Timely Insights & Perspectives on Corporate Sustainability, Responsibility & Citizenship

A BIG YEAR, 2018 – For Developments in Corporate Sustainability & Sustainable Investing…the Two Halves of the Great “Whole” of The New Norms of Capitalism

January 25, 2018

Volume and Velocity: These may well be the key characteristics of developments in corporate sustainability and in sustainable investing in the year 2018 — MSCI and BlackRock Setting the Pace…

Bigger, faster, more...this is how Linda-Eling Lee, Global Head of Research for MSCI’s ESG Research Group and her colleague Matt Moscardi (Head of Research Financial Sector, ESG) this week described what they are intuiting in the traditional MSCI early-in-the-year briefing on key ESG trends to watch (as compiled by the influential MSCI team).

Bigger, faster, more – that’s what Linda wrote on January 16th on her blog, describing the “…onslaught of challenges happening soon and more dramatically that many could have imagined in the corporate sector…” (Policy, technology, and climate change are key factors.)

And, investors (in turn) are looking for ways to better position their portfolios to navigate the anticipated uncertainty in the corporate sector.

Your “Heads up” — Five Key 2018 Trends Projected by MSCI Researchers/Analysts

  • Investors will be using ESG “signals” to navigate the size/shape of the Emerging Markets investment universe to pick the winners.

  • The first steps are coming in “scenario testing” for climate change (systematically looking at risks emanating from company carbon footprints across asset classes).
  • The fixed-income universe will see acceleration (velocity) with the alignment of ESG frameworks by investors across all asset classes.

And this is very important for the corporate sector:

Investors are looking beyond the growing volume of corporate disclosure and reporting for data. Keep this in mind: 65% of a company’s rating by MSCI is typicaly based on data sources beyond the corporate reporting!

Finally, MSCI sees 2018 as the Year of the Human – it’s about the importance of talent, talent, talent!

What companies do to help in the transitioning to new working environments (such as dealing with automation, AI, robotics) will be factored into the analysis of public companies by the MSCI ESG team, and measured over time (the following three years, looking for demonstrable outcomes).

What we think company managements / boards should expect in the “volume and velocity” context:

Many more investors (especially fiduciaries) embracing comprehensive ESG factors in their analysis and portfolio management approaches and as part of their fiduciary duties (the volume), with a faster uptake of this trend among the mainstream elements of the capital markets players (the velocity).

Bigger, faster, more – that’s what Linda Eling-Lee wrote on January 16th on her blog, commenting on  setting out the five categories:

  1. ESG & Fixed Income.
  2. Emerging Markets.
  3. Corporate Disclosure.
  4. Climate Scenario Testing.
  5. The Year of the Human.

Linda Eling-Lee observed: these are the major trends that we think will shape how investors approach the risks and opportunities on the horizon in the year 2018.

She heads one of the largest and most influential ESG research and analysis teams in the capital markets – asset owners and their managers closely watch MSCI research results.

One of the key takeaways for the G&A Institute team from the MSCI conference call was this: Companies are of course encouraged to disclose and report on their sustainability journey, and the ESG data and narrative related to that effort.

But – only about 35% or so of MSCI’s research and ratings effort factors in company disclosures; 65% typically will come from other independent sources.

Voluntary reporting by companies has its limits in providing a full picture of the companies’ ESG risks,” MSCI researchers note. “In 2018 we anticipate that the disclosure movement reaches a tipping point, as investors seek broader data sources that balance the corporate narrative and yield better signals for understanding the ESG risk landscape actually faced by portfolio companies”

This is on target with the advice that the G&A Institute team members provide to our corporate clients. “The third party watchers” are swarming to gather information and paint the picture of your enterprise in terms of ESG and related topics.

The data and narrative now being provided to investors and stakeholders are expected to be stepped up and expanded, and fine-tuned going forward…clear signals are being sent to you by MSCI and BlackRock asset managers and other influentials that shape perceptions, affect your reputation and your access to and cost of capital.

We present here for you other important developments at the start of year 2018 that will shape the operating environment throughout the year – and beyond!

