Focus on European Green Deal & “Fit for 55” Approaches – Impacts Will Be Far Beyond the European Continent

August 2021

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

The European Union is a collaborative effort of 27 sovereign nations on the continent organized to marshal the resources and collective capabilities of these member states to address economic, military, trade, travel, and other important issues.

The EU grew out of early post-WWII efforts to create a “common market” on the continent and to encourage closer peacetime relations among the disparate nations and cultures of western Europe.

The initial focus on economic issues has considerably broadened in recent years and ESG issues including climate change, GHG emissions, and carbon credits are very much in focus for the EU and its members in 2021.

The European Commission is the EU’s executive arm that addresses long-term strategies, sets the priorities agenda, and implements rules, policy changes, directives, and other measures.

They set six important priorities for the period 2019-2024:

(1) the European Green Deal, a set of climate action initiatives;

(2) a Europe “fit” for the digital age;

(3) an economy that works for people;

(4) a stronger Europe in the world;

(5) protecting the European way of life; and

(6) a new push for European democracy.

The challenges of climate change run throughout the six priorities but are addressed in the greatest detail in the European Green Deal.

The European Green Deal is an ambitious package of measures designed to address climate change and environmental degradation, which the European Commission has identified as existential threats to Europe and the world. Consider these ambitious goals:

  • No net emissions of GHG by 2050, to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent.
  • Economic growth to be decoupled from resource use.
  • No person/place left behind.
  • 8 trillion Euros to be invested in the NextGeneration EU Recovery Plan.

In July, the European Commission adopted proposals to reduce net GHG emissions by 55% or more by 2030, compared to 1990s levels.

This is the “Fit for 55” package that includes policies on climate, energy, transport, and taxation that could affect many business enterprises as well as sovereign governments within Europe and around the globe.

It would be wise for all of us to consider the impact of these initiatives beyond Europe – in just one example, in 2023 all importers to the EU will have to submit declarations annually on the carbon emissions attributable to their imported goods, and after 2026 importers will need to surrender certificates for those emissions.

There are many more details to consider, and our Top Stories for you this week (as well as many of our content silos in the Highlights) provide important details about what is happening as the European Green Deal policy concepts move forward.

If you have questions, the G&A team is available via email at info@ga-institute.com. We’re closely following ESG/sustainability topics and issues in Europe and around the world and advising our clients on developments that could affect their organizations in the short- and long-term.

TOP STORIES

EU’s “Fit for 55” Climate Policy

The EU Has Led on Adopting Corporate ESG Disclosure Rules – The U.S. May Catch Up Soon

July 2021

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

For many years, the European Union moved ahead of the U.S.in developing laws, regulations and rules to address the challenges of climate change and require the expansion of corporate programs and still voluntary related reporting by corporations for their ESG issues.

In the U.S., the major regulatory bodies — Securities & Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve System and its regional banks, the Treasury Department and other cabinet level and independent agencies avoided mandating disclosure rules for publicly-traded corporations (for many social/S and environmental/E issues).

That is changing more recently with new leadership at the SEC, the Fed, Treasury, and other agencies as the Biden-Harris Administration continues to move forward with a “Whole of Government” approach to meeting climate change crisis challenges. (This is outlined in a May 2021 Executive Order.)

The U.S. could quickly catch up to the EU and even pass Europe with rigorous national corporate ESG reporting requirements – maybe in 2021 or 2022.

The EU is not sitting still, though. In 2014 there was an Accounting Directive developed at the confederation level and adopted in each of the (then 28) member countries to require large companies to disclose the way they operate and manage social and environmental challenges (this is the “Non-Financial Reporting Directive” or NFRD). Social topics include treatment of employees, respect for human rights, anti-corruption, bribery, and diversity on boards.

This directive was amended in June 2019 with supplements/guidelines for companies to report on climate-related information – applying to listed companies, banks, insurance companies and other entities “designated by national authorities as public-interest entities”); this covers about 11,700 large companies and groups across Europe.

In April 2021, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) to amend the existing requirements that would extend NFRD to cover all large companies and all companies listed on regulated markets.

The proposed new standards, targeted for adoption by 2022, will require an audit (assurance) of reported information, which would have to be tagged and machine readable to feed into the “capital markets union action plan.” In addition, more requirements will be added to the NFRD rules, which would lead to adoption of European-wide (EU) sustainability reporting standards.

