Not just to donate money, which is something the shareholders could do without the company. But to share with the stakeholder, like a community organization, the special know how and other resources to make good things happen. The world really expects this now of companies. Call it Corporate Social Responsibility if you like.

The Cisco Example

Explains Dr. Lev:  Cisco is a fine example of this. The Company has a Networking Academy, and they invite people to enroll and take free educational courses to learn more about networking. There have been millions of people graduating from this academy and receiving certificates. Cisco management leverages its special capacity in doing this. And it is a good idea if you think about the impact of this far-sighted approach to generate more interest in and business with Cisco.

The Home Depot Example

Another example he offers is Home Depot. The company teams with an NGO – Kaboom — to build playgrounds for children. In terms of special capacity, HD does provide materials, but also provides company legal talent to help situate the playgrounds in the neighborhood. That is far more than throwing money at a community need.

Dr. Lev Observes:  I think one of the issues is that the terminology is not clear. CSR — what is it? Good or bad for investors? Having good ideas and special capabilities is key, I think.

We asked about Dr. Milton Friedman’s Views on CSR

G&A Institute: This brings us to one of your former colleagues, Dr. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, who famously wrote in a New York Times magazine article that CSR is, in effect, hokum, and not the business of the company. Shareholders well being should be the main focus, and through dividends and other means, if a shareholder wants to give the money away, they can do that…not the company.

Dr. Lev: I was a student of Dr. Friedman and later a colleague at the University of Chicago after I got a Ph.D. He was a brilliant man. In my opinion, he was the greatest economist of the 20th Century and I put him on a pedestal. He liked to introduce a subject and then generate great debate on his suggestions, which he felt people could accept or reject. That, I think, is the case with his famous commentary on CSR. See, we are still debating his views today. He was proved right so many times during his time.

G&A Institute: Let’s conclude this talk with a question: Do you see a value for investors in accepting, or better understanding, such terminology as CSR and sustainability and sustainable investing?

Dr. Lev: Yes, these are important approaches for companies and investors. Four years ago I devoted a chapter to CSR in my book, “Winning Investors Over.” My views are fully set forth in the recent article, “Evaluating Sustainable Competitive Advantage,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Journal of Applied Corporate Finance.

Notes Dr. Lev:  About “CSR” — there are other terms used, of course. Varying titles are very confusing. It is not always clear what CSR or sustainability may mean. For example, the Toyota Prius is a good approach to auto use. Is manufacturing that car “good CSR,” or just good business? A measure of sustainability? CSR is hard to define, sometimes. Good corporate citizenship is good for business and good for society, I believe.

G&A Institute: Thank, you Dr. Lev, for sharing your thoughts on accounting and the reforms needed, in your book and in this conversation.

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Footnotes:

The book:: The End of Accounting – and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers … by Dr,Baruch Lev (Philip Bardes Professor of Accounting and Finance at the NYU Stern School of Business and Dr. Feng Gu (Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Accounting and Law at the University of Buffalo).

Published by Wiley & Sons, NY NY. You can find it on Amazon in print and Kindle formats.

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Dr. Baruch Lev is the Philip Bardes Professor of Accounting and Finance at New York University Leonard Stern School of Business; he teaches courses in accounting, financial analysis and investor relations. He’s been with NYU for almost 20 years.

Dr. Lev is author of six books; his research areas of interest are corporate governance, earnings management; financial accounting; financial statement analysis; intangible assets and intellectual capital; capital markets; and, mergers & acquisitions.

He has taught at University of Chicago; the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv University (dean of the business school); University of California-Berkeley (business and law schools). He received his Bachelor of Accounting at Hebrew University; his MBA and doctorate (Accounting/Finance) are from the University of Chicago, where he was also a professor and (student of) and then academic colleague of Nobel Laureate (Economic Sciences-1976) Dr. Milton Friedman (1912-2006).

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Dr. Milton Friedman’s article — “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”; published in The New York Times Magazine, issue of September 13, 1970. The commentary for your reading is here: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html

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** Thanks to the “International Accounting Day” account of Luca Pacioli’s life, his work and his legacy. There is information available at: http://accountants-day.info/index.php/international-accounting-day-previous/77-luca-pacioli

World’s Largest Asset Manager on Climate Risk Disclosure — the BlackRock Expectations of Public Company Boards and C-Suite

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

Monday, March 13, 2017 — The world’s largest asset management firm has clear expectations that corporate managements will disclose more on climate risk to their shareholder base…BlackRock speaks out.  Corporate boards and C-Suite – Important News for You….

