How do companies tackle the assignment of conveying to their shareholders and other stakeholders how they approach sustainability—in a way that is accurate, clear and genuine and that does not sound like a confected facsimile of every other peer company? That sounds like a challenging task. To address that challenge, The Conference Board convened a working group of over 300 executives from more than 150 companies who met five times between July 2020 and May 2021 to share ideas about how companies can effectively “tell their sustainability stories.” The Board captured some of those ideas in this report.
In his 2020 annual letter to CEOs, Laurence Fink, CEO and Chair of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” According to Fink’s letter, “[c]limate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” What’s more, he made it clear that companies need to step up their games when it came to sustainability disclosure. (See this PubCo post.) At the Northwestern Law Securities Regulation Institute this week, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro said that, at companies where she was on the board, Fink’s statement had “an enormous impact last year.” Fink has just released his 2021 letter to CEOs, in which he asks companies to disclose a “plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy.” Will this year’s letter have the same impact?
Although it may seem like the last millennium, it was only in January of this year that the CEO of BlackRock, Laurence Fink, in his annual letter to CEOs, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) According to Fink’s letter, “[c]limate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” Although he had seen many financial crises over the course of his long career, in the broad scheme of things, they were all ultimately relatively short-term in nature. Not so with climate change: “Even if only a fraction of the projected impacts is realized, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis.” And investors are now “recognizing that climate risk is investment risk,” making climate change the topic that clients raised most often with BlackRock. To that end, BlackRock announced a number of new initiatives, among them “strengthening our commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities.” As part of that initiative, BlackRock said that it would hold companies accountable if they failed to make sufficient progress. That position came in the face of press reports, like this one in the NYT, highlighting what appeared to be stark inconsistencies between the BlackRock’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record, protests outside of its offices by climate activists, letters from Senators and charges of greenwashing. So what has been the result? BlackRock has just published a report describing its investment stewardship actions taken during 2020 in connection with climate and other sustainability issues. Given that BlackRock is the largest asset manager, companies may want to take note.
As you know, there has been a fairly sustained clamor for the SEC to impose a requirement for climate change and sustainability disclosure. For example, in May, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee recommended that the SEC “set the framework” for issuers to report on material environmental, social and governance information, concluding that “the time has come for the SEC to address this issue.” (See this PubCo post.) However, SEC Chair Jay Clayton and others at the SEC have been fairly vocal about their reluctance to impose a prescriptive sustainability disclosure requirement beyond principles-based materiality. But what about a narrower request? A mandate for just a single piece of information? This rulemaking petition filed by Impax Asset Management LLC, investment adviser to Pax World Funds, a “specialist asset manager investing in the transition to a more sustainable economy,” requests that the SEC “require that companies identify the specific locations of their significant assets, so that investors, analysts and financial markets can do a better job assessing the physical risks companies face related to climate change.”
BlackRock puts sustainability at the center of investment strategy, expects more transparency in sustainability disclosure
Was it the heartbreaking photos of scorched koalas in Australia? Was it the pressure from activists such as As You Sow, which submitted a shareholder proposal asking for a report on how the company plans to implement the new Business Roundtable statement of purpose? (See this PubCo post.) Was it the press reports, like this one in the NYT, highlighting what appeared to be stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record? Was it the protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists? The letters from Senators? The charges of greenwashing? Whatever the precipitating factor, in this year’s annual letter to CEOs, Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” What’s more, he made clear that companies need to step up their games when it comes to sustainability disclosure.
In remarks today in London at the 18th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation in Europe, Corp Fin Director William Hinman discussed the application of a “Principles-Based Approach to Disclosing Complex, Uncertain and Evolving Risks,” specifically addressing Brexit and sustainability. With regard to Brexit disclosure, Hinman offers a very useful cheat sheet of good questions to consider in crafting appropriately tailored disclosure.
In this report, Change the Conversation: Redefining How Companies Engage Investors on Sustainability, sustainability nonprofit Ceres provides some guidance on how companies should best engage with their investors on the issue of sustainability. While almost half of the 600 largest U.S. public companies communicate with investors about environmental, social and governance issues, according to Ceres, they could be doing a much better job of it. To that end, Ceres offers a set of nine recommendations “to guide companies toward more meaningful and effective investor engagement on ESG issues.” What is the key message? Don’t “fall into the trap of positioning sustainability as the ‘right thing to do,’ without making the connection to the business case.” And make the business case for sustainability by tying it to financial performance and demonstrating that it can drive business value. Whether or not you buy into the whole program, you may still find Ceres’ perspective and examples provided helpful in guiding your engagement efforts.
At last week’s meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee members held a Q&A session with SEC Chair Jay Clayton, followed by a discussion of environmental, social and governance disclosure, where the main question appeared to be whether to recommend that ESG disclosure be required through regulation, continued as voluntary disclosure but under a particular framework advocated by the SEC or continued only to the extent of private ordering as is currently the case.
Among the points addressed in the Q&A was a potential government shutdown. Clayton said that the SEC was planning for a possible shutdown, and that, as in previous shutdowns, he expected the SEC would be able to continue its operations for a number of days post-shutdown.
by Cydney Posner According to BNA, at a recent conference, Corp Fin Director Keith Higgins reported that the highest proportion of comments so far received on the Reg S-K Concept Release related to better environmental and social responsibility disclosure. As SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated a few months ago: the […]
by Cydney Posner In a speech last week to the International Corporate Governance Network Annual Conference, the last agenda item discussed by SEC Chair Mary Jo White was the current state of sustainability reporting. The bottom line: the “issue has our attention.”