Purpose – This Was the Buzzword of 2019 for The Corporate Sector & Investment Community. The “Purpose” Debate Will Continue in 2020

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

Another in the series about The Corporate Citizen and Society

As 2019 draws to a close — we look back at a year with a lively discussion about The Corporate Citizen and Society…and “Purpose” discussions…

The year 2019 began with an important challenge to corporate leaders from Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock (with more than US$6 trillion in AUM). 

The very influential investor writes each year to the CEOs of companies that his firm invests in on behalf of BlackRock clients. There are literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies in the BlackRock portfolio (managed and indexed funds).

At the start of 2018, CEO Fink wrote that every company needs a framework to navigate difficult landscapes and it must begin with a clear embodiment of the company’s purpose (in the business model and corporate strategy).

He explained to the many CEOs: “Purpose being not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a reason for the company’s being – what is does every day to create value for its stakeholders.”

Then (in January 2019) Larry Fink explained in his start-of-the-year letter to CEOs as he expanded on the theme, Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.  And, profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose; in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.

This 2019 communication to CEOs pointed out that the world needs their leadership (especially) in a polarized environment. Stakeholders are pushing companies to tackle social and political issues as governments fall short of doing that.

And (very important) Millennials, now outnumbering the Baby Boomers in the workforce, represent a new generation’s focus – on various expressions of, and clear demonstrations of corporate purpose.

The January 2019 letter of course created a buzz in the corporate sector and in the capital markets as people thought about the meaning and weighed in on all sides of the issue.  What many agreed with was that there were now clear signals that the half-century doctrine for the corporate sector of “shareholder primacy” was giving way to “stakeholder primacy.”

As the purpose discussion rolled on, in August 2019 the influential Business Roundtable issued a revision of its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 of the CEOs of the largest of American companies (firms both publicly-traded and privately-owned). 

Important step forward: the CEOs publicly committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.

The Roundtable’s Principles of Corporate Governance has been issued since 1978; from 1997 on this endorsed the principle of shareholder primacy (that corporations existing principally to serve shareholders).  The new statement, said the BRT in summer 2019, outlines a modern standard for corporate responsibility. 

The team at G&A Institute looked at the companies whose CEOs are members of the Business Roundtable (almost 200 in all), examining their public disclosures and structured reporting on “walking-the-talk” of “purpose” and “responsibility to stakeholders” 

What are the companies doing — and how are they telling the story of the doing — the walking the talk?

Our approach was to analyze the means of disclosure and reporting “on corporate purpose” and the focus on any related content of sustainability / responsibility / ESG / corporate citizenship reporting by the BRT member companies.  (The good news to share:  there’s plenty of relevant information on purpose in the leadership corporate reporting. You can read through the respective corporate reports to divine the meaning and expressions of purpose in the pages.)

The analysis is available on the G&A Institute web site – see this week’s Top Story for the headline and link to our Resource Paper. There are relevant links there as well.

What will the purpose of the corporation discussion be in the new year, 2020?  Stay tuned to the perspectives shared that we’ll have in our G&A Institute Sustainability Highlights newsletter and on this blog.

Best wishes to you for the holiday season from all of us at G&A!

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s 2019 letter: https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter

G&A Institute Releases Analysis of The Business Roundtable Companies’ ESG Reporting Practices
Source: Governance & Accountability Institute

Highlights:

 Governance & Accountability Institute’s research team examined the ESG / sustainability reporting practices of the BRT signatory corporations to examine trends and create a baseline for tracking progress and actions going  forward.  G&A released these initial benchmark results in a resource paper available on our website.

Capitalism – Needing Reinventing? Is Corporate Sustainability / Responsibility / Citizenship’s Focus on ESG Part of the Mix of Reinvention?

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

There are many voices raised now, joining in the public dialogues on corporate sustainability, corporate citizenship, corporate responsibility, ethics, good governance…and more.

The perspectives offered fit into the commentary stream on the future of capitalism — and how to make it work for everyone.

There are rigorous companion dialogues going on – and rapidly growing in number — related to the role of sustainable investing as more asset owners and their internal and external managers adopt new approaches, many focused on the analysis of corporate ESG performance and related outcomes.  We see this as further reinventing of capitalism. Do you?

On Corporate Purpose – How, What, Why and more – another public dialogue dramatically expanding since the release of The Business Roundtable’s revised statement on purpose in summer.

There are more voices being added to the expanding public dialogues on all of the above and more, which is what our newsletter’s Top Story focuses on.

A fascinating range of voices will be raised by Fast Company as the publishers spotlight “15 voices” working at the forefront of trying to reinvent our economic system…and together, the pursuit of important structural reforms and ideas to bring about “fairness” (much needed, we can argue, in 2019!).

The first voice “raised” by Fast Company is that of Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president who says in his essay “capitalism is in crisis” and explains why in his essay — “How to Save Capitalism From Itself”. 

