Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

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

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories

As Summer 2020 Nears End in Northern Hemisphere – Quo Vadis, Corporate Sustainability and ESG/Sustainable Investing?

September 14 2020

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

This has been a strange summer in the northern climes, as the corporate sector and capital markets players meet the challenges of the Big Three crises — Corona virus pandemic, economic downturn, and widespread civil protests.

In times of crises (and as we have at least three major crisis situations occurring all at once to deal with this summer) certain actions may take a back seat.  Not so with forward movement of corporate sustainability and ESG/sustainable investing in summer 2020.

We bring you brief updates on some of these trends that continue to shape the interactions of companies and their providers of capital.

First –– worldwide, ESG/sustainable investing index funds reach a record of US$250 billion, with the crises appearing to accelerate investors’ moves into these passive and actively managed investment instruments.

Consider:

  • Before COVID-19, sustainability funds were already experiencing major growth, with assets doubling over the past three years.
  • Actively-managed ESG mutual funds continue to attract the lion’s share of dollars and represent a much larger portion of the sustainable investing landscape. Combined inflows into both active and passive ESG-focused funds reached $71.1 billion during the second quarter — pushing global AUM above the $1 trillion mark for the first time.
  • In the USA, sustainable index funds still make up less than 1% of the market – lots of room for growth here!
  • According to a recent survey conducted by Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing, nearly 95% of Millennials are interested in sustainable investing, while 75% believe that their investment decisions could impact climate change policy.

On the corporate sustainability side, Goldman Sachs shares the view that oil & gas enterprises could lead the way into a lower-carbon economy. Perhaps.  Will take leadership and action – very soon.

The sector’s leading equities players limped in value this summer and there are many challenges still ahead – but, says a Goldman Sachs report, a new European Union rule in 2021 could accelerate the oil & gas companies’ shift into more sustainable activities.  The industry leaders can leverage their brands and trading capabilities to acquire power customers, thinks GS analysts.  And exert leadership.

And the “octopus” that many retailers see encircling their businesses, Amazon, is pushing ahead with The Climate Pledge (founded by Amazon and Global Optimism in September 2019) with an important commitment:  meeting the Paris Agreement goals a decade early!

Info: https://sustainability.aboutamazon.com/about/the-climate-pledge

Mercedes-Benz is the latest signatory to the pledge.  And look at what these moves can mean in practical business terms:  Amazon will add 1,800 electric Mercedes-Benz vans to its delivery fleet in Europe in 2020!  Other big-name corporate signatories include Verizon, Infosys, and Reckitt Benckiser.

Not quite a quiet summer in the corporate sector and capital markets, we would say!

On to Fall now in the Northern climes and a most welcome Spring season in the Southern Hemisphere, 2020 into 2021.

These are the Top Stories picks for you this week – and there are important items in the categories as well.  Happy Welcome to Autumn and Spring, wherever you are from the G&A Institute team.

Top Stories

As “Corporate Citizen” Working In Many Lands – This Can Be Challenging, As Corporate Experiences With China Show…

Another in the series The Corporate Citizen and Society – the Dynamics of the Relationship

Started in Autumn 2019 – drafting interrupted – further edited in June 2020 – and posted in September 2020. 

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

Running a multi-national business today is quite challenging, especially for firms with “footprints” of size in countries beyond the homeland.

Recently we have been watching some critical events…at times crisis situations…that senior executives are navigating. 

Of course, corporate leaders are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic – and civil protests in many cities and towns related to equality issues and objections to current methods of policing. – and the economic dislocations of the virus and more.  

For large multi-nationals with a presence in many different nations – sourcing there, or with local facilities in operation, or with products and services extensively used in the countries, with partnerships established with the public sector or NGOs – the challenge of being a “good corporate citizen” is ever-present. And sometimes can be daunting.

Challenges? Think about those related to continuing “freedom to operate” or “social license” or actual regulatory license to operate that may be placed in jeopardy in some way or another. 

Something done, something said (or published or communicated)…with the foreign governments objecting to that “something”.– and threatening to or taking action to limit the freedom to operate. 

When I began drafting this commentary last fall, tiny bits of news about the Coronavirus was just beginning to be reported out of China, with very sketchy details.  By year end, It was a kind of flu. Nothing to worry about. 

In the news headlines at that time (summer into fall 2019) there were more obvious challenges being presented to non-Chinese tech companies as the Hong Kong people protests continued to build momentum, and the Communist government in the mainland began to put pressure on the corporate sector (perhaps pressuring foreign companies’ media that had China news coverage).

An example of this kind of threat came to us in October 2019 involving Apple — concerning its vital relationship with the “two Chinas” – and with significant production and retail stores on the mainland — the People’s Republic of China being the #2 global market for Apple sales.

Other non-China-based companies have also being feeling the pressures as well.  

Just offshore from mainland China, trouble was quite evident to the world in the former British territory of Hong Kong, which is a kind of status aparte of the mainland. (That is similar to the status of Aruba in the Caribbean Basin to parent country The Netherlands.)  China has maintained a “one country-two systems” approach to Hong Kong. Until now. 

China gained re-sovereignty over the Hong Kong territory in 1997 with the execution of a treaty at the end of the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease. The treaty terms were meant to assure separate governance systems for the more advanced Hong Kong economy and territory’s political system of that era.

Early in October 2019, an Apple device software application – Hkmap.live – developed by an outside firm and sold through the Apple Store, was removed from the on-line store. 

The concerns:  Reuters News and Associated Press reported that the Communist Party’s main newspaper (the People’s Daily) had singled out Apple for criticism for having the third party app for sale (and used on smartphones)  that reportedly enabled Hong Kong protesters to track the local police activity.

The People’s Republic of China’s propaganda arm (the publication) said this was a no-no – that is, Apple making the app available — and Apple removed the app because it “violated the rules,” according to the Reuters/AP report at the time.  (Reason: the app could be used to ambush police and by criminals where police were absent – the Apple rules allow for removal when the app is found to facilitate illegal activity.)

Apple had first rejected HKmap.live — then agreed to make it available — and then as the protest mounted (and mainland China responded), the app came off the App Store.

Was it the People’s Daily targeting of Apple and the app…or what the company said (“…many concerned customers in Hong Kong contacted the company…”).

An MSNBC commentator (Kif Leswing) weighed in, pointing out that Apple also removed a news stream (Quartz) because the content is illegal in China. Quartz was covering the Hong Kong democracy protests.