You all know BlackRock — this the New York City-based “world’s largest asset manager guiding individuals, financial professionals, and institutions in building better financial futures…”

“That includes offerings such as mutual fund, closed-end funds, managed accounts, alternative investments, iShares ETFs, defined contribution plans…”

And — “advocating for public policies that we believe are in our investors’ long-term interests…” “…ensuring long-term sustainability for the firm, client investments and the communities where we work…”

For BlackRock, Corporate Sustainability includes: (1) human capital, (2) corporate governance (3) environmental sustainability, (4) ethics and integrity, (5) inclusion and diversity, (6) advocating for public policy, and (7) health and safety.

In terms of Responsible Investing, the BlackRock approach includes (1) investment stewardship and (2) having a sustainable investing platform (targeting social and environmental objectives AND the all-important financial return).

So it should not come as a big surprise to the boards and managements of literally thousands of public issuers that BlackRock has great expectations regarding the individual company’s (in a portfolio or hope to be) climate change disclosure practices.

What We Are Doing/How We Do it – Shared by BlackRock

Right now the BlackRock managers are sharing with other asset owners & managers their approach to sustainable investing. There are important lessons for corporate managements in these explanations:

As part of the investment process, BlackRock continues to assess a range of factors (that could impact the long-term financial sustainability of the public companies or companies).

Over the past two years, a number of projects have helped BlackRock to more fully understand climate change. BlackRock believes that climate risk (climate risk/change issues) have the potential to present definitive risks and opportunities that could or will impact long-term shareholder value.

The BlackRock team members also contributed to external initiatives such as the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) and the continued development of the voluntary reporting guidelines of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB).

Larry Fink – the influential CEO of BlackRock — sent letters directly to the CEO’s of public companies in 2016 and then again recently (2017) that called attention to the need for the companies to help their investors better understand the ESG factors most relevant to the firm to generate value over time.

That especially includes more robust disclosure and reporting on the issues related to climate risk. (We need to keep in mind that “risk” has a companion — “opportunity,” as represented in the Chinese pictograph for a crisis.)

BlackRock’s Investment Stewardship Team meets with portfolio company managements and votes BlackRock shares at proxy voting time; if an issue is in focus and the C-suite will not make progress on the issue, the team will elevate the concern to the company’s board room. And they “may” in time vote against director nominees and for shareholders proposals that are on the right side of BlackRock’s own concerns.

Company Boards and Executives – for 2017

BlackRock engages with 1,500 companies (on average) every year. As (according to BlackRock) climate risk awareness and its engagement with companies on the issues is being advanced, and as the asset management firm’s own thinking on climate risk continues to evolve, that issue is on the table for the Investment Stewardship Team discussions with company managements in 2017.

Companies “most exposed” to climate risk will be encouraged as part of the discussions to consider reporting recommendations coming from the FSB Task Force.

And, the board will be expected to have “demonstrable fluency in how climate risk affects the business and management’s approach to adapting to and mitigating the risk. Corporate disclosure on all of this will be key to the ongoing relationship with the investor – BlackRock (with US$5 trillion and more AUM).

Other Investment Management Peers

Tim Smith, Director of ESG Shareholder Engagement at Walden Asset Management (Boston)

Tim Smith, Director of ESG Shareholder Engagement at Walden Asset Management (Boston) and long a robust and powerful voice in the sustainable investing movement, applauded BlackRock’s shared information.

“The announcement that climate risk will be a priority in their engagements with public companies is an exceedingly important message being sent by one of your largest shareholders. That they believe climate risk is a priority reinforces the importance of the issues for senior managements of public companies. We’re hopeful that BlackRock’s announcement and engagement on climate risk will result in active support for shareholder resolutions on climate change.”

Walden and others filed their own shareholder resolution with BlackRock asking for a review of the asset manager’s corporate proxy voting process and record on climate change.

BlackRock has been accused by investment peers for its proxy voting practices. For example, Climate Wire reported in 2016 that IF BlackRock and its large institutional investment peers had supported a climate resolution filed with Exxon Mobil (this was part of the not-for-profit Asset Owners Disclosure Project) the resolution would have passed in the final vote by shareholders.