The Larry Fink CEO-to-CEO Message for 2018

Speaking of significant influence on investment activities, and trend-setting, the head of the world’s largest asset management firm sent an important CEO-to-CEO letter to stress the importance of companies having “a social purpose.

BlackRock engages with about 1,500 companies a year on a range of ESG issues, meeting with boards of directors and CEOs, and other shareholders when that is needed. Each year, CEO Larry Fink reaches out to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to alert them to the key issues in focus for BlackRock (as fiduciary).

Important:  Larry Fink is the Founder, Chair, and CEO of BlackRock and heads the firm’s “Global Executive Committee.”

2017-2018 Key Investment Stewardship Priorities for BlackRock

  • Corporate Governance / Accountability
  • Corporate Strategy
  • Executive Compensation Policies
  • Human Capital (talent management)
  • Climate Risk Disclosure

BlackRock is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018. It now manages more than US$6 trillion (Assets Under Management-AUM). Of this, $1.7 trillion is in active funds managed by the company. As one of the world’s most important and influential (and trend-setting) fiduciaries BlackRock engages with company management to drive the sustainable, long-term growth clients need to meet their goals.

Yes, markets are at all-time highs, he noted in his missive to CEO; but, this is also a time of high anxiety.

He communicated in January to CEOs:

“Many people around the world face low wage growth and inadequate retirement systems as issues in their lives. Millions feel insecure in their jobs (especially the less educated), and the prospect of a secure retirement is out of reach or fading.

“Governments are not preparing people for the future – especially in worker training. And there is deteriorating infrastructure. And so, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges.”

“Indeed,” CEO Fink said in his letter to CEOs, ”the public expectations of your company has never been higher.”

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose…to prosper over time, every company must show it makes a positive contribution to society.”

“Without a sense of purpose, no company…can achieve its full potential…it will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders…”

And: “It will remain exposed to activist campaigns articulating a clearer goal, and ultimately provide subpar returns (to investors depending on for their own goals)…”

Because it is a passive investor of considerable size, CEO Fink said it has the responsibility to engage and vote the proxy…to be an “engaged agent” on behalf of BlackRock clients. These are the true owners of the companies that are in their portfolios.

And so, there is the need for “a new model of shareholder engagement,” one of global investment stewardship [prominently] led by BlackRock.

The “ask” (or request or even demand in the future) of companies is that management publicly articulate the company’s strategic framework for long-term value creation, signed off by the board of directors.

This includes preparation for potential challenges – like climate change, slow wage growth, the continued rise of automation, tax policy changes, legislative and regulatory changes…and what this means in terms of financial performance.

BlackRock will continue to emphasize the importance of a diverse board of directors (a mix of genders, ethnic backgrounds, career experiences, varied ways of thinking).

“A company’s ability to management of ESG matters demonstrates good leadership and good governance (long the strong suit for BlackRock with its clients) that are essential to sustainable growth.”

And this is why BlackRock is increasingly integrating ESG issues into the investment process.

The company is tripling the size of its Stewardship Group over the next three years; today, 30 specialists in key cities work with 125 investment teams, under the leadership of BlackRock co-founder and Vice Chair Barbara Novick (leader of the global investment stewardship group).

BlackRock: Companies Must Ask Themselves These Questions

The Larry Fink letter to CEOs advises that companies must ask themselves questions:

  • What role do we play in the community?
  • How are we managing our impact on the environment?
  • Are we working to create a diverse workforce?
  • Are we adapting to technological change?
  • Are we providing the training and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world?
  • Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare our workers for retirement, so they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?

The Capital Market Players Respond

In Barron’s this week, columnist Vito J. Racanelli observed (considering the social purpose directive): “The two full paragraphs devoted to this idea mark a step up in pressure from BlackRock. Fink’s letter last year briefly mentioned ESG factors. BlackRock’s move addresses a battle over the division of spoils (corporate profits).

