As described in this press release, the SEC has filed a complaint against Vale S.A., a publicly traded (NYSE) Brazilian mining company and one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, charging that it made “false and misleading claims about the safety of its dams prior to the January 2019 collapse of its Brumadinho dam. The collapse killed 270 people, caused immeasurable environmental and social harm, and led to a loss of more than $4 billion in Vale’s market capitalization.” The SEC alleged that Vale “fraudulently assured investors that the company adhered to the ‘strictest international practices’ in evaluating dam safety and that 100 percent of its dams were certified to be in stable condition.” Significantly, these statements were contained, not just in Vale’s SEC filings, but also, in large part, in its sustainability reports. According to Gurbir Grewal, Director of Enforcement, “[m]any investors rely on ESG disclosures like those contained in Vale’s annual Sustainability Reports and other public filings to make informed investment decisions….By allegedly manipulating those disclosures, Vale compounded the social and environmental harm caused by the Brumadinho dam’s tragic collapse and undermined investors’ ability to evaluate the risks posed by Vale’s securities.” Notably, the press release refers to the SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force formed last year in the Division of Enforcement “with a mandate to identify material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ ESG disclosures, like the false and misleading claims made by Vale.” The SEC’s charges arising out of this horrific accident are a version of “event-driven” securities litigation—brought this time, not by shareholders, but by the SEC.
ISSB global sustainability reporting standards—will the SEC’s expected climate disclosure rules be in sync?
As part of the Deloitte Global Boardroom Program, in Q4 2021, Deloitte surveyed over 350 audit committee members in 40 countries about climate issues. In the survey, 60% of respondents said “the lack of global reporting standards makes it hard to compare their organization’s progress against meaningful external benchmarks.” The International Sustainability Standards Board established by the IFRS Foundations is developing a set of global sustainability reporting standards. Will climate disclosure rules expected from the SEC be in sync with ISSB global standards? Could some companies be subject to both climate disclosure regimes?
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.
Back in January, in Davos, the World Economic Forum International Business Council— a group of 120 of the largest businesses—together with the Big Four accounting firms, announced a new initiative “to develop a core set of common metrics to track environmental and social responsibility” and released a draft set of metrics for review and consideration. (See this PubCo post.) Last month, the final results, the IBC Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics, were presented in this whitepaper, “Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism—Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation.” The preface to the whitepaper observes that we are “in the midst of the most severe series of challenges the world has experienced since World War Two. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our global systems. It has exacerbated underlying economic and social inequalities and is unfolding at the same time as a mounting climate crisis…. The private sector has a critical role to play.” The whitepaper is presented in that larger context, as an effort
“to improve the ways that companies measure and demonstrate their contributions towards creating more prosperous, fulfilled societies and a more sustainable relationship with our planet. It also recognizes that companies that hold themselves accountable to their stakeholders and increase transparency will be more viable—and valuable—in the long-term. The culmination of a year’s effort from contributors on every continent, this work defines the essence of stakeholder capitalism: it is the capacity of the private sector to harness the innovative, creative power of individuals and teams to generate long-term value for shareholders, for all members of society and for the planet we share. It is an idea whose time has come.”
Quite a heavy lift. But will the framework be widely adopted?
In his annual letter to CEOs in January, CEO Laurence Fink announced that BlackRock was putting “sustainability at the center of [its] investment approach,” and made clear that companies needed to step up their games when it comes to sustainability disclosure. (See this PubCo post.) Even in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, both BlackRock and State Street have issued statements indicating their intention to continue to center their stewardship on the demand for additional disclosure on key ESG and sustainability issues such as climate change risk and human capital management. For those seeking to improve their ESG reporting, a managing director of consultant Protiviti offers a number of recommendations in this Forbes article.
What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on companies’ sustainability efforts? On the one hand, as discussed in this article from the WSJ, C-suite occupants have been “trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves….History suggests this new [sustainability] paradigm is probably on the back burner.” Even BlackRock, which had previously announced that it was putting “sustainability at the center of [its] investment approach,” acknowledged in April, that “certain non-financial projects like sustainability reports had been ‘de-prioritized’ due to COVID-19. ‘We recognize that in the near-term companies may need to reallocate resources to address immediate priorities in these uncertain times.’ BlackRock’s report stated. BlackRock said it would ‘expect a return to companies focusing on material sustainability management and reporting in due course.’”
On the other hand, however, as this article from Financial Executives International observed, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “the very issues that have been driving ESG concerns—managing resources, sustainability, community impact and employee well-being.” While it might have been “easy to assume the current crisis may permanently shift attention away from environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns as management teams grapple with existential issues,” it turned out that “the very actions companies are taking will likely bring them closer to the multi-stakeholder, long-term value principles that lie at the heart of ESG.” How are companies viewing the effects?
According to this recent study from consulting firm McKinsey, investors want to see a different kind of sustainability reporting. The authors observe that, in light of mounting evidence “that the financial performance of companies corresponds to how well they contend with environmental, social, governance (ESG), and other non-financial matters, more investors are seeking to determine whether executives are running their businesses with such issues in mind.” Although there has been an increase in sustainability reporting, McKinsey’s survey revealed that investors believe that “they cannot readily use companies’ sustainability disclosures to inform investment decisions and advice accurately.” Why not? Because, unlike regular SEC-mandated financial disclosures, ESG disclosures don’t conform to a common set of standards—in fact, they may well conform to any of a dozen major reporting frameworks and many more standards, selected at the discretion of the company. That leaves investors to try to sort things out before they can make any side-by-side comparisons—if that’s even possible. According to McKinsey, investors would really like to see some type of legal mandate around sustainability reporting. The rub is that, ironically, it’s the SEC that isn’t on board with that idea—at least, not yet.
Way back in 2016, the SEC issued a Concept Release requesting comment on an enormous variety of potential changes to Reg S-K, including sustainability. (See this PubCo post.) As reported by BNA, then-Director of Corp Fin, Keith Higgins, advised that the highest proportion of comments received on the Reg S-K Concept Release related to better environmental and social responsibility disclosure. He observed that, of the 360 “unique” comment letters (i.e., non-form letters) received, about 80% “were looking for improved sustainability disclosure.” The problem, he recognized, was that those types of sustainability disclosures were not necessarily amenable to one-size-fits-all rulemaking. According to Higgins, “[c]limate change tops the list of issues….” However, he acknowledged, the issues involved in sustainability “cut across 79 different industries and aren’t suited to a constant set of rules….‘Everyone recognizes that one-size-fits-all disclosure is likely not to be so effective in the sustainability area—others recognize the enormity of that task.’” (See this PubCo post.) Now, independent standard-setting organization SASB, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, seems to have come to the rescue, announcing that it has published a series of sustainability accounting standards specifically tailored for 77 industries. According to the SASB Chair, the publication of these standards represents an “important milestone” because they provide “codified, market-based standards for measuring, managing, and reporting on sustainability factors that drive value and affect financial performance.” Will the SEC now take up the challenge of sustainability disclosure?
by Cydney Posner With the SEC asking proactively in its concept release (see this PubCo post) whether to mandate sustainability disclosure, the question of the relevance to investors of sustainability issues has assumed a new prominence. According to the SEC, some investors have requested more disclosure of a variety of […]