Consider the dramatic impact the actions of the European Union and the United States could have in their respective territories and across other regions:

  • The EU consists of 27 independent sovereign states located on the continent, with collective population of 448 million souls (2020) and combined GDP of US$16.6 trillion (about 1/6th of the global economy).
  • The U.S. has population of 331 million and GDP of US$21 trillion (almost 20% of global economy).
  • The U.S. has almost 6,000 publicly-traded companies in 50 states, according to The Global Economy.com. The average for the EU in 2020 (based on 18 countries examined) was 347 companies per country (where data were available). The largest number of companies listed on a stock exchange in the EU is Spain with 2,711 entities.

We bring you more news from Europe as the “ESG movers and shakers” move ahead with still more dramatic moves to address ESG topics and issues.

And we are watching dramatic moves by the Federal government of the U.S. as well as those actions of the states, cities, and municipalities to address climate change challenges and create greater transparency of involved entities across the corporate, public, and social sectors.

Bringing Your Attention To:

Webinar: BI Analyst Briefing: Global ESG 2021 Mid-Year Outlook
ESG’s momentum continues in 2021 as renewed policy support and increased shareholder engagement propels growth. While climate remains in focus, new risks like cybersecurity emerge. As the ESG asset class grows and regulators increase scrutiny, greenwashing concerns remain in focus. Join Bloomberg Intelligence Analysts on July 21st for a Mid-Year Outlook on Global ESG.  Register here 

TOP STORIES

EU unveils ‘gold standard’ sustainable finance strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions (Source: CDSB)

New European sustainable finance strategy gives hints on mainstreaming sustainable finance through global standards and frameworks (Source: CDSB)

GRI welcomes role as ‘co-constructor’ of new EU sustainability reporting standards (Source: GRI)

Attention Finance Officers – The Sustainability Journey & The Company’s Bottom Line

Original:  September 2021

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

When corporate managers talk about their company’s ESG and sustainability efforts it is most often now in the context of “telling the story of our corporate sustainability journey.”

The hallmarks of this journey are typically about the continuous improvement in the enterprise’s ESG performance indicators and ever-increasing and more robust disclosures to inform investors and other stakeholders that this (is indeed!) a most sustainable company..

G&A Institute began tracking the ever-expanding reporting of sustainability journeys by mainly publicly-traded companies in the S&P 500 Index in 2011, when we determined that about 20 percent of those firms published a formal sustainability or corporate responsibility report.

That percentage grew quickly to 50% and on to 70% and to the current 90% of the 500 companies over a decade. As we analyzed the data and narrative that was being shared, it became clear that the corporate financials were an increasingly important element of the company’s ESG story.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is talking about that now; the WEF posits that there is growing evidence that strong ESG credentials can improve the corporate bottom line, improve access to capital, and lower the cost of capital.

The WEF recommends that corporate CFOs should take on the responsibility of aligning their company’s ESG and financial goals. (Until recently, WEF points out, the CFO would not have included sustainability in an analysis of what affects the bottom line.)

The WEF points to evidence of a strong correlation between financial and ESG performance.

There are cost savings in reducing energy usage, more efficient use of resources, and new business opportunities presented.

Deloitte predicts that by 2030 (only 400+ weeks away), organizations committed to sustainability as embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will generate US$12 trillion in savings and gain of new revenues (for energy, cities, food, and health).

In our Top Story we’re sharing the WEF’s perspectives as authored by CEO and Executive Director Sanda Ojiambo of the UN Global Compact.

There are examples of “better outcomes” when CFOs embrace sustainability – Enel of Italy, Tesco of UK, Chanel of France. These firms issued sustainability-linked bonds to raise capital. JP Morgan predicts that bonds linked to the issuer meeting environmental goals could reach US$150 billion by the end of this year.

The UN Global Compact organized a “CFO Taskforce” in December 2019 to engage CFOs worldwide; to integrate the SDGs into corporate strategy, finance, and IR; and, to create a broad, sustainable finance market.

There are 50 members in the task force today; the aim, CEO Sanda Ojiambo writes, is to have 1,000 members by 2023.

The shift of corporate business models from focusing primarily on shareowners and short-term expectations to “broader, more sustainable, and equally profitable alternatives” is creating more opportunity for the finance executive to become more instrumental in helping to shape a sustainable future, she writes.