“Is a company run for the benefit of shareholders (the traditional Wall Street view)…or for all stakeholders, a new attitude that also takes customers, employees, suppliers, the environment…into consideration? With the market hitting high-after-high and corporate profits soaring, such a debate seems timely.”

The magazine reports that among professional investors, there are shifting views, a function of both generational and attitude changes. In Barron’s annual ranking of “the world’s most respected companies,” respondents said strong management and ethical business practices.

Which, Barron’s says, encompasses serving a social purpose – top ranked in importance for two out of the last three years in survey responses!

Note that Barron’s editors have been covering the growth of ESG investing all of 2017 and making the trend a topic of regular coverage for its half-million readers.

Responsible Investing Growth is Global, RBC Reported

In October 2017, RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM) conducted its second annual global survey of asset managers. Two-out-of-three respondents said they used ESG considerations, and 25% will increase their allocations to managers with ESG investment strategies to offer in 2018.

Does ESG mitigate risk…or drive alpha? Answers were mixed. Some asset managers are increasing their allocation and others are skeptical, especially about the accuracy and value of the available data on corporate ESG performance.

For 2018
RBC sees responsible investing as a global trend, with many managers incorporating ESG in analysis and portfolio management due to client (asset owner) demand.

But — there is poor information quality, said the majority of respondents, and the US and Canadian investors have to use the proxy process “to do the work of improving disclosure.”

Alas, asset managers in the United States seem to be the laggards in adopting of responsible investment strategies, behind their European counterparts. Only 5% see ESG investment performing better than non-ESG investments; in contrast, 40% of Europeans and 24% of Canadians expect ESG investments to perform better than non-ESG.

RBC GAM is the asset management division of Royal Bank of Canada, with $400 billion in AUM. The second survey was conducted in July and August 2017 with 434 institutional asset owners and investment managers in Canada, Europe, and the USA.

Tracking Company Behaviors – The RepRisk ESG Risk Platform

One of the leading producers of research and business intelligence for the banking and investment communities is RepRisk, based in Zurich, Switzerland. The firm started in 2006 to serve bank clients wanting to be alerted to real or possible risk issues in the corporate sector.

RepRisk developed artificial intelligence and data mining tools, that along with human analysis, “reduces blind spots and sheds light on risks that can have reputational, compliance and financial impacts on a company…”

Today, we report a milestone:  there are 100,000-plus companies in the RepRisk database (both listed and non-listed, from all countries and sectors). The firm started out monitoring just 100 companies for clients. The daily screening is delivered in 16 languages and about 50 companies a day are added for screening.

What kind of risks? Those related to human rights, breaches of labor standards, environmental damage, corruption and bribery, violations of international standards, and more.

Keep in mind RepRisk monitors a wide range of sources for negative mentions of companies, with “risk” presented as the screen.

The G&A Institute team has a collaborative working relationship with RepRisk and assists corporate clients in understanding the RepRisk approach and in engaging with RepRisk staff.

Does Adoption of ESG Approaches Sacrifice Corporate Performance?

Robeco, one of the world’s leading financial services firms (based in The Netherlands), and sister company of RobecoSAM, managers of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, looked at the question of whether or not the adoption of ESG / sustainability approaches “cost” the company in performance.

Adopting sustainability approaches does require investment, but companies with poor ESG performance also have a greater range of risks and “seriously underperform” their peers. And investors “win” by investing in the better performers (enterprises that reduce risk, strategize around climate change, reduce bad behaviors).

Says Robeco: “…a growing body of evidence concludes that companies which are progressively more sustainable today will reap the rewards of the future…and it may save their businesses…”

“Taking sustainability issues into account leads to a better-informed investment decision and better returns in the long-term. Robeco believes that and “has integrated ESG analysis in the investment process for both fundamental and quant equities, and for fixed-income.”

