August 29, 2019

Investors Want Standardized Sustainability Disclosure

We’ve seen people in the “sustainability” industry starting to call for a uniform ESG disclosure framework – like this article from the CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). A few bills on that topic also have been introduced. Now, a recent McKinsey study says that investors are also calling for change.

This Cooley blog summarizes the findings – here’s the intro:

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.

As this blog from Elm Sustainability Partners points out, executives also aren’t enthralled with the current approach – they spend a ton of time responding to specialized surveys for what is essentially the same info – e.g. emissions data that is tabulated in different ways to conform to different standards.

Of course, “something is better than nothing” – so companies need to continue to attempt to meet investors’ information demands by providing relevant sustainability info. To get the scoop how companies that may have fewer resources are implementing sustainability initiatives – and making their disclosure as usable as possible – tune in to our October 16th webcast, “Sustainability Reporting: Small & Mid-Cap Perspectives.”

Making Sense of ESG Reporting Frameworks

Until we get a standardized approach to ESG disclosure, companies (and investors) will continue to wade through the current “alphabet soup” of reporting frameworks – and this issue of “Corporate Secretary” is worth a read to make sense of it all. Starting on page 5, it details how companies can use the GRI, SASB and other approaches to ESG disclosure. Here’s an excerpt from the write-up on SASB’s recent work:

In March 2019, SASB and the Climate Disclosure Standards Board published “Laying the groundwork for effective TCFD aligned disclosures,” which includes on page 8 a checklist of 11 preliminary steps companies can take to start integrating the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. This is a hands-on, how-to resource that can help both directors and management get started.

Companies can also start their reporting journey by conducting a materiality assessment with the SASB materiality map, an interactive tool to look up industry-specific disclosure topics and metrics and identify and compare disclosure topics across different industries and sectors. SASB’s Engagement Guide for Asset Owners & Asset Managers can be a valuable resource for companies just starting to think about sustainability disclosures.

EU Credit Ratings: Impact of ESG Factors

I’ve blogged about how some credit rating agencies are voluntarily committing to look at ESG criteria in a more systemic way, and are starting to offer one-off explanations of how social issues can diminish or enhance credit ratings. In the EU, regulators appear to be imposing a more uniform approach. This announcement from the European Securities & Markets Authority says that credit rating agencies aren’t required to consider sustainability in their assessments (as explained in more detail in this 38-page document). But if they do, they need to follow new guidelines in explaining how ESG factors impact the rating.

Page 26 of the guidelines say that if ESG factors are a “key driver” behind a change to a credit rating or rating outlook, the rating agency’s accompanying press release or report should:

– Outline whether any of the key drivers behind the change to the credit rating or rating outlook correspond to that CRA’s categorisation of ESG factors

– Identify the key driving factors that were considered by that CRA to be ESG factors

– Explain why these ESG factors were material to the credit rating or rating outlook

– Include a link to either the section of that CRA’s website that includes guidance explaining how ESG factors are considered as part of that CRA’s credit ratings or a document that explains how ESG factors are considered within that CRA’s methodologies or associated models

Liz Dunshee