November 22, 2022

ESG: Materiality Isn’t Just About the Bottom Line – or Maybe Even About the Bottom Line

When it comes to ESG disclosure, it’s become apparent that a lot of folks at the SEC don’t seem to approach the materiality concept in the traditional way. A recent speech by a senior Division of Enforcement official emphasized that point.  Here’s an excerpt from a CFO Dive article on her remarks:

The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) will look beyond the figures that underlie net income when determining whether a company is in compliance with the agency’s proposed climate risk disclosure rule, an SEC enforcement official said Tuesday. “If the company has really put a lot of emphasis in its marketing around, for example, what it’s doing in the climate space, those are ways that I think it can become material even if you don’t necessarily see that translate to the bottom line,” according to Carolyn Welshhans, associate director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division.

“Something can be material to a company — for example specific to that company’s business or its operations — not just as financial statements,” Welshhans said at Securities Enforcement Forum 2022 after noting that her comments did not necessarily reflect the view of the agency. “It’s not just quantitative — it’s not just ‘does something impact the bottom line.’”

The idea that financial materiality involves both quantitative and qualitative considerations is something that the Staff has made clear since at least the time that SAB 99 was issued. But I think there needs to be some connection to a statement’s impact on a reasonable investor, and I’m not sure that the example of ESG-related puffery around a marketing campaign makes that connection. That kind of position risks unmooring materiality entirely from financial considerations, which I think will ultimately undermine the SEC’s credibility as a financial regulator.

On the other hand, who cares what I think?  This is where we are, and companies need to act accordingly when it comes to ESG disclosure. I think the article’s quote from Kelly Gibson of Morgan Lewis, who previously led the SEC’s Climate & ESG Task Force, sums up the way companies should approach ESG-related statements in the current environment:

“If you’re making a statement about ESG [environmental, social and governance performance], the SEC is going to consider it to be material. . . I know that’s a blanket generalization, but at least from what I’m seeing that’s not a point to argue with the SEC.”

John Jenkins