We’ll see what the 2017 BlackRock moves mean in the corporate proxy season getting underway now with continued investor focus on climate change / climate risk / global warming disclosure and reporting demands.

As corporate sustainability consultants and advisors, we at G&A Institute (and as part of our pro bono research work as the exclusive Data Partners for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in the United States) analyzed more than 1,500 report sustainability reports in 2016 — and we are seeing an increase now in 2017 early survey results that corporate disclosure on climate risk issues is definitely on the increase.

We will soon release the results of our team’s analysis of S&P 500(r) on sustainability reporting and related issues. Recall that our analysis last year found that 81 percent of the 500 companies were doing structured sustainability reporting.

There’s more information for you here:

https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/en-us/about-us/investment-stewardship/engagement-priorities

https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/en-us/literature/market-commentary/how-blackrock-investment-stewardship-engages-on-climate-risk-march2017.pdf

Asset Owners Disclosure Project:  http://aodproject.net/

Tim Smith / Walden Asset Management:

http://www.waldenassetmgmt.com/team/smith-timothy

 

 

An Attendee’s Experience and Review of G&A Institute’s / Global Change Associates’ Sustainable Finance Certificate Program at Baruch College/CUNY

Guest Post by Ling Qin – G&A Institute Data Partner Reports Analyst

LingQinG&A Institute’s Sustainable Finance Certificate Program, developed in partnership with Global Change Associates, was hosted on 14 December, 2016 at Baruch College, City University of New York, in New York City.

This was a very rewarding learning and networking experience for me. Although I have the primary professional foundation for the necessary sustainable skills and knowledge, this one-day intensive seminar provided me with a broader background and more concrete view of different sustainability frameworks, ESG ratings and sustainable trends.

Leading experts in the sustainable finance gathered together at the Baruch College Vertical Campus to offer their first-hand sustainability industrial insights. Experts participating as lecturers came from Governance and Accountability Institute (which is GRI’s Exclusive Data Partner in UK and US), the Baruch Business School, MSCI, SASB, Bloomberg, Global Change Associates, and other organizations.

Mr. Samuel Block from MSCI introduced his company’s ESG products, their ESG rating methodology and ESG rating process. Not only does he introduce how MSCI’s ESG research carries out, but also informed us [the course participants] of lots of resources of ESG data.

Those important ESG datasets from company public reporting, media searches, regulatory, academic and NGO’s (third parties) enables MSCI and other interested parties to do solid analysis focusing on the most material aspects of companies’ ESG performance.

The lively discussion in the Q&A session cast light on the reactions from MSCI when facing push backs from companies with low ESG scores. After this all-day series of lectures, I understood (for example) that MSCI would include the controversies in their final reports presented to the institutional investors, which is a very good signal of the importance of ESG scores and reputation and the independence of the MSCI’s evaluation.

Another impressive section was around the topic of “ESG Equity Fundamentals Data Analytics” provided by Mr. Hideki Suzuki from Bloomberg’s ESG Group.

He showed participants how to explore and conduct cross-analysis of the ESG performance by using Bloomberg Terminal step-by-step. Bloomberg Terminal covers ESG score summary for companies’ historical trends and their comparable peers’ performance.

For the environmental performance, the GHG intensity indicator in the Bloomberg Terminal is introduced as a good example.

The indicators for social performance in the Bloomberg Terminal include company’s productivity through human capital management, total recordable incident rate, employee turnover rate and etc.

Independence of the board, diversity of executives and executive compensation are outstanding indicators for the corporate governance performance.

Mr. Hideki also highlighted that “ratios” are the key to allow researchers to do apple-to-apple comparable studies, which is an important tip that all sustainable professionals need to pay attention to.

By the end of the day, I not only benefitted from all vibrant sustainable knowledge- sharing, but also feel grateful to connect with experienced sustainable professionals.

All the guest speakers are very willing to share their opinions, slides and contacts. I very much enjoyed an intellectually-challenging learning experience and an intimate learning atmosphere for the whole day.  I recommend this course to my professional colleagues who are seeking greater knowledge in the expanding sustainable investing field.

Linq Qin has served as a G&A Institute GRI data partner corporate reporting analyst.

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Save-the-Date031517_squaread

SAVE THE DATE
The next session for the G&A Institute / Global Change Associates “Corporate ESG for Investment & Finance Professionals Certification” will be hosted at Baruch College/CUNY on March 15, 2017.  Click here for more information and to register at Eventbrite.