This is/was not a new issue: Back in 2017 several U.S. Senators presciently charged that Apple was enabling the Chinese government’s draconian moves on censorship and citizen surveillance.  (Which moves, according to news reports of today, involves collecting everyone’s DNA and placing cameras everywhere to track everyone – plus developing a “social profile” for tracking the movements of citizens — and meting out punishment where officials think it is merited.)

We note here that Google also quietly removed Hong Kong protest content from the Android store — without creating Apple-type headlines.

But – for those who had downloaded the app, it continued posting locations of police patrols, so said The Los Angeles Times.

MSNBC noted that Apple more than other tech companies has a very close relationship with China (where 200 million-plus iPhones are made each year) and China is an important market as well with tens of billions in revenue in total from the “three Chinas”.  (For Apple, China is the #2 market for iPhones.)

The third China: the separate nation of the Republic of China, more generally known as Taiwan, and persistently claimed by the mainland as part of its territory. “China” is a complicated subject for many company managements. And then there is Hong Kong and nearby Macao, outposts of China mainland.)

Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a memo to Apple’s 130,000 employees to explain the move. And we can assume try to calm nerves internally.

US Senator Josh Hawley (Missouri) quickly posed the question:  Who is running Apple…Tim Cook or Beijing?

If We Don’t Agree — We Will Name & Share – Beware of the China Leadership

Brands targeted by China’s rulers have been subjected to campaigns (name and shame) to alert local customers of issues with a company or organization.

This could become more of a threat to non-Chinese companies as the government continues to develop the “social profile” of its citizens. And captures their imagines on street cameras. Which company’s products they buy could become a major issue in the western democracies!

Further complicating life for execs — we’ve seen the rise of internal protest inside U.S. tech companies, when employees don’t like the work being done for customers –particularly government agencies, police departments, intelligence agencies, military branches, etc. 

Business-society relationships are complicated. Sports is a big business in the USA. The National Basketball Association is a powerful sports enterprise now with global reach and the ownership universe (the key decision-makers) is made up of corporations and wealthy partnerships that own local sports teams. 

So – when the manager of the Houston Rockets briefly voiced support of the Hong Kong protests — the state TV in China stopped the broadcast of NBA games.  Pow!

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R_Kentucky) quickly weighed in: “The people of Hong Kong have risked much more than money to defend their freedom of expression, human rights and autonomy.  I hope the NBA can learn from that courage and not abandon those values for the sake of their bottom line.” (The NBA apologized for the Twitter comment of the Houston team GM. It’s not comfortable being in the middle of intercontinental cat fight.)

Complicating matters: Majority Leader McConnell’s wife – Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao – is a Chinese-American born in Taiwan. She was Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush (and therefore an overseer of U.S. fiduciary investment policy-making at the DOL, affecting decisions of many large investors.) More complications in public and private sectors, we could say.

The Houston basketball team has been very popular in China and a star player (Yao Ming) played for the team.   The U.A. Senate majority leader is a constant critic of China policies. Complicated matters for companies doing business in and with China!

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also weighed in:  “We’re better than this. Human rights should not be for sale and the NBA should not be assigning Chinese communist censorship.”  Remember, his father fled Communist Cuba to come to the U.S.A.

The aggravated condition of U.S.-China trade relations under the Trump Administration is also complicating things. 

One, Two, Three Chinas – It’s Complicated

We should explain that the “ Two Chinas” policy of the United States government should now be considered as “three,” as the identification has traditionally meant the relationship of [mainland] Communist China and the offshore democracy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the USA.

The Nationalist ROC has governed the island nation since the end of civil war of 1949 when many mainland refugees fled to Taiwan as the Communists came to power.

With China moving aggressively toward Hong Kong independence-of-a-sort, the Trump Administration and members of Congress are talking about possible actions to attempt to ensure some independence of the little territory.  

Another dustup:  Hollywood’s Dreamworks and a China production company (Pearl Studio) collaborated to create an animated feature – “Abominable” (about a young girl meeting the Abominable Snowman or “Yeti”).  The film features Asian-American actor and was quickly a hit on release in America.

The film debuted in Vietnam as well – and was quickly pulled from viewing.  A map of China used in the animation showed the “nine dashes” – a no-no in China’s neighboring countries.

The Nine-Dashes – Complicating Matters in the South China Sea

What are the 9 dashes, you might ask?  (I’m sure that question rapidly went ’round in Dreamworks’ Hollywood offices — what the hell!.)  China attempts to impose its authority over the South China Sea with a series of dashes (not firm lines) to imply control or ownership. 

Which angers neighbors — Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other nations with access to the vital sea lanes.  And those nations are trading partners of the U.S. — and American companies have significant presence in them.

How many people in corporate suites are tuned in to the vagaries or subtleties of China’s diplomacy!   

We recommend that you read Foreign Affairs and China-scholar Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent book on all of this — red warning flags flying! — “Asia’s Cauldron:  The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.”  Published in 2014 – available on Amazon. 

Simply stated –  “China” – it’s  a complicated subject for corporate citizens.

The China – United State of America Relationship

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said that the USA-China relationship with shape the international order for the 21st Century and the countries will have to deal with serious cultural differences (like freedom of expression and the right to protest and the freedom to trade etc.).

We saw that the investors in the USA shrugged off the Apple dustup with China over the Hong Kong protests. The share price was up $6.00 (3%) and moving toward an all-time high as the China-Hong Kong-APPL news stories appeared… this is a US$1 trillion-plus company! (Well, after the coronavirus crash of March 2020, we did have to check again and the price is back up in high $300s.)

Challenge: Being a Good Corporate Citizen When You Are a Guest

For large corporations, in general, worldwide, being a “good corporate citizen” in many lands is always a concern and a challenge as well as a competitive advantage (the brand and reputation and consumer favor as a 21st Century moat) — but things can be very complicated in the execution of citizenship on the ground. 

Complicated Challenge: Some companies operate in literally all but three or four nations of the world, excluding Iran, North Korea and perhaps a few others from their operations and marketing activities.

As we first prepared to finally publish this June 2020, dusting off the earlier Fall 2019 draft, we were in the midst of a global epidemic (COVID-19), and U.S. and global civil protests — with the news coverage all but eliminating the news out of Hong Kong on some days.

But China actions focused on western business organizations are very much in focus today. Recently several large news organizations (corporate-owned, of course, and at the top, corporate board and C-suite managed) saw their in-country journalists booted out of China because the Communist leaders objected to their news coverage.

Journalists employed by The New York Times (owned by The Times Company); The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp); and The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon) were told to leave mainland China and the “regulated territories” of Hong Kong and Macoa.

In September 2020 we learned that Australian journalists had fled China to avoid detention. 