The Company’s positioning:  “Robeco is an international asset manager offering an extensive range of active investments, from equities to bonds. Research lies at the heart of everything we do, with a ‘pioneering but cautious’ approach that has been in our DNA since our foundation in Rotterdam in 1929. We believe strongly in sustainability investing, quantitative techniques and constant innovation.”\

Robeco and RobecoSAM and other business units are owned by ORIX Corporation Europe N.V. (ORIX Europe), a holding company which also comprises the following subsidiaries and joint ventures: Boston Partners, Harbor Capital Advisors, Transtrend, RobecoSAM and Canara Robeco. ORIX Europe is the center of asset management expertise for ORIX Corporation, based in Tokyo, Japan.

New ESG Scores Coming from ISS

As we communicated in January, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has expanded its long-term focus on corporate governance to encompass E and S issues for its QualityScore product for fiduciaries (its client base).

In late-January it is expected that ISS will issue the first wave of scores for 1,500 companies in six industries, expanding to 5,000 companies in additional industries by mid-year 2018.

The first 1,500 companies to be scored are in Autos & Components; Capital Goods; Consumer Durables & Apparel; Energy; Materials; and, Transportation.

The QualityScore is a Disclosure and Transparency Signal that investor-clients are seeking, says ISS, and an important resource for investors to conduct comparisons with corporate peers.

ISS serves its 1,700 clients with coverage in 117 global markets.

CalPERS, America’s Leading Public Employee Retirement System – Corporate Engagement

CalPERS is the California Public Employee’s Retirement System, the largest state investment fund in the United States with about $350 billion in total fund market AUM.

CalPERS sent letters to 504 companies in the Russell 3000 Index to engage on the issue of diversity on the companies’ boards of directors.

CalPERS Request:
The company should develop and then disclose their corporate board diversity policy, and the details of the plan’s implementation (to address what CalPERS sees as lack of diversity in the companies).

Simply put, board diversity is good for business,” said Anne Simpson, CalPERS’ investment director for sustainability.

Starting in Fall 2017 and moving into 2018, CalPERS is monitoring companies’ progress on the matter and making it a topic for engagement discussions. If a company lags in progress, CalPERS will consider withholding votes from director-candidates at annual voting time (at annual meetings).

CalPERS has six “Governance and Sustainability Principles” to guide its investments; encouraging corporate board diversity and inclusion is one of these.

The Climate Action 100+ Investor Initiative

Sign of the Times
More than 200 investors supporting action on climate change by the corporate sector are focusing on the board room of such companies as ExxonMobil, Boeing, GE, P&G, Ford, Volvo, PepsiCo, BP, Shell, Nestle, Airbus, and other enterprises (the “100” plus companies in focus) to dialogue on their GhG emissions as contributions to global warming.

The 100 corporates are said to account for 85% of the total GhG emissions worldwide – they need to step up, says the Coalition, and develop strategies and take action (and disclose!) to address the issue. The investors manage more than $26 trillion in AUM, and are coordinating their efforts through five partnerships:

  • Asia Investor Group on Climate Change (AIGCC);
  • Ceres;
  • Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC);
  • Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC); and,
  • Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).

Individual institutions involved include: Allianz; Hermes; BNP Paribas; Deutsche Asset Management; Church Commissioners for England.

One of the key investors is CalPERS; the investment director for sustainability at the nation’s largest public employee retirement system, Anne Simpson said: “The hope is that the coordinated effort to engage with many of the world’s most carbon-intensive firms could have considerable ripple efforts…including major companies aligning their business plans with the goals of the Paris Agreement (COP-21).”

McKinsey Weighs In – ESG No Longer “Niche” – Assets Are Soaring

The McKinsey & Co. experts studied ESG investing and reported to corporate clients that of the $88 trillion in AUM in the world’s capital markets (in late-October), more than $1-in-$4 (25%-plus) are invested according to ESG principles. That’s a growth of 17% a year, and ESG has become “a large and fast-growing market segment.”

Examples: Japan Government Pension Fund (the largest pool of retirement savings in the world); Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (this is the world’s largest Sovereign Wealth Fund); ABP, the Dutch retirement fund – all incorporate ESG and “practice sustainable investing,” says McKinsey.