As the editors of Fast Company explain, the voices to be raised in the future (that you will want to follow via Fast Company essays) include:

Zeynep Ton, MIT b-school prof who founded the Good Jobs Institute;

Josh Silverman, CEO of Etsy (the artisanal marketplace) whose company’s social-impact initiatives are held to the same standard as financial reporting;

Fashion icon Eileen Fisher (champion of the B Corp movement);

Barry Lynn, founder of Open Markets Institute (who favors more regulation to address today’s monopolies);

Rachel Lauter, ED of Fair Work Center..and others!

Keep in mind Fast Company is a must-read for many GenXers and Millennialls – and so you will want to keep up with the publication’s voices no matter what generation you belong to.

The Ford Foundation’s CEO essay is at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90411391/ford-foundations-darren-walker-how-to-save-capitalism-from-itself

Top Stories

Capitalism is dead. Long live capitalism
Source: Fast Company – For capitalism to thrive, the system needs to evolve to be fair, inclusive, and sustainable. Fast Company highlights companies and innovators leading the change.

And of importance, the public dialogue – and action! – on the SDGs:

Protecting Our Future: Moving from Talk to Action on The Sustainable Development Goals
Source: Forbes 

How an Italian Energy Company Revolutionized Sustainable and Impact Investing in Structured Credit
Source: Forbes 

First SDG-linked bond in the European market raises 2.5 billion euros
Source: UN Global Compact 

The Young People Move to the Streets to Protest Slow or Lack of Action on Climate Change Challenges…

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

When our young people take to the streets in significant number, there is usually a revolution of some type in store, history tells us.  Revolutions belong to the young, we can say with some certainty if history is our guide. 

Think: Young “Minutemen” in the American Revolution, youngsters on the barricades in the French Revolution, counter-sitters and marchers in the Civil Rights protests in the American South. 

Dramatic change followed these protests. And now, we watch the young men and women in the streets of Hong Kong.

So what to make now of at least four million young men and women flooding into the streets and plazas of large cities and local communities around the world to “protest” their views of “inaction on climate change challenges” by those adults in charge (government and business, especially).

In New York City, Rome, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Madrid & Barcelona, Montreal, Berlin, Vienna, and many other of the world’s cities, on September 20th hundreds of thousands of young people rallied in protest and called on leaders to protect our planet. 

There were marches, music, signs of all sorts, speeches, and other public expressions intended to draw attention to the dangers posed by climate change.

A real crisis in our time and a dangerous threat to the young men and women and their younger peers in the decades ahead!

As symbol of the moment, climate activist Greta Thunberg (at age 16) boldly sailed over the seas from her home in Sweden (rather than take a jet airplane) to get to New York City for the celebration of Climate Week and the gathering of leaders at the United Nations General Assembly).

In interviews she commented that she does not understand why world leaders — including the President of the United States — would mock children and teenagers for acting on science that advances evidence that climate change is real – and dangerous for humanity and our planet.

But business is responding – and investors and the public sector, too. 

In one of the focus features we bring you this week, in the Harvard Business Review author Andrew Winston tells us what 1,000 CEOs really think about climate change and inequality. (We know Winston from his best-seller, “Green to Gold”.) 

He reminds us that nearly 200 CEOs working through the Business Roundtable (BRT) declared that business is no longer just about maximizing shareholder profit.

Many more hundreds of CEOs are in agreement and many are focused on climate change.  Are we moving fast enough? 

A report from UN Global Compact and Accenture (“The Decade to Deliver: A Call to Business Action”) presents the views of more than 1,000 global executives on their views of sustainability.

All of the large-cap company CEOs interviewed believe that sustainability issues are important to the future success of their enterprises.  The biggest challenge is climate change. 

This week our Top Stories (plural) are presented as snapshots of where we are as consumers, investors, government leaders and yes, business leaders, focus on sustainability and especially climate change matters.

An appropriate footnote:  in rural Southwest Montana, a participant in the local rally by mostly young people had this to say in a letter to the editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in response to criticism of the young peoples’ rallies:  

“Climate change is not a political issue. It is a life or death issue. Our children are asking in what way school matters when our future is disintegrating before our eyes. 

“Children have as much right and reason to march anyone.  They march because they can still see possibility, opportunity and reasons to fight four just futures. 

“Next time, maybe you should join us to understand what our kids are marching for.”

Our offerings for you this week:

After strikes, youth climate activists keep pressure on leaders
Source: Reuters 

What 1,000 CEOs Really Think About Climate Change and Inequality
Source: Harvard Business Review

Business leaders join the UN Global Compact Leaders Week to address climate crisis and advance the SDGs
Source: UN Global Contract

Banks worth $47 trillion adopt new UN-backed climate, sustainability principles
Source: UN News 

Markets face major risks over lax climate forecasts, top investors warn
Source: Reuters 

The second-largest gift to a US university was pledged to Caltech. It’s being used for climate research
Source: CNN 

Climate Activism Requires More Than Just Sustainability Statements From Brands
Source: Ad Week 

Most of world’s biggest firms ‘unlikely’ to meet Paris climate targets
Source: The Guardian 

Lead on global climate change and sustainability
Source: St. Peter Herald 

Editorial: Climate Week 2019
Source: Advanced Science News 

Climate crisis seen as ‘most important issue’ by public, poll shows
Source: The Guardian