Watching the Watchers – What Investors & ESG Raters Are Doing in the Virus Crisis

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

As we have numerous times in this space commented about the dramatic shift from a shareholder primacy focus (for public companies and investors) to today’s stakeholder primacy operating environment, the views of key stakeholders – investors, and their service providers – are critical during the virus crisis.

Today we’re sharing the actions and perspectives of the investor-stakeholders…as the investor coalition in our first item notes…

“…the long-term viability of the companies in which we invest is inextricably tied to the welfare of their stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers and communities…”


Investor Coalition Focuses on Corporate Response to the Crisis

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of 300 institutional investors long focused on corporate responsibility and sustainability, joined forces with the Office of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and Domini Impact Investments LLC to develop an “Investment Statement on Coronavirus Response” — to urge the business community to take what steps they can and offered five (5) steps for corporate managements to consider.

These include:

  • Providing paid leave – emergency leave for all employees, including temps, part-timers, and subcontracted workers.
  • Prioritizing health and safety – limiting exposure to COVID-19, rotating shifts, enhancing protective measures, closing locations, setting up remote work, additional training where appropriate.
  • Maintaining employment – retain workers as much as possible; a well-trained and committed workforce will help companies resume operations quickly; also, companies should watch for potential discriminatory impact during and after the crisis.
  • Maintaining supplier/customer relationships – As much as is possible, companies should maintain timely or prompt payments to suppliers and work with customers facing financial challenges to help stabilize the economy, protect communities and small businesses, and ensure a stable supply chain will be in place when operations return to normal.
  • Practice financial prudence – the investors state they expect the highest level of ethical financial management and responsibility in the period of (acknowledged) financial stress. As “responsible investors” (the signatories) the expectation is that companies will suspend share buybacks, and limit executive and senior management compensation for the duration of the crisis.

Beyond these, the investors urged companies to consider such measures as childcare assistance, hazard pay, assistance in obtaining government aid for suppliers, paying employee health insurance for laid off/furloughed workers, and deploying resources to meet societal needs related to the pandemic.

Over the past few years, the investor coalition points out, corporations have shown leadership by using their power as a force for tremendous good. This kind of leadership if critically needed now. And, business reputation and social license to operate is at stake.

As we prepare this about 200 long-term institutional investors with AUM of US$5 trillion had signed on to the effort, including: the AFL-CIO funds, American Federation of Teachers, Aviva Investors, Boston Common Asset Management, the Chicago City Treasurer, Communications Workers of America, Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden, Delaware State Treasurer, Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Investor Environmental Health Network, Office of Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Oregon State Treasurer, Robeco, SEIU, UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, Treasurer of the State of Maryland, Vermont State Treasurer, and a large roster of faith-based institutions and religious denomination funds.

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Walking-the-Talk of Corporate Responsibility

Refinitiv provides investors with ESG ratings and perspectives on corporate ESG performance and builds ESG / sustainability considerations into products and services for investor clients. The company announced what it is doing to maintain its forward ESG momentum during the crisis.   And the changes will over time affect the public companies that are rated and ESG news distributed worldwide by Refinitiv. 

On Earth Day 2020, the folks at Refinitiv – this is one of the world’s largest providers of financial information – announced the beefing up of their own operations…walking the talk of what they provide to investor clients in terms of ESG Data and solutions for evaluating public companies’ ESG performance.

Refinitiv is putting in place for itself more stringent, science-based emissions targets, climate change reporting standards to meet the TCFD’s recommendations, and is joining the RE100 initiative to source 100% of its electricity from renewables.

Refinitiv had made three core pledges on the environment, social impact and sustainable solutions to support the UN SDGs. Part of this was a goal of achieving carbon neutrality before the end of 2020. The company is joining the Business Ambition For 1.5C commitment; aligning its own corporate reporting with the Task Force for Climate-Related Disclosures (the TCFD); and by this coming summer should be 100% in terms of how they source energy from renewables.

Refinitiv recently launched “The Future of Sustainable Data Alliance” to accelerate the mobilization of capital into sustainable finance, and will work to sustainability “at the core of product offerings”. Refinitiv serves more than 40,000 institutions in 190 countries, providing ESG data for 15+ years.