In the G&A team’s conversations with corporations about sustainability topics and issues, the good news is that many more finance and investor relations executives are an important part of the conversations and decision-making about their firm’s sustainability reporting and are focused on the disclosure and organized reporting of their firm’s ESG efforts.

We’re including a report from Entrepreneur about the growth of Sustainability Investing from 2019 to 2020. And, to underscore the importance of sustainability-linked corporate bonds, two other items: the news from Eli Lilly of its issuance of a €600 million sustainability bond; and Walmart will issue a US$2 billion sustainability bond (first for the largest retailer in the U.S.).

TOP STORIES

Pressure is Building on the C-Suite – to Start or Advance the Enterprise’s Sustainability Journey

July 2021

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

Pressure points:  The corporate executive suite in recent months has experienced pressure from both inside and outside the organization in terms of rising expectations related to corporate sustainability, responsibility, citizenship, ESG, and so on.

For example, asset owners and external asset managers are asking many more questions now about the sustainability journey of the companies they are invested in, including the company’s ESG strategies, actions, performance, metrics, outcomes, external recognitions, and more.

The customer base for a growing number of companies is now an important consideration related to the supplier/provider’s positioning in its sustainability journey.

The working principle here:  the large customer especially considers the supply chain “partners” to be part of their own ESG footprint.  Third-party organizations pose questions to supply chain partners on behalf of their client base (Ecovadis being an excellent example of this practice).

Consider, too, that the Federal government is the largest buyer of goods and services in the U.S. and the Biden Administration has instituted sweeping sustainability policies on sourcing of many kinds.

Regulators of different sorts are moving towards strongly urging companies to disclose more about their sustainability journeys and considering mandates to help ensure more comparable, accurate, complete, decision-worthy data and narrative disclosures to help providers of capital (investors, lenders, insurers) in their own portfolio management.  We see that now in the U.S. and in the European Union.

There is peer pressure – corporate issuers moving ahead to leadership positions in sustainability put pressure on industry peers to perform better, disclose more, and attain at least middle-of-the-pack positions. And laggards (those not yet on their journeys) are under even greater pressure today.

One place where the leader board really counts is in the now-numerous ESG ratings and rankings provided to institutional investors by the likes of MSCI, Sustainalytics, Institutional Shareholder Services, and other ESG rankers and raters.

And then there is the internal pressure point – employees want to work for a company demonstrating leadership in sustainability and responsibility.  They want to be an integral part of the journey and be a part of the team making great things happen. All this counts in recruitment, retention, and motivating the workforce.

This week we pulled together some of the contours of these pressures on boards and executive and management teams.  As you read this, thousands of people are gathering virtually for the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit to discuss the growing pressure on governments, companies, investors, and other stakeholders to take action on climate change and sustainability issues.  The UNGC released the 2021 Survey of Companies & CEOs ahead of the gathering.

Top line results:  Business interests need to transition to more sustainable business models.  Over the past three years corporate leaders have been experiencing the pressures to do this; and 75 percent of survey respondents expect the next three years to be times of increased pressure on boardrooms and executive suites.

Where is pressure coming from?  Certainly, from the investor side.  For example, 450+ investors managing US$45 trillion in assets released a joint statement calling on world governments to create a race-to-the-top on climate policies…

This is the “2021 Global Investor Statement to Governments on the Climate Crisis” that asks for climate-related financial reporting to be mandatory, recognizing the climate crisis.

Seven investment management partners created “The Investor Agenda” to be shared at the recent G7 meeting to encourage advocacy for “ambitious climate policy action” leading up to the Glasgow, Scotland meeting of “The Conference of the Parties” (COP 26) in November.

The Investor Agenda is in the Top Stories below for your reading, along with comments from heads of NYS Common Fund, State Street/SSgA, Alliance Bernstein, Legal and General Investment Management, Fidelity International, and others.

In the U.S., 160 investors with U$2.7 trillion in AUM joined by 155 corporate leaders and 58 not-for-profit organizations are advocating for the Securities & Exchange Commission to protect investors from risks including systemic and financial risks related to climate change by mandating climate disclosure.

By doing this, corporate issuers can clarify the risks they should measure and disclose so that investors can make sound investment decisions.  SEC rules are needed, say the advocates, to provide comparable and consistent information.