ESG worldwide accounted for $22.89 trillion (26%) of professionally-managed assets in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, and the United States at the beginning of 2016 – even before the markets took off for the stratosphere throughout 2017 and into 2018 (with the Dow Industrials, for example, above 26,000 for the first time).

McKinsey has a blue-chip client roster; 100 CEOs were interviewed, along with chief investment officers, ESG leaders, and investment managers.

Takeaway: “Sustainable investing can increase returns, or at least produce market-rate returns, as effectively as other investment approaches.”

Three McKinsey experts offered their view in: “Sustainable investing is the New Normal.”

Once a niche practice, sustainable investing has become a large and fast-growing major market segment. The scale differs greatly from region-to-region, with Europeans having the highest proportion of sustainable investing (Europe was more than half of the AUM in the survey).

Why the increase in sustainable investing?

Authors Sara Bernow, Bryce Klempner and Clarisse Magnin see these factors in both growth of sustainable investing and embrace of sustainability by savvy corporate leaders:

  • Investors seek and see enhanced returns (the positive effects of ESG performance).
  • Addressing ESG issues strengthens risk management (market value, reputation, ESG-related incidents such as severe weather, waste, pollution).
  • Sustainable Investing aligns [investor] strategies with the priorities of beneficiaries and stakeholders.

The McKinsey advisors are working with both investment professionals and corporate managers and through that work, bringing the two halves of the capital markets together for a greater understanding of the importance of sustainability.

Investors Are Not Forgetting

One of the characteristics of the sustainable investing market players is having-the-memory-of-the-elephant. Do you remember the Rana Plaza apparel factory tragedy of five years ago? Most media reporters and commentators have moved on to other crisis events.

Investors are signing on to a statement – “Investors Call on Global Brands to Recommit to the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety” – with focus on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the statement signed (in May 2013) after the accident that killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh.

Reforms were promised in the Accord by industry participants and trade unions.

But additional time is needed to remediate safety issues in garment factories and reduce risks to workers. And, in turn to reduce reputation risks to global brands sourcing in Bangladesh. Those companies – leading global brand marketers – are public companies whose stocks are in fiduciary investment portfolio. Thus the focus on risk.

An extension to the original Accord was released on April 24, 2017 (on the fourth anniversary of Accord signing) and investors in 2018 called on the 220 original signatories to agree to a binding 3-year extension (the “2018 Accord”).

Lack of Progress: only 36% of the 650-plus factories covered have installed fire detection and prevention systems, says the investor coalition; half have not completed worker safety training. And only 53 of the original signatories have signed on to the extension (that is, “the 2018 Accord”).

The firms are asked to sign on within the 1Q of 2018 and to help strengthen the “National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structuring Integrity” in Bangladesh’s apparel sector.

Involved investors (many in the sustainable investing space) say: “We encourage all companies sourcing in Bangladesh’s garment sector to take responsibility to build on the unprecedented fire and building safety work begun in 2013 and finish the task of remediating worker safety while mitigating the risk to brands, retailers, and investors connected to the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

Warning delivered. Investors are watching. And not going away.

Another Example of Investor Action

“In a win for the health of the world’s oceans,” began the As You Sow shareholder advocacy group announcement, “McDonald’s Corp. agreed to end the use of polystyrene foam packaging – worldwide! – – by the end of 2018.

The advocacy group had campaigned to have the fast food retailer stop using foam cups and takeout containers.

A shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow in May 2017 requested the company stop using polystyrene and 32% of shares voted (worth $26 billion of AUM at the time) voted to support.

McDonald’s had stopped the use of foam cups in the USA in 2012 but these stayed in use in Hong Kong and the Philippines…where foam polluted waterways said As You Sow.

McDonald’s said it would eliminate all foam packaging this year .

Polystyrene is used for single-use containers worldwide, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has said that styrene is a possible human carcinogen.

As You Sow was fast to send the message to other companies in the quick service food industry. And, to McDonalds management: “We also hope McD will next turn its attention to other single-use items such as plastic straws and cup lids that pose hazards to marine animals and add to the tsunami of plastic waste afflicting world oceans.”