We can expect that these moves will result in the intensifying of the evaluation of corporate sustainability efforts by this major financial information provider. As the Refinitiv CEO David Craig comments:

The pandemic is clearly providing humanity with a re-set moment: a stark reminder about our fragility as a species and a sharp lesson about what happens when we mess with nature. It is also a moment when the old rules about the role of the state no longer apply. We can therefore attack the twin challenges of COVID-19 and climate change simultaneously, not sequentially. After all, when again will we be at a moment when governments are injecting such unprecedented sums into the economy just as the world needs up to $7 trillion a year of renewable investments to hit 2030 development and climate targets.”

Luke Manning, Global Head of Sustainability and Risk Enterprise at Refinitiv, adds:

Our commitment is going further than before and aiming for more ambitious emissions reductions that – if repeated by businesses across the world – should limit atmospheric warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. If we want to truly progress the climate agenda we need to help everyone understand that tackling it is in all our personal and financial self-interest. It’s not just about the impact we are having on the environment, but the impact the environment is having on us.

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Morningstar Acquires Full Ownership in Sustainalytics

Morningstar, a leading firm in providing investment research to individual and institutional investors in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia-Pacific region, began measuring the performance of ESG-focused mutual funds and ETFs three years ago. As part of the initiative, Morningstar acquired a 40% interest in the ESG ratings organization, Sustainalytics.

Now, that interest will be 100% as Morningstar solidifies its competitive advantage in measuring the performance of ESG investable products. Says CEO Kamal Kapoor:

“Modern investors in public and private markets are demanding ESG data, research, ratings, and solutions in order to make informed, meaningful investing decisions. From climate change to supply-chain practices, the nature of the investment process is evolving and shining a spotlight on demand for stakeholder capitalism. Whether assessing the durability of a company’s economic moat or the stability of its credit rating, this is the future of long-term investing.

“By coming together, Morningstar and Sustainalytics will fast track our ability to put independent, sustainable investing analytics at every level – from a single security through to a portfolio view – in the hands of all investors. Morningstar helped democratize investing, and we will do even more to extend Sustainalytics’ mission of contributing to a more just and sustainable global economy.”

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As companies large and small, public and private, step up to help society during the virus crisis, they burnish their reputation and social license to operate.And help society cope with the impact of the crisis on individuals, families, communities and institutions. 

We’re bringing you the news of those corporate actions.  And, we’re watching the investment community for their reactions, and their intention to encourage public companies to stay the course of their sustainability journey during the virus crisis.  Stay Tuned to this blog. 

It’s Earth Day Again – Let’s Celebrate – and Pledge Again to Defend Mother Earth!

For Earth Day – Plus 50 – April 22, 2020

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

The first Earth Day was the idea of and championed by a United States Senator, Democrat Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin on April 22, 1970. Fifty years ago!

Let’s also celebrate his life (1916-2005) and the environmental movement he helped to launch as we observe Earth Day 2020.

For those of us who were not around back in the day, I will also offer up some background for you as we celebrate the 50th Earth Day.

Why Earth Day?
In 1970, there were many assaults on the nation’s environment. That is, on our Good Earth with air, water, soil polluted.  In many parts of the nation, we were really heavily polluted!  (There are still SuperFund sites being cleaned in many states and years ahead for site cleanups.)

For most of the 20th Century American landscape was rich with manufacturing facilities and processing plants, located in every state. Our manufacturing and processing exports in the post-WW II period comprised fully one-quarter and more of all world trade.

The generosity of the U.S. in creating the Marshall Plan to help our former wartime enemies build up their economies and our WW II allies’ economies fueled the exports of American-made goods. 

Even today, U.S. manufacturing (really cleanerin operations!) accounts for half of U.S. exports. U.S. manufacturing today by itself makes up the world’s 10th largest economy (ahead of China, Japan, Germany and many other manufacturing centers). But back in the day…

The Importance of U.S. Manufacturing in the Post War
After World War II, the U.S. was the dominant manufacturing center of the world. Germany and Japan factories were coming back on line, having suffered tremendous damage [to each country’s industry].

Early in the post-WW II period many European companies began setting up factories in the U.S. (such as for chemicals, pharma) — and many of those companies were serious polluters here, as they were in Europe. (One reason why European investors were early adopters of ESG approaches – not often discussed.)

In 1951, “re-armament” was in full gear and the Cold War was on. Military production was becoming equal to or greater than for many consumer goods – and that meant many more plants would be turning out goods without necessarily protecting the environment around the plant. (“In the national interest…”)

Solvents used for manufacturing would go into the ground. Emissions from toxic fumes, into the air. Solid and liquid waste – into ground, or waters (streams, bays, rivers, oceans).