Who are these advocates?  A group of state financial officers —  Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, California State Controller Betty Yee, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli – as well as Steven Rothstein, Managing Director for the Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets and others.  Their suggestions for moving to an SEC mandate is another Top Story selection for you.

G&A is closely monitoring the various pressure points being placed on organizations to start or advance your sustainability journey, and you can detect other pressure points in the story selections in the topic silos.

TOP STORIES

Eyes on Financial Accounting and Reporting Standards – IASB & FASB Consider “Convergence” and Separate Actions

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

March 2021

Investors Call For More Non-Financial Standards for Corporate Reporting, Less Confusion in “Voluntary” Disclosure.

Should there be more clarity in the rules for corporate sustainability accounting and reporting as many more investors embrace ESG/Sustainable analysis and portfolio management approaches?

Many investors around the world think so and have called for less confusion, more comparability, more credible and complete corporate disclosure for ESG matters.

Accounting firms are part of the chorus of supporters for global non-financial disclosure standards development.

Where and how might such rules be developed? There are two major financial accounting/reporting organizations whose work investors and stakeholder rely on: The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and in the United States of America, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Both organizations develop financial reporting standards for publicly traded companies.

There are similarities and significant differences in their work. The US system is “rules-based” while the IASB’s approach has been more “principles-based” The differences have been diminishing to some degree with the US Securities & Exchange Commission more recently embracing some principles-based reporting.

By acts of the US Congress, FASB (a not-for-profit) was created and has governmental authority to impose new accounting rules — while the IASB rules are more voluntary.

The US system has “GAAP” – Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for guidance in disclosure. The adoption of IFRS is up to individual countries around the world (144 nations have adopted IFRS).

The IASB standards are global; these are the “IFRS” (International Financial Reporting Standards) issued by the IASB.

The FASB standards are used by US-based companies. For years, the two organizations have tried to better align their work to achieve a global financial reporting standard – “convergence”.

The IFRS Foundation is based in the United States and has the mission of developing a single set of “high-quality, understandable, enforceable and globally-accepted accounting standards (the IFRS), which are set by IASB.

In 2022 IASB and FASB will have a joint conference (“Accounting in an Ever-Changing World”) in New York City to “…strengthen connections between the academic and standard-setting communities…” and explore differences and similarities between US GAAP and IFRS Standards.

Consider that the Financial Stability Board (FSB), which launched the TCFD, is on record in support of a single set of high-quality global accounting standards.

Convergence. In the USA, the “whole of government” approach to the climate crisis by the Biden-Harris Administration may result in encouragement, perhaps even rules for, corporate ESG disclosure. The IASB is not waiting.

The IFRS Foundation Trustees are conducting analysis to see whether or not to create another board that would issue global standards for sustainability accounting and reporting.

A proposal will come by the time of the UN Climate Change Conference this fall. Should the IFRS foundation play a role? The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) thinks so.

Many questions remain for IASB and FASB to address, of course. This is a complex situation, and we bring you some relevant news in the newsletter this week.

TOP STORIES

Here’s an update from the IFRS Foundation and what is being considered:

Meanwhile, the European Commission separately is exploring how to strengthen “non-financial” reporting – there’s the possibility that there could be EU standards developed:

Helpful information about the FASB-IASB differences:

Looking Back at 2020 and Into 2021-Disruptions, Changes, But Consistency in Climate Change Challenges

January 11 2021

by Hank BoernerChair & Chief StrategistG&A Institute

Seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the great promise of the 21st Century – the Paris Accord (or “Agreement”) on climate change. Can you believe, it is now five years on (260 weeks or so this past December) since the meeting in the “City of Lights” of the Conference of Parties (“COP 21”, a/k/a the U.N. Paris Climate Conference). This was the 21st meeting of the global assemblage focused on climate change challenges.

For most of us the calendar years are neat delineations of time and space – helps us remember “what” and “when” in near and far-times. But often important trends will not fit neatly in a given year. There is for example so much uncertainty in 2020 that continues in 2021.

As we cheered and toasted each other on 31 December 2019 around the world (with tooting horns, fireworks, lighted spheres dropping on famed Times Square in New York City and fireworks on the Thames in London) we probably were looking eagerly into the new year 2020 and the promise of things to come. Oh well.