The leaders of the People’s Republic of China, it is said, are angered by coverage of the coronavirus (and the Communist government’s response); coverage of Hong Kong protests; and the reporting of “shadowy business dealings” of the country’s government leadership.

In addition, Time magazine (now owned by Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce) and the Voice of America – AND the expelled media organizations — were instructed to turn over information about their operations to the government minders.

U.S. Retaliation Complicates Corporate Life

This is not happening in a vacuum – in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump designated the five China media organization operating in the USA as government functionaries of China, limiting the number of Chinese citizens who could work in the U.S. as journalists. The five are propaganda tools, the charge goes.  Their activities are being restricted. 

And so here in the USA the tit-for-tat is targeting China’s main news outlets –– Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily, China Radio.

The Trump Administration is also moving to de-list publicly-traded Chinese corporations (traded on American stock exchanges). 

In all of the dustups, as U.S. business leaders are deftly navigating the tricky shoals where the seas of statesmanship meet the rocks of ideology and pose challenges to strategy and business models. 

Some of the challenges in the US-China relationships are about freedoms.  Such as our First Amendment freedoms. There are no China equivalents. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set out four important freedoms for the peoples of all nations during the early days of World War II  — freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. These have long been central to many elements of U.S. and western capitalism — and foreign concepts to the rulers of present-day China. 

American companies have to carefully navigate the differences when they do business in China, with China, and other non-democratic nations. 

An example getting news coverage this week:  The Walt Disney Company, a U.S.-based global entertainment and communications company.  The company has been a  very able and savvy global marketer since the earliest days of Uncle Walt’s cartoon studio in sunny California.  Founder Uncle Walt always innovated and marketed that innovation far and wide. 

Consider that Disney has a $5 billion-plus investment in Shanghai Disneyland Resort (opened 2016) — co-owned by the Communist government — and an older Disney park in Hong Kong.   China is an important market for various activities of the company, including motion pictures.

And so the anxiety we logically could expect in the Disney offices as a new dustup occurred.  The company created “Hulan”, a movie about an important character (female) in China mythology, with a China-born female lead and a female director, and scenes filmed in China for accurate depiction of locations for the story. 

One snippet of the 1 hour/50 minute film — the usual (traditional) roll of credits at the end named a number of governments within China as assisting. Including Xinjiang, rolling by in a long list.  Where other American companies operated.  And where in 2018 as the film was underway, the local government was locking up tens of thousands of Muslims in concentration camps!  And so the September 2020 criticism of The Walt Disney Company — including by two dozen members of the U.S. Congress. 

There’s a thorough, fair and balanced recap of all of this in The New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 2020 (“How a 1 Minute of Scenery in ‘Mulan’ Put Disney in a Bind Over China”).    It’s an important read for you, I think, in the context of U.S.-China relations and for non-China-based companies operating in the country. 

Thinking about “open” communication not being permitted today in China we are reminded of President Thomas Jefferson’s perspective: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” – Thomas Jefferson letter to the Marquis de Lafayette.

So true some two centuries later in our great democracy!

 

Busy Summer 2020 for the World of ESG Players – Rating Agencies, Information Providers, UNGC & the SDGs…and More

August 27 2020

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

It’s been a very busy summer for organizations managing corporate reporting frameworks and standards, for ESG rating agencies, and for multilateral agencies focused on corporate sustainability and responsibility.

If you are a corporate manager — or a sustainable investment professional — do tune in to some of the changes that will affect your work in some ways. Here’s a quick summary:

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services
For four decades, ISS has been the go-to source on governance issues for proxy voting and corporate engagement guidance for major fiduciaries (pension funds are an example).

Two years ago, “E” and “S” ratings were added for investor-clients.

Now, ISS ESG (ISS’s responsible investing unit) is providing “best-in-class fund ratings” that assess the ESG performance of 20,000 firms. Funds will be rated 1-to-5 (bottom is 1) – this to be a broad utility resource for investment professionals. And for corporate managers – ISS ESG scores along with those of other ESG ratings agencies are a factor in whether your company is included in indexes, benchmarks, maybe ETFs and mutual funds that are being rated.

Bloomberg LP
It’s launching E, S & G scores for thousands of firms (highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to a sector).

First sector up is Oil & Gas, with 252 firms rated. Also, there are new Board Composition scores, with Bloomberg assessing how well a board is positioned to respond to certain G issues. (Note that 4,300 companies are being rated – probably including yours if you are a publicly-traded entity.)

And in other news:

UN Global Compact and the SDGs
The UNGC observes its 20th anniversary and in its latest survey of companies, the organization asked about the SDGs and corporate perspectives of the 17 goals and 169 targets. The findings are in the blog post for you.

MSCI
This major ESG ratings agency expanded its model for evaluating company-level alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. New tools will help capital markets players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products.

Global Reporting Initiative
The GRI continues to align its Universal Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that a GRI report becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

GRI Standards were updated and planned revisions include moving Human Rights reporting closer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other inter-governmental instruments.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board
The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is now available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in mainstream documents (like the 10-k). This is similar to what the TCFD is recommending for corporate disclosure.

This is a small part of what has been going on this summer. We have the two top stories about ISS and Bloomberg and a whole lot more for you in the G&A Sustainability Update blog.

For your end-of-summer/get-ready-for-a-busy-fall schedule!

Top Stories

The G&A Blog with many more organizations and their actions here.

Corporate Sustainability Reporting – Frameworks, Standards, Guidance – Summer 2020 Update

Have You Heard? Despite the Global Crises, Corporate ESG/Sustainability Reporting Momentum Continues to Build – Here, Some Updates For You on Focused on Corporate ESG Reporting Frameworks and Standards

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

August 2020 –   This has been a challenging year. In January when I do my usual “crystal-balling” for the new year, the coronavirus was fast-spreading in Wuhan, China, and the world outside had not yet awakened to the serious threat the early infections posed to we humans.

The U.S. equities market looked very promising – but the markets would tank in March and then slowly recover. (As we write this the Nasdaq numbers and S&P 500 Index® levels have investors cheering – look at Nasdaq and the S&P 500!)

Despite the upheavals in 2020, Reporting Standards and Frameworks are continuing to evolve and especially to become more investor-focused

Investors, public companies’ executives, and sustainability reporting Standards and Frameworks organizations are not slowing the pace on advancing ESG / Sustainability / Corporate Purpose / Sustainable Investing et al, and advancing the cause by various means in this Summer 2020.

In the event that you have been busy this spring and summer (haven’t we all!) and perhaps missing something here and there, here are news items & developments for you to illustrate the forward momentum and increasing importance of ESG “etc” matters.