As consumer goods manufacturing rose, a “Guns & Butter” economy emerged in the U.S., with the factories running in two or three shifts. Output steadily rose. So, too, many nasty byproducts.

The assault on Mother Earth by industry and government steadily rose.

Among the catalysts for action after two decades of this:

The Cayuhoga River, flowing through Cleveland, Ohio, the industrial city on the Great Lakes, caught fired and the junk on top burned. At noontime, June 22, 1969 – a five story fire flashed out of the river in the downtown! Info at: https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63

A huge oil spill just offshore fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara, California. January 28, 1969 – 3 million gallons of crude spilled off the shoreline of the beautiful city by Union Oil (now Unocal), leaving an oil slick of 35 miles in length along the California shores…killing bird, fish, mammals (and tourism!). 1,000 gallons of oil per hour flowed for a month.

The federal government had relaxed the regulations on casing around the drilling hole and an explosion ripped the sea floor. (Sound too familiar in 2020?)

The federal government did stop offshore drilling for a few years (in the state’s waters) but then that restriction was relaxed and The Los Angeles Times (which has covered the story for five decades) says today there are 23 oil and gas leases in state waters.

The California spill is considered a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Richard Nixon was a California native — then sitting in the Oval Office — and was moved to action shortly after the spill.  He helped to create sweeping government regulations to address environmental issues. 

The LA Times coverage is at: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969-20150520-htmlstory.html

In the eastern U.S., the trees on mountaintops were constantly seared and leaves gone, branches standing naked of greenery. The “acid rain” coming from parts of the nation to the west wafted high up and denuded New York and New England mountaintop greenery. (That was SOX, NOX, etc from smokestacks carried far to the east on the higher winds.)

Those with light color cars would be scrubbing the dark stains running vertically on the vehicle. Acid rain streaks. We saw those on our homes (the white paint, the rain gutters, these would be streaked with black stain).
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/09/980928072644.htm

Personal Remembrances
As a boy, heading in the car to Manhattan or Brooklyn with family, I remember being curious about the large black, brown, yellow clouds hovering above the Empire State Building or Chrysler Building in midtown. Wafting along, at leisurely pace, I could “smell” the city. There was often a coating of soot on my shirt or coat when I returned home.

“Smog” enveloped many American and European cities. (Fog and smoke.) I have written about my flying through or over city smog. Looking down below from the cockpit, thick yellow clouds often blanketed Manhattan on hot summer days. Flying through (at lower levels) I would be on instruments until I was safely over New Jersey’s rural parts heading west. And clean air again filled the cockpit!

You could always see the bellowing smoke coming out of New York City’s ConEd electric generating plants along the rivers, furnaces fired by coal in those days.

For a time, to build flight hours, I flew around the city and suburbs on weekends broadcasting as “Captain Hank, Your Eye-in-the-Sky” for radio stations WGBB and WGSM. Checking on traffic to the beach, open spaces Jones Beach parking fields, fishing offshore, surfing at Gilgo Beach, and the like. Quite often I would be dodging in and out of smog banks that drifted eastward on hot summer mornings.

Up in Connecticut, driving one day along a river road, I was startled to see “rubber rocks” along the river bank. A large rubber tire company’s outflow of waste from the factory to the river had coated the rocks before heading downstream into Long Island Sound and then to the Atlantic Ocean. Everything would just disappear into the seas, right? (Prevalent thinking of certain business leaders at the time – externalize the crap and let someone else pay for results.)

Up in The Bronx (boro of New York City) and the northern parts of Manhattan, trucks would idle for hours as they picked up or dropped off food at the terminals…the children of minority populations living there had high rates of asthma. Part of the “payment” for the necessary local industry that employed their parents.

New York City – the Manufacturing Center!
It is hard to believe here in 2020, but New York City was once a mighty manufacturing city for many goods now produced in Asia — apparel, footwear, jewelry and accessories. Also, for food and beverages (local beer manufacturers, sugar processing factories, colas). The Brooklyn Navy Yard produced mighty battleships and repaired aircraft carriers damaged in battle (such as the USS Enterprise).