Now here we are embarked into new year 2021, starting the third decade of the 21st Century, and groping our way toward the “next normal”.  What ever that may have in store for us.

The next normal for when the Coronavirus, now taking many lives and infecting hundreds of millions of us…at last subsides. For when the economies of the world stabilize and everyone can get back to work, in whatever the workspace configurations may be. For when the long-term issues that are generating civil unrest and widespread – and now very violent! — protests can be addressed and we can begin to resolve inequality et al.

Our world has certainly been dramatically interrupted as the calendar changed in both 2020 and now as we begin year 2021.

One consistency, however, has been in our business and personal lives in all of the recent years and is accelerating in 2021: the effort to address the challenges of climate change, with all sectors of our society engaged in the effort.

There is greater effort now to limit global warming and the impact on society in the business sector (especially for large companies); in the public sector (at local, state, and national levels, among the almost 200 nations that are parties to the Paris Agreement); for NGOs; leaders of philanthropies; and we as individuals doing our part.

We all have a role to play in the collective striving to limit the rising temperatures of seas and atmosphere and forestall worldwide great tragedy and cataclysmic events if we fail.

And so now on to 2021. The Top Stories we’ve selected for you, and additional content in the various silos, focus our attention on what has been accomplished in 2019 and 2020 — and what challenges we need to address the challenges of 2021 and beyond.

As we assembled this week’s G&A Institute’s Highlights newsletter, we learned from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the year 2020 just ended was a period (neatly marked in “2020” for our historical records) of historic weather extremes that saw many billion-dollar weather and climate disasters…smashing prior records.

There were 22 separate billion-dollar events costing the United States of America almost US$100 billion in damages in just the 12 months of 2020.

And this troubling news: in 2020 Arctic air temps continued their long-term warming streak, recording the second warmest year on record. (Since 2000 Arctic temperatures have been more than twice as far as the average for Earth as a whole). When air and sea continue to warm, massive ice fields melt and ocean seas rise, ocean circulation patterns change, and more. Learn more at climate.gov.

Our selection of news and shared perspectives here bridge 2020 and 2021 trends and events. We can expect in the weeks ahead to be sharing content with you focused on climate change, diversity & inclusion, corporate purpose discussions, risk management, corporate governance, ESG matters, corporate reporting & disclosures, sustainable investing…and much more!

Best wishes to you for 2021 from the G&A Institute team. We’re beginning the second decade of publishing this newsletter as well – let us know how we are doing and how we can improve the G&A Institute “sharing”.

If you are not receiving the G&A Institute Sustainability Highlights(TM) newsletter on a regular basis, you can sign up here: https://www.ga-institute.com/newsletter.html

 

TOP STORIES

A year in review and looking ahead to 2021:

Watching the Major Stock Indexes – For Strong ESG Signals from the Corporate Sector

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

October 2020

Indexes – Indices – Benchmarks – these are very important financial analysis and portfolio management tools for asset owners and their internal and external managers.

We can think of them as a sort of report card; fiduciaries can track their performance against the benchmark for the funds they manage; financial sector players can develop products for investment (mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds, separate accounts and so on) to market to investors using the appropriate benchmark.

If the investable products are focused on the available equities of the largest market cap companies for investment, the most widely-used indexes will likely be the S&P 500®, created back in March 1957 by Standard & Poor’s and the Russell 1000®, created in 1984 by the Frank Russell Company.

Today the S&P 500 Index is managed by the S&P Global organization.  The Russell 1000 is managed by FTSE Russell, a unit of the LSE Group (London Stock Exchange Group).

There are more or less 500 corporate entities in the S&P 500 Index that measures the equity performance of these companies (those listed on major exchanges).

There are other important indexes by S&P for investors to track:  The S&P Global 1200, S&P MidCap 400, and S&P SmallCap 600, and many more.

Russell 1000® is a subset of the Russell 3000®; it is comprised of the 1000 largest market cap companies in the USA. The R1000 represents more than 90% of the USA’s top publicly-traded companies in the large-cap category.  Both indexes are very important tools for professional investment managers and send strong trending signals to the capital markets.

The G&A Institute team closely tracks the ESG and sustainability  disclosure & reporting practices and each year; since 2010 we’ve published research on the trends, first with the S&P 500, and for 2019 and 2020, we expanded our research into to the larger Russell 1000 index. (The top half of the 1000 roughly mirrors the S&P 500.)