This update is focused on ESG reporting frameworks, standards and ESG disclosure guidance – this is the daily work of the team at G&A Institute.

UN Global Compact Celebrates 20 Years – And Builds on the Progress

It is 20 years now since the founding of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and the organization released its look back/look ahead report, “Uniting Business in the Decade of Action”. Each year the Compact surveys its participants to gauge the progress being made (or not).

This year the survey included a review of progress in complying with the Ten Principles of the Global Compact – and – corporate contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2020 Survey Findings:

  • 30% of companies responding believe they have targets sufficiently ambitious to meet the 2030 goals of the SDGs.
  • Fewer than a third of respondents consider their industry moving fast enough to deliver on prioritized goals.
  • Good news: 84% of UNGC corporate participants are taking some kind of action on SDGs.
  • Not-so-good: only 46% are embedding the goals into their core business.
  • Only 37% are designing business models to “contribute” to the 17 goals.
  • 61% say that their company provides some kind of product/service that contribute(s) to the progress of the SDGs (that level was 48% in 2019).
  • 57% measure their own operations’ impact on the SDGs.
  • 13% extend this to their supply base; and only 10% extend this to raw materials and product use.
  • 29% of companies advocate publicly to encourage action on the SDGs (this is a slide down from over half of companies in 2019).

Many companies focus on Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; and Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; less traction was noted for “socially-focused” goals (reducing inequality, gender equality, peace & justice).

The General Secretary of the United Nations has called on corporations to align their operations and strategies with the Ten Universal Principles of the Global Compact.

We are half-a-decade in now since goals adoption – with only one decade to go (years 2020 to 2030) to achieve the objectives.

More than 10,000 companies and 3,000 non-business entities (“signatories”) are participating in achieving the goals in some way, operating in 160 countries — and so, the UNGC has become the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Has your company signed on to the UNGC? Selected SDGs to build into your core business strategy and models? There is guidance for you in the UNGC report. https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/20th-anniversary-campaign

About the SDGs – MSCI’s New “SDG Net Alignment Factors”

MCSI, one of the major ESG rating firms providing significant research and analysis results to its global investor clients, expanded the model for evaluating company-level alignment to the UN SDGs.

The new tools will help capital market players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products. 

Subscribers to the firm’s Sustainable Impact Metrics now have access to the SDG Net Alignment Factors, which measures revenue exposure to “sustainable impact solutions and support actionable thematic allocations in line with impact frameworks like the UN SDGs.”

This approach will help investors to better understand what a company is doing with respect to the SDGs, what progress the company is making (or not), and related metrics that are being disclosed.

Institutional investor clients can use the information provided in developing sustainable investing products and services.

Corporate managers should be aware that the SDGs are getting more attention now as the last decade is upon us for achieving progress on the 17 goals/169 underlying targets.

MSCI’s Approach

The MSCI approach was developed in collaboration with the OECD and takes a “net impact” perspective to evaluate alignments of companies based on product and operations for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and there are 169 underlying targets for these).

The approach to “help institutional investors:

  • Measure and report on the degree of SDG alignment.
  • Develop SDG-themed investment products.
  • Meet rising demand to channel capital toward addressing the objectives of the Goals.
  • Identify companies better aligned with the SDGs based on a well-rounded framework that looks beyond [corporate] disclosure and considers positive and negative alignment.

Corporate board members and C-suite leaders note: In evaluating your company, MSCI’s approach will include qualitative categories indicating the degree of alignment and scores that assess:

  • Each public company’s overall Net Alignment for each of the 17 SDGs.
  • Product alignment – focusing on products and services with positive and negative impacts.
  • Operational alignment – internal policies of the company, operating practices to address SDGs targets, involvement in controversial activities.

The new SDG Net Alignment Framework is built on the MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics; these include:

  • New Sustainable Agriculture and Connectivity categories to provide additional areas where products and services align with the SDGs.
  • Expanded Fixed-Income coverage to align the MSCI ESG Ratings corporate coverage universe, bringing impact coverage to 10,000+ equity and fixed-income issuers.
  • Introduction of more granular “E” impact revenue sub-categories to enable a flexible application of MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics to a broad range of impact and sustainability frameworks.

The new service for MSCI clients began in August.

Note the OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and part of its mission is to establish evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges.

GRI – The Choice of Many Corporate Reporters for Guidance

The Global Reporting Initiative has its roots in the United States, with foundational elements put in place by (in that day) socially responsible investors, a few companies, and some NGOs.

In 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil in the waters over several days. In response, in Boston, Trillium Asset Management under the direction of Joan Bavaria worked to create a new organization — the “Coalition for Environmentally Responsible EconomieS” (now, known simply as Ceres) and created the Valdez Principles for companies to sign (to pledge to be more environmentally-responsible).

These became the Ceres Principles and over time contributed to the creation of the GRI and its first framework (“G1”).

The framework was continually evolving, becoming G3 and G4 and what would be G5 (Generation 5) are now the GRI Standards, a powerful guide for public companies to use to examine and decide on “what” to disclose against the Standards.

Companies can choose to report against “Core” or “Comprehensive” levels.

GRI has also aligned the Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that publishing a “GRI Report” becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

Note: G&A Institute is the designated Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In this role, we gather and analyze every report published in these countries and provide the analysis to GRI for inclusion in its comprehensive, global report database.

This is the largest collection of corporate sustainability reports going back to the first issued using “G1” in 1999-2000.

What’s happening now:

In June GRI announced an update to the “Universal Standards”. These are planned revisions such as address concerns in Human Rights reporting to move GRI Standards “closer” to inter-governmental instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Materiality” will be “re-focused” so that companies will report the importance of issues to stakeholders – rather than the customary approach of disclosing the results of a materiality assessment with focus on the company’s view of issues (regarding the economy, environmental matters, and people or human assets).

This will mean much more engagement with stakeholders to determine their perspectives to guide disclosures using the Universal Standards.

In the past, part of the guidance from the GRI was focused on “sectors”. Now, the organization is reviving Sector Guidance, which will support the Universal Standards. The sector guidance will link where possible with other frameworks and initiatives.

These steps are in the “disclosure draft” stage, with GRI gathering input to move to final adoption in 2021. GRI is inviting organizations – including companies – to be part of a “Global Standards Fund” to “safeguard and increase GRI’s to deliver the leading sustainability standards that encourage organizations to embrace responsible business practices.” It hopes to raise 8 million euros by 2022.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board – Guidance Issued

The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in their “mainstream” reports. (That is, “the annual reporting packages required to audited financial results under the corporate compliance or securities laws of the country in which they operate.”)