Manufacturing is still important in Gotham City – but it is far cleaner, safer, more responsible in operations — by many magnitudes. https://nycfuture.org/data/manufacturing-in-nyc-a-snapshot

City of Transportation
New York has a magnificent harbor. The shorelines of Manhattan and Brooklyn boasted of many ocean shipping terminals for both passengers and cargo. Railroads ran along the shoreline. (One abandoned line is now the High Line, an important Manhattan tourist attraction.) The line brought carloads of meat to the west side, and then on to giant cruise ships of yesteryear.

Trucks ran uptown and downtown (my father owned a local trucking company and I would ride along on school breaks). The driver would back a truck up to the dock, load it, run around the city to deliver and pick up, bringing freight to the waiting rail cars along the docks, which would go on large barges over to New Jersey and out to the nation.

All of this activity pouring engine emissions into the air of New York, and with drip-drip-drip from transport machines (oil, gas, fluids) tricking down into the sewers and out to the rivers and out to the ocean.

This was at the height of 20th Century industrial America, the Arsenal of Democracy of World War Two. From east to west coasts and all through the heartland, factories poured out war materiel, and then shifted to peak production of peacetime goods for 1950s and 1960s consumer purchase. Along with Cold War materiel. Guns & Butter.

We were the world’s major manufacturing exporters, then, not China.

But at a cost. And so the rivers burning, smog choking the cities, creeks and bays and inlets and rivers and then oceans polluting.

Earth Day Helped to Change All of This – Looking Back, Quickly It Seems
Senator Nelson was impressed by the 1960s “social revolution” with protest across the country as especially young men and women voiced their opposition to the status quo. “Sit-ins” were staged at universities to protest the draft and the Vietnam War. Marches took place in the south despite the marchers suffering beatings and arrests.

The senator was fascinated with civil rights sit-ins at southern soda fountains and marches by both black and white leaders — including many clergy and public officials. By the early organizing efforts to protect and ensure the rights of females and passage, state-by-state of the ERA – the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to reach the votes to become part of the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution).

According to the Earth Day origin story, Senator Gaylord Nelson was thinking to himself: “If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student ant-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.” And he did!

He set up an “Environmental Teach-in” (like civil rights counter “sit ins”!) to tell the story of the environmental degradation of the country and send a call to action to college campuses and schools. (Hey, let’s do that again today — so many youngsters are at home in the digital classrooms during this virus crisis!)

The result in 1970 was that 20 million people — roughly one-of-10 citizens — participated that first Earth Day (and that would be like 33 million people celebrating Earth Day today, out of our 330 million population!).

The midterm elections of 1970 saw many long-standing members turned out and a new wave of consciousness sweep the country. President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress on January 1, 1970 moved to pass the National Environmental Protection Act – which created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Then came passage of Clean Water Act (1972), Clear Air Act, Endangered Species Act, RCRA (waste), SuperFund (CERCLA-1980), Wilderness Act (1974) and many more federal and state regulations.

The good news is that while Senator Nelson hoped to kick off a movement, he did — and observance of Earth Day took hold – the year 1990 (20 years in) saw the peak participation in the U.S. and by 2000 some 184 countries held formal observances. There’s interesting background at: http://www.nelsonearthday.net/earth-day/

Alas, here in April 2020 we are homebound and not able to march or gather in groups. But we do have our electronic platforms of all kinds – so let’s connect and celebrate Earth Day that way.

We only have one (Earth) to protect and in the spirit of Senator Gaylord Nelson and those early organizers, let’s say we are still here, still with you in spirit, and there is much work still to be done!

Happy Earth Day, Mother Earth!

Shared Perspectives
You might be interested in the environmental movement perspectives here from March/April 2005, my column from the former journal, Corporate Finance Review. Popular Movements: A Challenge for Institutions and Managers” – explaining the emergence of ESG and the Sustainability Movement.

When Sustainability Movement Champion Michael Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City, in April 2007 he delivered a wonderful speech – A Greener, Greater New York – presaging his wonderful work in helping many of the world’s cities make their environments safer and more sustainable. This is what great mayors do!

One of the influential voices following the lead of Senator Nelson in our time is Bill McKibben, a one-time New Yorkers, whose books and extensive writing have helped to influence the more recent sustainability movement. He was interviewed by the Times Union (Albany , New York) newspaper for this year’s celebration. 

You can follow him on Twitter.

Can’t get into the streets today to help celebrate? Earth Institute at Columbia University offers some suggestions on sheltering in place and celebrating