The 500 and 1000 companies are important bellwethers in tracking the amazing expansion of corporate sustainability reporting over the past decade.  Yes, there were excellent choices of select benchmarks for sustainable and responsible investors going back several decades – such as the Domini 400, going back to 1990 — and we tracked those as well.  (The “400” was renamed the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index in 2010).

But once major publicly-traded companies in the United States began escalating the pace of sustainability and ESG reporting, many more investors paid attention.  And media tuned in.  And then the ESG indexes proliferated like springtime blooms!

Those bigger customers (the large cap companies) of other firms began expanding their  ESG “footprint” and considering the supply and sourcing partners to be part of their ESG profile.  So, customers are now queried regularly on their ESG performance and outcomes.

Once the critical mass — 90% of large-cap U.S. companies reporting in our latest S&P 500 research – how long will it be for many more mid-caps, small-caps, privately-owned enterprises to follow the example?  Very soon, we think.  And we’re closely watching!  (And will bring the news to you.)

If you have not reviewed the results of the G&A Institute research on the ESG reporting of the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 for 2019, here are the links:

Note:  Click here for more helpful background on the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 large equities/stock indexes, here is Investopedia’s explanation.

Excellent Wrap up From GreenBiz:
At last, corporate sustainability reporting is hitting its stride

Corporate Sustainability Reporting: Changes in the Global Landscape – What Might 2021 Bring?

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

Change is a-coming – quite quickly now – for corporate sustainability reporting frameworks and standards organizations.  And the universe of report users.

Before the disastrous October 1929 stock market crash, there was little in the way of disclosure and reporting requirements for companies with public stockholders. The State of New York had The Martin Act, passed in 1921, a “blue sky law” that regulates the sales and trades of public companies to address fraud issues.  That was about it for protecting those buying shares of public companies of the day.

Under the 100 year old Act, the elected New York State Attorney General is the “Sheriff of Wall Street — and this statute is still in effect. (See: AG Eliot Spitzer and his prosecution of the 10 large asset managers for analyst shenanigans.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected two-term governor of NY before his election to the highest office in November 1932, brought along a “brains trust” to Washington and these colleagues shaped the historic 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Securities Exchange Act to regulate corporate disclosure and Wall Street activities.

Story goes there was so much to put in these sweeping regulations for stock exchanges, brokerage houses, investor protection measures and corporate reporting requirements that it took two different years of congressional action for passage into law in the days when Congress met only briefly and then hastened home to avoid the Washington DC summer humidity and heat.

The Martin Act was a powerful influence on the development of foundational federal statutes that are regularly updated to keep pace with new developments (Sarbanes-Oxley, 2002, updated many portions of the 1934 Act).

What was to be disclosed and how? Guidance was needed by the corporate boards and executives they hired to run the company in terms of information for the company’s investors. And so, in a relatively short time “Generally Applied Accounting Principles” began to evolve. These became “commonly accepted” rules of the road for corporate accounting and financial reporting.

There were a number of organizations contributing to GAAP including the AICPA. The guiding principles were and are all about materiality, consistency, prudence (or moderation) and objectivity like auditor independence verifying results.

Now – apply all of this (the existing requirements to the Wild West of the 1920s leading up to the 1929 financial crash that harmed many investors — and it reminds one of the situations today with corporate ESG, sustainability, CR, citizenship reporting.  No generally applied principles that all can agree to, a wide range of standards and frameworks and guidance and “demands” to choose from, and for U.S. companies much of what is disclosed is on a voluntary basis anyway.

A growing chorus of institutional investors and company leaders are calling for clear regulatory guidance and understanding of the rules of the road from the appointed Sheriffs for sustainability disclosures – especially in the USA, from the Securities & Exchange Commission…and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), now the two official keepers of GAAP.

FASB was created in the early 1970s – by action of the Congress — to be the official keeper of GAAP and the developer of accounting and reporting rules.  SOX legislation made it official; there would be two keepers of GAAP — SEC and FASB.  GAAP addressed material financial issues to be disclosed.

But today for sustainability disclosure – what is material?  How to disclose the material items?  What standards to follow?  What do investors want to know?