Think of the 10-k in the United States or annual report in the United Kingdom, and similarly required filings.

The guidance is similar to that of the TCFD  recommendations – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (organized by the Financial Stability Board, an arm of the G-20 nations, with the Task Force headed by Michael Bloomberg).

Important note: CDP advises that connecting CDP data with the CDSB Framework will help companies to successfully fulfill the TCFD recommendations.

The CDSB has been working on the Standards since 2007, and over time reflected on such developments as the 2015 Paris Agreement (or Accord) on climate risk.

In discussions with company managers and in our monitoring of corporate disclosure as the GRI data partner in the U.S.A., we see a wide range of opinions on just what “integrated reporting” should look like.

For some companies (not to be cute here) it boils down to have a 10-k and ESG report at the same time, often combined. Side-by-side, stapled in effect for a printed report.

Other firms may put financial/economic information up top and then build out a sustainability report with volumes of ESG data. We don’t see a lot of tieing the implications of that data to financial results, with top and bottom line impacts clearly spelled out.

Bloomberg – Launching E, S & G Scores – Oil & Gas Sector First Up, Along With Board Composition Scores for Thousands of Firms

This month Bloomberg announced it was launching new, proprietary ESG scores for 252 companies in the Oil & Gas Sector – and Board Composition scores for more than 4,300 companies. The scores are available in the professional services terminals service.

For the “E” and “S” scores of the companies in the Oil & Gas Sector, Bloomberg is highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to the sector.

For the Board Composition scoring, Bloomberg says it is assisting investors with information to assess how well a board is positioned to provide diverse perspectives, supervision of management, and assess potential risks in the current board structure.

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services – New Data Points For Investors

The long-time governance ratings and proxy guidance organizations were originally focused on “G” – governance practices – and expanded its work into “E” and “S” scoring and evaluations two years ago. (The “G” work goes back four decades.)

Now, “ISS ESG” (the responsible investment arm) is providing “best in class” fund ratings that assess the ESG performance of 20,000-plus firms around the world.

The new ratings will draw on ISS’s ESG ratings, governance data, norm-based research, energy and extractives’ screens, SDG impact ratings, carbon emissions analysis, shareholder voting outcomes, and more…resulting in a composite, holistic picture of a fund’s ESG performance.

Funds will be rated on a relative scale of “1” (bottom” to “5”, based on the fund’s standing within the Lipper Global Benchmark class.

The service is intended to have broad utility for investment professionals, such as fund managers and investment advisors.

This is still one more layer to add to the complexity of the capital markets competition for public companies.

G&A Institute Perspectives:
Inside the publicly-traded company, there may be a lively discussion going on among participants as the sustainability disclosures are prepared – for example, legal teams may frown certain ESG data revelations at times.

“Who is asking for this” may be a determinant in “what” gets disclosed. Lots of negotiations go on, we can tell you. 

But every year, more and more ESG data sets and narratives are published and corporate leaders in sustainability reporting set the pace for industry and sector.

The various reporting frameworks, guidance, standards that are available to corporate managers are a positive – here, including the framework (guidance) presented by the Standards of the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board. Information: https://www.cdsb.net/

G&A Institute closely monitors the corporate sustainability reporting arena and will share with you more updates as we see the need.  

Lots going on in Summer 2020 — be in touch with us if you have questions about any of this!  We’d like to be your sherpas and guides and navigators on the corporate sustainability journey!

Who Do the Editors of Harvard Business Review Rank Among the World’s Top 100 Performing CEOs?

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

If you are a regular reader of these commentaries you will know that there are frequent references to the Harvard Business Review, the Harvard B-School, and prominent Harvard-affiliated voices.

The “HBR”, packed with management best practices content, is well-read by U.S. and global corporate leaders (circulation was beyond 300,000 [paid subscribers] in 2018 with more than 7 million unique visitors accessing content each month).

The magazine publishes an annual list of “The World’s Top Chief Executives”. The rankings, HBR editors explain, relies on objective performance measures over the CEO’s entire tenure, and are not rankings relying on short-term metrics or subjective evaluations.

Important:  Since 2015 the rank is based not only on financial performance but also on the CEO’s companies’ ESG ratings.

Weighted ESG scores has accounted for 20% of each of the CEO’s ranking – and for 2019 rankings, this was increased to 30%.

As a result, Jeff Bezos of Amazon — the top CEO in the rankings since 2014 – was dropped in 2019 rankings because of the company’s low ESG scores.

ESG – Sustainability…matters!

The ESG data providers assisting the Harvard Business Review staff with rankings are Sustainalytics, now owned by Morningstar, and CSRHub.

Keep in mind well-regarded ESG / sustainability academics are part of the HBR ecosystem: George Serafeim, Robert Eccles, John Elkington, Andrew Winston, and others.

The 2019 rankings were:

#1 position, Jensen Huang of NVIDIA (classified as an IT firm, U.S.A. headquartered.
#2 – Marc Benioff, Salesforce, IT, U.S.A.
#3 – Francois-Henry Pinault, Kering, Consumer Goods, France.
#4 – Richard Templeton, Texas Instruments, IT, U.S.A.
#5 – Ignacio Galan, Iberdrola, Utilities, Spain

The story and 2019 list are available here: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-ceo-100-2019-edition

These days we’re watching for the HBR Top 100 CEO list for 2020 – Stay Tuned!

So Where Is The Corporate Sustainability Journey a Half-Year Into the Dramatic Impacts of the Coronavirus?

August 19, 2020 — in the midst of a strange summer for all of us

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

The questions may be going around in your universe and the answers offered up, say, inside the corporate enterprise as the senior executives and function, business unit and other managers meet the challenges posed by the virus pandemic, related economic disruption and civil protests on a number of topics.  This is about Quo Vadis, Our Sustainability Journey!

The Conference Board is a century-old, well-regarded business organization founded by corporate CEOs who were focused on “knowledge-sharing” at the beginnings of modern corporate management theories.

Today, 1,200 companies are involved as member organizations, typically with varying managers’ participation in sections devoted to specific topics and issue areas. These include Economy, Strategy & Finance; ESG (including Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Governance); Human Capital Management (including Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) …and other focus areas that fit the functional needs of today’s companies.

At G&A Institute we closely follow the extensive research and insights regularly shared by the Board as part of its foundational mission – sharing knowledge. This week The Conference Board issued its survey results for the question(s) asked of corporate connections: “What impact, if any, do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on your company’s overall sustainability program?”