As You Sow was filing the same resolution for 2018 voting and encouraging other investors to support; it will not withdraw the resolution.

Keep in mind that 15 major brands recommend replacements of polystyrene foam for packaging, including Coca-Cola Co, Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, P&G, Unilever, Mars, Danone, L’Oreal, according to the New Plastics Economy Project of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

More than 100 U.S. cities and counties have banned or restricted foam packaging says As You Sow, as well as nine countries.

These actions by investors demonstrate the focus on companies and their products and services and taking action where they have objections to practices (such as using foam for take-out food).

Important Update on February 7, 2018:

Dunkin’ Brands to Phase Out of Foam Cups

Conrad MacKerron, SVP of As You Sow, said today that Dunkin’ Brands has agreed to replace its polystyrene foam beverage cups by 2020, removing almost 1 billion foam cups from the waste stream each year.

Instead, paper cups will be used (with recycled fiber content).  As You sow has engaged with Dunkin’ Brands for several years on the issue and had a 2017 shareholder proposal (withdrawn) after Dunkin’ Brands agreed to publish a progress report and address the issue.

Finally in View– What a Low-Carbon Economy Looks Like…

The State of California is the world’s sixth largest economy all by itself!

While President Donald Trump upon taking office fulfilled one of his signature campaign promises – beginning the process of withdrawal from the historic COP 21 Paris Accord on climate change – California Governor Edmund (Jerry) G. Brown, Jr is independently moving ahead with his state’s  own plans to move toward a low-carbon economy.

The Global Climate Change Action Summit is scheduled for September 2018 in San Francisco, California.

The theme, as described by the governor: “Sub-national governments” (cities & states), business sector leaders, investors and civil society leaders will gather to “demonstrate the groundswell of innovative, ambitious climate action from leaders around the world, highlight economic and environmental transition already underway and spur deeper commitment from all parties, including national governments.”

Says the governor: “California remains committed to a clean energy future and we welcome the responsibility to lead on America’s behalf… ”

And: “Look, it is up to you and me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the existential threat of climate change.”

Consider This
In June 2017 Governor Brown formed the U.S. Climate Alliance with his peers (the governors of Washington State and New York State) and more than a dozen states then signed on, committing to achieve the U.S. goal of reducing carbon emissions by 26% to 28% from 2005 levels – more than the Federal Clean Power Plan (that was President Obama’s plan, scuttled by Trump).


  • Governor Brown was named Special Advisor for States and Peoples for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 23) in 2017.
  • Early in 2017, Governor Brown re-affirmed California’s commitment to exceed the Clean Power Plan targets and enact the toughest restrictions in the nation on “destructive super pollutants”.
  • Also, Cap & Trade funds will direct GHG reduction revenues to communities that are disadvantaged and support clean transport and protect natural resources.
  • California aims to generate half of the state’s total electricity from renewable sources by the year 2030 and double the rate of efficiency savings in California buildings of all types.
  • California aims to reduce fossil fuel use in cars and trucks by half of the current volumes used over the next 15 years. (The state has a carbon tax in place, paid by motorists at the pump.)
  • While doing this — California has created 2.5 million new jobs through 2016; eliminated a $27 trillion budget deficit; and improved its credit rating.

G&A Institute Perspectives

The year 2018, as we said at the top of this commentary, will be characterized by volume and velocity in both the corporate sector and investment community. These are the two halves of the vital capital markets whole —corporate issuers and investors (asset owners & managers) who provide the capital.

“Sustainability” is the important buzzword; the variation of themes include such titles as corporate ESG performance (environmental, social or societal and corporate governance factors, the evaluation of which is at the core of sustainable investing).

We also hear about Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, Ethical Behavior, and now from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, about Purpose for the Corporation.

We believe that the tipping point (that eloquent and insightful perspective offered by The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell in his book of that title) is here for corporate sustainability and sustainable investing.

We look forward in this year to assisting corporate managers as well as investment professionals in better understanding and mastering the keys to success in both fields – the two halves of our great capital markets system!


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