Today corporates and investors debate the questions:  What should be disclosed in a consistent and comparable way? The answers are important to information users. At the center of discussion: materiality everyone using corporate reports in their analysis clamors for this in corporate sustainability disclosure.

Materiality is at the heart of the SASB Standards now developed for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors. Disclosure of the material is an important part of the purpose that GAAP has served for 8-plus decades.

Yes, there is some really excellence guidance out there, the trend beginning two decades ago with the GRI Framework in 1999-2000. Publicly-traded companies have the GRI Standards available to guide their reporting on ESG/sustainability issues to investors and stakeholders.

There is the SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA), now managed entirely by S&P Global, and available to invited companies since 1999-2000. (SAM was RobecoSAM and with Dow Jones Indexes managed the DJ Sustainability Indexes – now S&P Global does that with SAM as a unit of the firm based in Switzerland.)

Since 2000, companies have had the UN Global Compact principles to include in their reporting. Since 2015 corporate managers have had the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to report on (and before that, the predecessor UN Millennium Development Goals, 2000-2015). And the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations were put in place in 2017.

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in February 2010 issied “guidance” to publicly-traded companies reminded corporate boards of their responsibility to oversee risk and identified climate change matters as an important risk in that context.

But all of these standards and frameworks and suggested things to voluntarily report on — this is today’s thicket to navigate, picking frameworks to be used for telling the story of the company’s sustainability journey.

Using the various frameworks to explain strategy, programs, actions taken, achievements, engagements, and more – the material items. Profiling the corporate carbon footprint in the process. But there is no GAAP to guide the company for this ESG reporting, as in the example of financial accounting and reporting.

Institutional investors have been requesting more guidance from the SEC on sustainability et al reporting.  But the commission has been reluctant to move much beyond the 2010 risk reminder guidance even as literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies expand their voluntary disclosure.  And so we rely on this voluntary disclosure on climate change, diversity & inclusion efforts, political spending, supply chain management, community support, and a host of other ESG issues. (Human Capital Management was addressed in the recent Reg S-K updating.)

We think 2021 will be an interesting year in this ongoing discussion – “what” and “how” should companies be disclosing on sustainability topics & issues.

The various providers of existing reporting frameworks and standards and those influencing the disclosures in other ways are moving ahead, with workarounds where in the USA government mandates for sustainability reporting do not yet exist.

We’ve selected a few items for you to keep up with the rapidly-changing world of corporate ESG disclosures in our Top Stories and other topic silos.

There are really important discussions!  We watch these developments intently as helping corporate clients manage their ESG / sustainability disclosures is at the heart of our team’s work and we will continue to keep sharing information with you in the Highlights newsletter.

More about this in The Wall Street Journal with comments from G&A’s Lou Coppola: Companies Could Face Pressure to Disclose More ESG Data (Source: The Wall Street Journal)
TOP STORIES

Corporate Sustainability Performance – Setting the Stage for ESG Data Analysis by Humans and AI Bots Alike

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

There is an expansive reservoir of ESG data – a.k.a. key performance indicators (KPIs) – across growing corporate ESG disclosure and reporting, commercially advertised metrics and/or data sets subscription access, and proprietary third-party rater, ranker and data provider analytical systems.

While voluntary reporting frameworks and the various third parties jockey for dominance and survival, who is using all this data — and how?

Currently, there are too many ESG-related KPIs and data sets for companies and investors to get a handle on, respond or analyze.  It is impossible to predict how many more KPIs will enter the mix or how soon third-party relationships will naturally consolidate the number of KPI expectations, simply driven by necessity for their own business models’ sustainability.

The corporate disclosure side of this issue is explored in:
The End User Side

Just like corporations, investors have to prioritize which KPIs matter and what reporting framework KPIs, public access information sources, licensed and/or proprietary databases they can rationalize for focus.

CFA-PRI recently joined forces to survey 1100 investment professionals.  Survey results show that fixed income inclusion of ESG in investment decision-making is rapidly catching-up with equity investors.

Source: UNPRI

Analogous to portfolio diversification theory, the number of investments (in both time and money) in ESG data sources has got to naturally reach some optimal number needed to optimize risk/return. Beyond that there is an entire sustainable finance ecosystem too large to address in a simple blog post.

Data Use

There is not an honest person alive who can tell you that they can stay on top of all the current and increasing company ESG data they could analyze, germane to their investment decision-making.

Research of Value

In addition to 90% of S&P 500 companies, Governance & Accountability Institute just announced its annual research update that 65% of Russell 1000 companies also published sustainability reports in 2019 (up from 60% in 2018), including 39% by companies in the smallest half of the index (up from 34% in 2018).

Important Perspective

An article highlighting takeaways from the recent NIRI “Big I – Investor & Issuer Invitational Forum”, quoted speaker Dan Romito, SVP of Business Development & Product Strategy at Nasdaq:

“There is an explosion of non-fundamental data…especially in ESG data…The
SEC found that 90% of data now used in the capital markets has been created during the past two years.”

Artificial Intelligence

AI use as a tool to consume, filter and analyze, huge reservoirs of ESG data is increasingly valuable in investment decision-making. AI providers are jockeying for differentiation and capital.  For instance:

  • AI is being used by investors, such as BlackRock, to not only analyze ESG data that companies are disclosing, but to uncover other information, such as ESG impacts from satellite images of pollution to cars in a parking lot, voice inflection and more.
  • FactSet just announced, on October 20th, a definitive agreement to acquire TrueValue Labs. Founded in 2013, TrueValue is a pioneer in AI-driven ESG data. It applies AI-driven technology to over 100,000 unstructured text sources in 13 languages, to identify positive and negative ESG behavior. Its coverage spans over 19,000 public and private companies.
  • TrueValue LabsTM had previously announced on January 23, 2020, that it was introducing its patent-pending concept of Dynamic Materiality, indicating that every company, industry and sector has a unique materiality signature. The company head of research noted that, “Given how central materiality is to ESG investing and fiduciary duty, it is critical to understand the mechanisms by which ESG factors impact the operational and financial performance of companies.”

The Human Element

“While AI can unearth key data for investors seeking sustainable investments, discerning unreliable information will be a key challenge and humans will not be replaced any time soon.” – as stated in the article titled,  How can AI help ESG investing? –  S&P Global, Sept 2020

“AI is not a replacement for human intelligence, but rather a way to further it… The strategic value of alternative datasets, in particular ESG data, in the financial sector is becoming increasingly visible. As only relevant data has decision-making utility, supervised machine learning is emerging as the most effective mechanism to generate strategic value for businesses.” – Cutting through the noise: demystifying the buzz around artificial intelligence in financial decision-makingRepRisk, Sept 2020

The Final Word

In only the last few years, it became obvious that ESG/Sustainability had finally gone mainstream.  It took over twenty years to catch-on, since the first voluntary ESG reporting framework, GRI, was founded in 1997.  Now it is time to buckle-up for the ride… practically everything ESG/Sustainability-related is advancing at orders of magnitude faster pace than anything we’ve experienced thus far!

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.

Advancing Toward a Circular New York

By Kirstie Dabbs – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions.

A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.

What is the Circular Economy?

Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources.

Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources to make products that are used and disposed of before the end of their useful life, a circular economy follows three core principles to extend the value of existing resources and reduce the need to extract new resources:

  • Design out waste.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

These three principles — as put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — create opportunities to reduce and potentially eliminate waste,  from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.

Materials Matter

In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture products with recycled materials, companies will drive demand for more post-consumer feedstock, further reducing waste to landfill which is aligned with the City’s waste-reduction goal.

Companies can also choose to manufacture products using responsibly sourced bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life with the appropriate infrastructure in place.

WinCup and Eco-Products are examples of companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports New York City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.

Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand

In addition to applying material design principles to divert material from landfill, companies can deploy design and marketing strategies to keep their products in use longer.

Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product.

Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation.

According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.

How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.”

A recent press release from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”

New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy

Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles.

According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners — an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy — the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.

The New New York Circular City Initiative

Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month.

One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.

The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.

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Kirstie Dabbs is pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainability with focus on Circular Value Chain Management at Bard College.  She is currently an analyst-intern at G&A Institute working on GRI Data Partner assignments and G&A research projects. In her role as an Associate Consultant for Red Queen Group in NYC she provides organization analyses and support for not-for-profits undergoing strategic or management transitions.

 

Profile:  https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/kirstie-dabbs.html

 

This article was originally published on the GreenHomeNYC blog on September 28, 2020.