If we asked our corporate colleagues that question, we could expect the answers to be all over the place. The Board did ask, and the answers were “sharply divided”, staff reported.

The Conference Board conducted two different surveys — one at more than 200 companies, focused on generating responses from general counsel, corporate secretaries and investor relations execs; the other queries, at 40 companies with questions asked of dedicated sustainability executives.

Top line: Three-in-ten sustainability execs expect the current health crisis to increase emphasis on their “E” and “S” efforts – while only one-in-ten of their fellow governance execs agree with that premise.

Example: responding to whether or not COVID-19 “put general sustainability efforts on temporary hold,” only 7% of sustainability executives said yes, while 19% of legal, governance and IR folks felt that way.

The short survey results are available for you in a Top Story.

Says The Conference Board staff: “This divergence of opinions reveals companies need to reach an internal consensus on the crisis’ impact on their sustainability programs and be prepared to communicate [it] in a cohesive and consistent manner.”  Good advice!

Inside the corporate structure, people may have differing views on what is “sustainability,” what their own company’s sustainability programs are about, (Strategy? Actions? Engagements? Achievements? Third-Party Recognitions?) And senior execs may have different opinions about the real impact of the virus on the company’s operations — not all impacts are yet fully understood as the pandemic roars on around the world.

But there are positives being reported. For example, we are seeing reports every day now of increased productivity at some companies because people are at home and not wasting hours commuting.  Emails are being answered early in the morning and way after dark — increasing the firm’s communication and productivity.

What is the outside view of this, beyond the corporate sector?

While inside the corporate enterprise there may be differences of opinion on the direction of the sustainability journey, here’s some important “outside” news from Sam Meredith at CNBC: “Sustainable investment funds just surpassed US$1 trillion for the first time.”

He cited recent UBS research that the global public sector has been stepping up support for green projects. And, he cited a Morningstar report that spelled out factors contributing to the record 2Q inflows to ESG mutual funds.  Investors are putting their money where their “sustainability beliefs” may be, we could say.

Adding some intelligence to the results of our reading of The Conference Board survey results, Morningstar says: “…the disruption caused by the virus highlighted the importance of building sustainable and resilient business models based on multi-stakeholder considerations…”

Of course, there are no easy answers “inside” to harmonize the views of the executives responding to surveys about their company’s sustainability efforts.  But we can offer some advice.  Looking at the almost 2,000 corporate sustainability et al reports our team analyzed over the past year, we are seeing the formulas for success in the corporate sustainability journey.

People at the top (board room and C-suite) are the champions of the corporate sustainability efforts.  Strategy is set at the top and communicated effectively throughout the organization.  (“Strategem” is the root of the work — in ancient Greece, this was the work of the generals.  The leaders inside the company must lead the sustainability journey!)

Goals are to be set (carbon emissions reduction, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of waste to landfill, water usage and water discharge, and much more); progress is regularly measured and managed. And disclosed.

Serious attention is paid to the firm’s diversity & inclusion efforts and results; effective human capital management (HCM) is a priority at all levels, and in all geographies.

Meaningful engagements — internally and with external parties — are top priorities at multiple levels. Supply chain and sourcing efforts are monitored and bad actors and bad practices are eliminated, with management understanding that the firms in their supply network are part of their ESG footprint.

And the periodic public reporting on all of the above and more is based on the materiality of data and information — the stuff the investors want to know more about for their analysis and portfolio management.

Senior leadership understands that corporate sustainability is not about just “feeling good” but an important element of playing to win in the competition for capital and achieving industry leadership and being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.  As Morningstar advises, sustainability is part of the business model.

So in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the resulting economic and financial dislocations, the caring for the firm’s valuable human assets..quo vadis for your corporate sustainability journey?

Interesting conversations going on, for sure.  Read the survey results from The Conference Board survey and see what you agree/disagree.  Thanks to our colleagues at the board for all the management knowledge that they share.

Top Stories

Publicly-traded Companies Have Many More Eyes Focused on Their ESG Performance – And Tracking, Measuring, Evaluating, ESG-Linked-Advice to Investors Is Becoming Ever-More Complex

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

Some recent developments for consideration by the boards and C-Suite of publicly-traded companies as established ESG ratings agencies up their game and new disclosure / reporting and frameworks come into play.

The “Global Carbon Accounting Standard” will debut in Fall 2020. Is your company ready? Some details for you…

Financial Institutions – Accounting for Corporate Carbon

The Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF) was organized to help financial institutions assess and then disclose the Greenhouse Gas emissions (GhGs) of their loans and investments to help the institutions identify and manage the risks and opportunities related to GhGs in their business activities.

Think: Now, the companies in lending or investment portfolios should expect to have their carbon emissions tracked and measured by those institutions that lend the company money or put debt or equity issues in their investment portfolios.

The financial sector kimono will be further opened. This could over time lead to a company lagging in ESG performance being treated differently by its institutional partners, whether the company in focus discloses their GhG emissions or not.

For companies (borrowers, capital recipients), this is another wake-up call – to get focused on GhG performance and be more transparent about it.

This effort is described as the to be the “first global standard driving financial institutions to measure and track the climate impact of their lending and investment portfolios.”

As of August 3, 2020, there are 70 financial institutions with AUM of US$10 trillion collaborating, with 16 banks and investors developing the standard…to be a common set of carbon accounting methods to assess and track the corporate emissions that are financed by the institutions’ loans and investments.

Significant news: Morgan Stanley, Bank of America (owners of Merrill Lynch) and Citi Group are all now members of the partnership and Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are part of the PCAF Core Team developing the Standard.

The institutional members of the Core Team leading the work of developing the PCAF Standard are: ABN AMRO, Access Bank, Amalgamated Bank, Banco Pichincha, Bank of America, Boston Common Asset Management, Credit Cooperatif, FirstRand Ltd, FMO, KCB, LandsBankinn, Morgan Stanley, Producanco, ROBECO, Tridos Bank, and Vision Banco.

The work of the PCAF will feed into the work of such climate initiatives as the CDP, TCFD, and SBTi (Science-based Target Initiative).

The work in developing the “Standard” includes an open comment period ending September 30, 2020. The final version of the Standard will be published in November.

Morgan Stanley, in its announcement of participation, explained: MS is taking a critical step by committing to measure and disclose its financial emissions…and those in its lending and investment portfolio. As other institutions will be taking similar steps.

(Morgan Stanley became a bank during the 2008 financial crisis and therefore received federal financial aid designed for regulated banking institutions.)

Tjeerd Krumpelman of ABN AMRO (member of the Steering Committee) explains: “The Standard provides the means to close a critical gap in the measurement of emissions financed by the financial industry. The disclosure of absolute financed emissions equips stakeholders with a metric for understanding the climate impact of loans and investment…”

Bloomberg Announces Launch of ESG Scores

Bloomberg LP has launched proprietary ESG scores – 252 companies are initially scored in the Oil & Gas Sector and Board Composition scores have been applied for 4,300 companies in multiple industries.

This approach is designed to help investors “decode” raw data for comparisons across companies; Bloomberg now presents both (raw data and scores) for investors.

This offers “a valuable and normalized benchmark that will easily highlight [corporate] ESG performance, explains Patricia Torres, Global Head of Bloomberg Sustainable Finance Solutions.

There is usually stronger data disclosure for the Oil & Gas Sector companies, says Bloomberg (the sector companies account for more than half of carbon dioxide emissions, generating 15% of global energy-related Greenhouse Gas emissions).

Governance scoring starts with Board Composition scores, to enable investors to assess board make up and rank relative performance across four key areas – diversity, tenure, overboarding and independence.

Bloomberg describes the “E, S” scores as a data-driven measure of corporate E and S (environmental and social) performance across financially-material, business-relevant and industry-specific key issues.

Think of climate change, and health and safety, and Bloomberg and investor clients assessing company activities in these against industry peers.

This is a quant modelling and investors can examine the scoring methodology and company-disclosed (or reported) data that underly each of the scores.

Also, Bloomberg provides “data-driven insights” to help investors integrate ESG in the investment process. This includes third party data, access to news and research content, and analytics and research workflows built around ESG.

Sustainalytics (a Morningstar company) Explains Corporate ESG Scoring Approach

The company explains its ESG Risk Rating in a new document (FAQs for companies). The company’s Risk Ratings (introduced in September 2018) are presented at the security and portfolio levels for equity and fixed-income investments.

These are based on a two-dimension materiality framework measuring a company’s exposure to industry-specific material ESG risks…and how well the company is managing its ESG risks.

Companies can be placed in five risk categories (from Neglible to Severe) that are comparable across sectors. Scores are then assigned (ranging from 9-to-9.99 for negligible risk up to 40 points or higher for severe risk of material financial impacts driven by ESG factors).

The company explains: A “material ESG issue” (the MEI) is the core building block of Sustainalytics’ ESG Risk Rating – the issue that is determined by the Sustainalytics Risk Rating research team to be material can have significant effect on the enterprise value of a company within an sub-industry.

Sustainalytics’ view is that the presence or absence of an MEI in a company’s financial reporting is likely to influence the decisions made by a reasonable investor.

And so Sustainalytics defines “Exposure to ESG Risk” and “Management of ESG Risk” and applies scores and opinions. “Unmanaged Risk” has three scoring components for each MEI – Exposure, Management, Unmanaged Risk.

There is much more explained by Sustainalytics here: https://connect.sustainalytics.com/hubfs/SFS/Sustainalytics%20ESG%20Risk%20Rating%20-%20FAQs%20for%20Corporations.pdf?utm_campaign=SFS%20-%20Public%20ESG%20Risk%20Ratings%20&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93204652&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–uiIU8kSu6y0FMeuauFTVhiQZVbDZbLz18ldti4X-2I0xC95n8byedKMQDd0pZs7nCFFEvL172Iqvpx7P5X7s5NanOAF02tFYHF4w94fAFNyOmOgc&utm_content=93203943&utm_source=hs_email

G&A Institute Perspectives: Long established ESG raters and information providers (think, MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Bloomberg, Refinitiv, formerly Thomson Reuters) are enhancing their proprietary methods of tracking, evaluating, and disclosing ESG performance, and/or assigning ratings and opinions to an ever-wider universe of publicly-traded companies.

Meaning that companies already on the sustainability journey and fully disclosing on same must keep upping their game to stay at least in the middle of the pack (of industry and investing peers) and strive harder to stay in leadership positions.

Many more eyes are on the corporate ESG performance and outcomes. And for those companies not yet on the sustainability journey, or not fully disclosing and reporting on their ESG strategies, actions, programs, outcomes…the mountain just got taller and more steep.

Factors:  The universe of ESG information providers, ratings agencies, creators of ESG indexes, credit risk evaluators, is getting larger and more complex every day. Do Stay Tuned!


America’s Tech Giants Address Climate Change, Global Warming With Bold Initiatives in 2020

August 12 2020

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

It’s global warming, you say?  Well, we have to say that it certainly is a hot summer in many parts of the world (north of the Equator) and the U.S. National Hurricane Center has a large list of names for the storms to come.

That’s Arthur and Bertha on to Vicky and Wilfred – 21 named storms so far, with “Isaias” whipping through as tropical storm and causing hundreds of thousands of homes and business to lose power this past week in the NY region. And it was not even a full hurricane in the U.S. Northeast!

And during this week, many communities in the American Midwest lost electric power. Not be provincial here – in the Eastern North Pacific there are storms to come named Amanda and Boris on to Yoland and Zeke.

For the Central Pacific? – Akoni and Ema, and Ulana and Wale are possibly coming your way.  So, can we say this is an effect of global warming or not?  Let’s say…yes, with a number of contributing factors.

Like steadily-rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Think of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O-or-NOX), ozone, and a host of chlorofluorocarbon gasses steadily drifting upwards into the atmosphere and over time, changing weather patterns to create more super storms. Think: tornadoes, floods, more torrential rain coming down (hello, Houston and New Orleans!)

In the U.S.A. major companies have been steadily addressing their carbon emissions and putting in place important programs to reduce emissions, such as by adding renewable energy sources, and taking small and larger steps to conserve electric power use, and more.

But if you are a company using a lot of power…and constantly adding power…there are ever more challenges to address.

That’s the case as the world continues to move online for many activities in business, education, healthcare, investing, shopping, and more.  And coming online — we are seeing more AI, robotics, approaches to develop self-driving vehicles, machine-to-machine learning, more and more communication…5G systems…all coming our way.  All needing more power generated.

Over the past few days some of the major U.S.-headquartered, powerhouse tech firms have been announcing their plans to address GHG emissions…and in the process the companies have or are putting significant strategies and initiatives in place to protect the planet and do their part of address climate change.

Eight companies launched the Transform to Net Zero coalition, to accelerate action toward a net zero carbon economy. (The firms are A.P. Moeller-Maersk, Danone, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Natura & Co, Nike, Starbucks, Unilever, Wipro, along with the Environmental Defense Fund.)

The examples for you this week in our Top Story choices are familiar names in the U.S. corporate sector: Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet/Google.  Read on!

