Boston Common Asset Management – Staying the Course, With Adjustments

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

Boston Common Asset Management with offices in Boston and San Francisco has been a sustainable and responsible investor since its founding in 2003.  The clients served are endowments, foundations, religious/faith-based groups, pension funds, family offices, and mission-driven organizations.

Part of its mission is to strive to improve corporate behaviors and responsibilities through engagement with corporate boards and executives and being active in proxy season with filing of resolutions, supporting other institutions doing the filing (often through collective actions) and voting practices.   Of course, like other asset managers, Boston Common is challenged as well by the changes brought about by the spreading coronavirus.

The Earth Day message from Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common included these points:

  • The firm’s focus is on both local and global issues – such as the health and safety of our community, planet and Boston Common’s impact as an active, engaged investor. Even as the impacts of COVID-19 are addressed, the work must go on in addressing systemic risk, especially the climate crisis.
  • Engagements (with companies) have not changed, but the tenor and lens through which public companies are evaluated and act will change.
  • Boston Common feels it is important in the crisis for portfolio companies to prioritize stakeholder well-being and the firm commends those companies that step up to show leadership.
  • At the same time, some companies are being called out – those firms that are price gouging, firing employees who are concerned about their health, and limiting access to much-needed products on the front lines.

What Boston Common is doing:

  • Having direct dialogue with company managements.
  • Working with investor networks and partners.
  • Looking at its own “responsible business” practices.
  • Planning and re thinking its future work.

Some specifics:

Company Engagements — Issues include human rights, eco-efficiency, climate risk. The changed tone is having more empathy, with more personal tone in these engagements.  Company responses are applauded and accountability is discussed – balancing interests of shareholders and stakeholders.

Working in Partnerships and Coalitions — The ICCR is a key partner of Boston Common, which is a signatory of the “ICCR Coronavirus Investment Statement” on workplace and supplier practices, and engagement of pharma companies to coordinate & collaborate on urgent medical needs. Link: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/watching-the-watchers-what-investors-esg-raters-are-doing-in-the-virus-crisis/

PRI:  The firm joined the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which has awarded Boston Common an A+ rating for our consecutive years.

Boston Common itself, a B-Corporation, is taking these actions:

  • Continuing to pay composting, cleaners, other contract vendors who rely on the income.
  • Supporting local food banks and social agencies addressing urgent community needs in Boston and San Francisco, contributing to date $26,630 in firm and employee-donated funds.
  • Future Focus” includes a “refresh” of engagement priorities and investor and private sector actions.  A range of societal issues that have been in the spotlight during the crisis must be addressed:  how work is valued; the need for a sustainable living wage; public health risks posed by industrial agriculture and food insecurity; unequal healthcare access and outcomes for low-income and communities of color; corporate tax practices, need for investment in healthcare infrastructure, social safety nets…and more.
  • Boston Common is adjusting the lens through which the firm examines its “asks” of companies and actions, and keeping systemic risk in focus (such as for issues like climate change, digital human rights, environmental protections as EPA rolls back the regs, controversial energy projects.)

Much will change with the virus crisis, MD Lauren Compere points out. “We must ensure that as investors we memorialize the lessons learned in this crisis, empowering companies to manage for the long-term, with a focus on joint recovery and prosperity as the world emerges from lockdown.”

Boston Common has long been a proponent for responsible behavior of corporations and investors and regularly joins with other asset managers in initiatives to drive change.

The issues involved include Amazon de-forestation, climate change and the portfolio risk posed by fossil fuel, urging the Detroit Big 3 (GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler) to drop opposition to California’s waiver authority on auto emissions standards, encouraging boards to include more diversity in director choices, and bank financing of controversial projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

About the name:  Many people have visited the beautiful Boston Commons in the middle of this New England city.  The firm’s name comes from the concept of standing at the intersection of the economic and social lives of the community; the “universal commons” is the firm’s shared mission and vision.

Information: https://bostoncommonasset.com/Membership/Apps/Boston_HP_Input_App.aspx 

 

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: