Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive receives final approval, applicable to US companies with EU presence
On Monday, according to this press release from the Council of the European Union, all 27 members of the European Council voted in favor of the adoption of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, the last step for the CSRD to become law in the EU. The new rules require subject companies […]
At the PLI Securities Regulation Institute last week, the plethora of SEC rulemaking took some hits. It wasn’t simply the quantity of SEC rules and proposals, although that was certainly a factor. But the SEC has issued a lot of proposals in the past. Rather, it was the difficulty and complexity of implementation of these new rules and proposals that seemed to have created the concern that affected companies may just be overwhelmed. Former Corp Fin Director Meredith Cross, a co-chair of the program, pronounced the SEC’s climate proposal “outrageously” difficult, complicated and expensive for companies to implement, and those problems, the panel worried, would only be compounded by the adoption of expected new rules in the EU that would be applicable to many US companies and their EU subsidiaries. (See this Cooley Alert.) The panel feared that companies would be bombarded with a broad, complicated and often inconsistent series of climate/ESG disclosure mandates. Single materiality/double materiality anyone? But it wasn’t just the proposed climate disclosure that contributed to the concern. Recent rulemakings or proposals on stock buybacks, pay versus performance and clawbacks were also singled out as especially challenging for companies to put into effect.
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Trick or treat! Public companies in the US may be haunted by concerns about the breadth and complexity of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal, but if you are a US company with a presence in the EU, you may have something new to spook you—and it‘s not a ghost. We’re talking about expansive ESG reporting requirements under new EU rules expected to be finalized this fall.
Some U.S. companies may well have to report on ESG—even if the SEC takes no action on climate or other ESG disclosure proposals! How’s that? According to this press release from the Council of the European Union, the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement last week on a corporate sustainability reporting directive (CSRD) that would require more detailed reporting on “sustainability issues such as environmental rights, social rights, human rights and governance factors.” The provisional agreement is subject to approval by the Council and the European Parliament. The press release indicates that the requirements would apply to all large companies and all companies listed on regulated markets, as well as to listed small- to medium-size companies (“taking into account their specific characteristics”). Importantly, for companies outside the EU, “the requirement to provide a sustainability report applies to all companies generating a net turnover of €150 million in the EU and which have at least one subsidiary or branch in the EU. These companies must provide a report on their ESG impacts, namely on environmental, social and governance impacts, as defined in this directive.”
As we anticipate new proposals from the SEC on human capital and climate disclosure, this recent paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, Seven Myths of ESG, seems to be especially timely. The trend to take ESG into account in decision-making by companies and investors, not to mention the focus on ESG issues by regulators and even associations like the Business Roundtable, is “pervasive,” say the authors. Still, ESG is subject to “considerable uncertainty.” In the paper, the authors set about debunking some of the most common and persistent myths about what ESG is, how it should be implemented and its impact on corporate outcomes, “many of which,” they contend, “are not supported by empirical evidence.” Their objective is to provide a better understanding of ESG so that companies, institutions and regulators can “take a more thoughtful approach to incorporating stakeholder objectives into the corporate planning process.” The authors’ seven myths are summarized below.
While the global powers are occupied at the COP26 climate summit with negotiating and pledging (or, is it more “blah, blah, blah,” as teenage activist Greta Thunberg contends in some, uh, straight talk?), and we await the SEC’s expected climate disclosure framework, it might be worthwhile to get a handle on what companies are doing about sustainability reporting in the meantime. To help companies understand the current state of the art, CEO advisory firm Teneo surveyed 200 sustainability reports from S&P 500 companies in eleven industries published in the period between January 1 to June 30, 2021. Teneo’s report, The-State-of-U.S.-Sustainability-Reporting, provides useful samples, market statistics for various aspects of the content and design of these reports, as well as some practical considerations.
Although BlackRock, which manages assets valued at over $9 trillion, and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have long played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, BlackRock has also long been a target for protests by activists. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests by climate activists outside of the company’s offices are nothing new. There’s even a global network of NGOs, social movements, grassroots groups and financial advocates called “BlackRock’s Big Problem,” which pressures BlackRock to “rapidly align [its] business practices with a climate-safe world.” Why this singular outrage at BlackRock? Perhaps because, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record: BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies but, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred. For example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. BlackRock has just released its Investment Stewardship Report for the 2020-2021 proxy voting year (July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021). What a difference a year makes.
According to Law 360 reporting on a webcast panel last week, Acting Director of Enforcement Melissa Hodgman, warned that, in addition to “increased scrutiny” of “funds touting green investments,” we may well see more ESG disclosure-related enforcement actions in general. In March, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee announced the creation of a new climate and ESG task force in the Division of Enforcement. The moderator of the panel, a former co-Director of Enforcement, observed that “usually you don’t stand up a task force unless you’re pretty sure that task force is going to produce something.” So what should we expect?
When the press publishes articles alleging that a slew of profitable businesses are, quite legally, not paying much—if anything—in income taxes, and politicians argue that companies are just not paying their fair share, it’s bound to raise a few hackles. Now, this article in Bloomberg reports that tax transparency has become one of the “under-the-radar” elements of ESG disclosure that’s “gaining traction.” According to the article, ESG-oriented investors “want large public companies to disclose where they shift their profits and how much they pay in taxes, and to cut back on aggressive tax planning.”
Yesterday, at a meeting of the SEC’s Asset Management Advisory Committee, the Committee adopted recommendations (developed by the ESG Subcommittee) regarding ESG disclosure by issuers, intended to improve the information and disclosure used by investment managers for ESG investing. While addressing a broad array of issues regarding ESG investment products, the Committee recognized “that issuer disclosure is the starting discussion point for all ESG matters.” Given the dependence of the investment management industry on issuer disclosure regarding ESG matters and the resulting demand for consistent and comparable ESG disclosure, the recommendations are surprisingly mild—designed to prod rather than mandate.