Top Stories

Progress on our goal to be carbon negative by 2030
(Source: Microsoft)
By year 2030, MSFT intends to be carbon negative and by 2050, will remove from the environment more carbon than the company ever emitted since its founding.  The company launched a new environmental sustainability initiative in January 2020 focused on carbon, water, waste and biodiversity.

Microsoft commits to achieve ‘zero waste’ goals by 2030
(Source: Microsoft)
By the year 2030, Microsoft will divert at least 90% of the solid waste headed to landfills and incineration from its campuses and datacenters, manufacture 100% recyclable Surface devices, use 100% recyclable packaging, and achieve 75% diversion of construction and demolition waste for all projects.

Facebook to buy 170MW of windpower in landmark renewables deal 
(Source: Power Engineering International)

Renewable energy developer Apex Clean Energy has announced a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Facebook for approximately 170MW of renewable power from its Lincoln Land Wind project in the US state of Illinois, making the social media giant Apex’s largest corporate customer by megawatt.

Apple commits to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030 
(Source: Apple)

Already carbon neutral today for corporate emissions worldwide, Apple plans to bring its entire carbon footprint to net zero 20 years sooner than IPCC targets. That “footprint” includes the company’s supply chain and products… every device sold! (Apple is already carbon neutral for its global corporate operations.)

Alphabet issues sustainability bonds to support environmental and social initiatives
(Source: Google)

As part of a $10 billion debt offering, Alphabet has issued US$5.75 billion in sustainability bonds — the largest sustainability or green bond by any company in history. During the past three years Google has matched the company’s entire electricity consumption with renewables…and has been carbon neutral since 2007.

Corporate ESG Stakeholders – Materiality Matters – Quality Over Quantity to Have Compelling Reporting

August 10 2020

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

Will ESG/Sustainability be more or less in the forefront as economies attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?  Survey results vary, but a common theme is that materiality and quality of a company’s strategic sustainability focus and reporting will be expected.

Sustainability in Economic Recovery
A recent survey of publicly listed U.S. company executives by the Conference Board™ suggests that well over half (59%) believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have little or no negative impact on growing interest in company sustainability programs overall, while a majority within these results believe the pandemic may shift the focus of sustainability, e.g. more to people, supply chain, etc.

A survey of recent company announcements related to sustainability formed the basis for the article, Is sustainability undergoing a pandemic pause?  by Joel Makower, CEO of GreenBiz. He concludes that, “Unlike previous economic downturns, sustainability isn’t being jettisoned in the spirit of corporate cost-savings. It’s being kept alive as part of a pathway back to profitability.”

These are challenging but exciting times, and there is every reason to believe that ESG/sustainability can and will be in the forefront as companies, communities and countries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Materiality Matters
That said, heightened emphasis on materiality in sustainability reporting has gained traction, in response to perceived “greenwashing” by companies in sustainability communications.  The trap of greenwashing has been prevalent enough to frustrate many third-party stakeholders and gain attention across the field.

Most major voluntary frameworks for corporate sustainability reporting guidance now separately and collectively encourage companies to pay attention to the materiality of reported content. This includes GRI, SASB, IIRC, TCFD, CDP and others.

The Chartered Financial Association (CFA), the Big Four accounting houses, law firms and others are also stepping-up the pressure on corporations to bring sustainability reporting to a next level of materiality focus and quality.

Governance & Accountability Institute succinctly captures the breadth of concern,

“Materiality is an important cornerstone of an effective corporate sustainability process…Without an effective materiality process (and mapping) companies can waste time, effort, human resources and financial investment on issues that will provide little or no benefit in sustainability and responsibility reporting — or may even serve to further cloud and confuse the company’s stakeholders and shareholders…Companies committed to position themselves as recognized leaders in sustainability require the materiality determination process to be thorough, accurate, and effective to implement their Sustainability program.”

Compelling Reporting
Less-is-more… your company sustainability report need not be lengthy!  It needs to focus the reader on, where and how your particular company can effectively prioritize its sustainability efforts.

Those who read a lot of sustainability reports can quickly distinguish between sustainability platitudes and substantive content. The former can be perceived as a possible sign that the reporting company has not truly integrated sustainability into its business.”

As John Friedman writes in his newly-released book, Managing Sustainability, First Steps to First Class,

“For this reason, it is important, always, to adopt and use the language of business rather than advocacy or philanthropy when integrating sustainability into any business…too often sustainability professionals speak in terms of “doing well by doing good’ and the “Sustainable Development Goals” rather than the more compelling arguments that link sustainability programs to the established (and more familiar) business imperatives such as “improving business processes,” “implementing best practices,” and “return on investment.”

 A recent joint report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness report on ESG Reporting Best Practices, makes other relevant observations including:

“… materiality determination may differ based on the diverse characteristics of different companies…”

“… while the word “materiality” is used by some constituencies to connote different meanings, the term has a well-established definition under the U.S. federal securities laws”

 “Issuers preparing ESG reports should explain why they selected the metrics and topics they ultimately disclose, including why management believes those metrics and topics are important to the company.”

 “Disclosure should not be a tool for advancing interests that are not aligned with the company’s ability to create value over time”

 Company leadership may find that…

  • renewed attention to materiality can help streamline internal efforts and strengthen the basis of information that Company corporate communications and spokespersons rely on.
  • having a clear materiality basis enables your communications team to clearly indicate ‘n/a’ or ‘not material’ in some fashion, where applicable, as opposed to not responding or to staying silent within external sustainability reporting and questionnaire responses (obviously seek legal counsel as warranted).
  • having a clear ESG materiality basis can help avoid frustration, confusion, and misunderstanding in external communications – and, yes, minimize guessing or interpolation by third party stakeholders.
  • Renewed attention to materiality helps everyone focus on the substance of your company’s sustainability efforts, strategic positioning and reporting.

Ensuring the company’s sustainability and survival and contributing to the economic recovery post-pandemic are too important to waste time or money communicating trivial metrics.

Final Word
Sustainability is more important now than ever, as we urgently work together to lift our companies, economies and stakeholders up in the wake of the devastating pandemic.

This urgency will require every company to play to its strengths, stretch where appropriate and produce compelling sustainability reports (website and other collateral communications too).  It will require strength of conviction that materiality matters – courage to clearly communicate when particular large or small performance elements of sustainability framework guidelines do not apply to your company and are simply not material for a framework response or third-party consideration.

Pamela Styles – Fellow G&A Institute – is principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC, a strategic consultancy with dual Investor Relations and ESG / Sustainability specialties.