Once a niche concern, corporate sustainability reporting has over the last two decades become a practice increasingly expected of major companies. A number of factors have driven such transparency into the business mainstream. In the United States, shareholders and other stakeholders such as communities who prize information about a company’s nonfinancial impacts have been a driving force. So have pointed new regulations in countries where many American companies operate — although no such requirements exist in the United States, except a few limited state guidelines. But will such forces continue to sustain, indeed nurture, sustainability?
In 2018, The Conference Board analyzed worldwide corporate sustainability reporting to uncover trends in nonfinancial disclosure and identify issues that companies should keep on their radar screens. There is a lot of encouraging news to report about companies based in the United States and elsewhere. We drew information from more than 5,000 firms in 23 countries, spanning the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and North America. Focusing primarily on data disclosed by American companies in comparison to peers in other regions, we analyzed data on 91 environmental and social practices — including greenhouse gas emissions, workplace diversity, and human rights policies, among others — to reveal how companies are responding to increased pressure to disclose their nonfinancial impacts.
While there are currently no broad, nation-wide sustainability reporting requirements in the United States, in some cases companies based here are subject to reporting requirements imposed by other jurisdictions. For example, certain American companies operating in Europe are subject to new EU reporting requirements on disclosure of nonfinancial and diversity information that went into effect last year.
Sarah Dadush, professor of law at Rutgers University, finds value in what she calls “disclosure regulation experimentation” in different jurisdictions. “Not all disclosure rules are created equal,” she says. “For example, the EU directive goes much farther than the disclosure requirements applicable in the United States.” She notes that the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, a rare example of a U.S.-based requirement, “requires only that companies disclose whether or not they have a sustainability policy in place, not to adopt such policies or to take remedial action if an adverse environmental or social event occurs in their supply chain.”
Not so in Europe, where the directive “requires companies to identify sustainability risks in their supply chains and to disclose the measures they are taking to address those risks, as well as outcomes,” Dadush notes. “More demanding disclosure rules coming from the EU could help to ratchet up U.S. rules, a dynamic that would be particularly helpful if domestic efforts to improve disclosure fail.” Otherwise put, “Experimentation is important because higher regional standards for sustainability disclosure could lead to regulatory upgrades across the globe.”
Thus, even in the absence of widespread domestic reporting requirements or a federal mandate, this combination of pressure from key stakeholders, along with required reporting from some overseas jurisdictions, means U.S.-based companies are increasingly active in nonfinancial disclosure. Actually, more than active: we found that American firms tend to be more transparent than their peers in much of the world. For example, U.S. corporations in the research sample on average disclosed information on one-quarter of the 91 environmental and social practices covered. This is the second-highest level of nonfinancial transparency of the 23 countries examined in the study; only companies based in Japan, where corporate sustainability reporting requirements have been in place for years, had a higher disclosure rate. The United Kingdom, Taiwan, and France round out the top five countries with the highest levels of corporate sustainability disclosure for companies headquartered there. At the opposite end of the spectrum, nonfinancial disclosure is largely absent from companies based in Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Poland. In these countries, companies on average report on fewer than five of the 91 practices we tracked.
Sustainability disclosure for U.S.-based companies is driven not only by shareholder pressure but also by a recognition that transparency can help strengthen relationships with employees, customers, suppliers, and local communities. Voluntary sustainability reporting frameworks such as the GRI Standards play an important role in helping firms navigate nonfinancial disclosure by making the process easier. These instruments are also evolving to encourage companies to focus their reporting on material issues. Materiality is a term of art in accounting for publicly held companies, meaning issues that such firms and their share owners as well as other stakeholders, including communities where facilities are located, deem most important or relevant to the business’s operations. It thus is key to the standards put forward by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, as well as the framework developed by the industry-led Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, known as TCFD, which encourages firms to align climate-related risk disclosures with investors’ needs.
GRI chief executive Tim Mohin says, “That investors are pushing for more transparency about organizations’ impact shows how important sustainability is for business.” There is a new acronym in town in addition to TCFD and GRI, which used to be called the Global Reporting Initiative. That neophyte neologism is ESG, which stands for environmental, social, and governance aspects of a firm engaged in commerce. “Through the GRI Standards, we provide the most comprehensive framework for ESG disclosure and a common language that investors and other stakeholders use to improve both business and sustainability outcomes,” Mohin notes. “With the GRI materiality assessment that involves all relevant stakeholders, organizations can be sure they are acting on the issues that are most relevant to them, and to the communities where they operate.”
While most U.S. nonfinancial reporting remains voluntary, some long-term investors are looking to change this. For example, in October 2018, a group of investors representing more than $5 trillion in assets under management, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the New York State Comptroller, petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to develop a comprehensive framework requiring public companies to disclose ESG aspects of their operations.
We also find that across regions and countries, sustainability disclosure rates generally increase with company size. The largest companies by revenue consistently have higher disclosure rates than companies in lower revenue groups, and in some cases the differences are significant. Companies in the largest revenue group (with annual income of $5 billion or more) on average reported on 26 of the 91 environmental and social practices examined, double the number reported by companies in the next-highest revenue group (over $1 billion). This owes to the fact that large companies are generally more prone to stakeholder scrutiny. In addition, many of the nonfinancial reporting requirements introduced in recent years, including those by stock exchanges (such as the Singapore Exchange), often apply primarily to larger companies.
What follows are three case analyses of an environmental, a social, and a governance aspect of corporate performance in the ESG/sustainability reporting space. We’ll look at business’s reporting on climate change impacts, gender diversity, and the use of external assurance to validate ESG data.
As more companies recognize that climate change can pose significant risks to their business, they are preparing strategies in response. Almost half of the 250 largest
publicly traded American companies have such strategies. And 36 percent of the U.S. sample of companies include discussion of climate-related risks in their annual filings.
Such disclosure is gaining traction among U.S. companies largely due to a growing recognition that climate change has the potential to pose material risks for businesses, and that companies should disclose these risks as well as steps to prevent and/or mitigate them. While a 2010 SEC rule requires companies to disclose material climate-related risks, enforcement has been notoriously lax. Nonbinding efforts to standardize and improve disclosure, such as the framework introduced by TCFD, are likely having a greater impact than the SEC rule. Individual states are also starting to recognize the financial risks associated with climate change: In 2018, for example, California enacted a bill requiring the two largest pension funds in the country, CalPERS and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, to disclose all funds’ exposure to climate-related financial risks.
Shareholders also continue to be active regarding climate risks. In 2018, for example, investor proposals requesting that companies conduct climate-risk analyses passed at Anadarko Petroleum and at Kinder Morgan. Similar proposals received at least 40 percent of votes cast at Noble Energy and Old Republic. Relatedly, shareholder proposals passed at Genesee & Wyoming and at Middleby Corporation requesting that the companies report on greenhouse gas management strategies.
Investors are increasingly attuned to climate-related risks and looking for reassurance that companies are taking steps to mitigate them. To help companies meet investor expectations for climate-risk reporting, TCFD released its recommendations for disclosure of climate-related financial risks in 2017. These recommendations encourage businesses to discuss their strategies for dealing with climate change impacts in financial filings and annual reports. Other nonfinancial reporting frameworks, guidelines, and standards, such as those from GRI and the Sustainability Accounting Standard Board, also offer guidance on how to disclose climate-related information. For an example, Alcoa’s most recent annual report details the potential impacts climate change could have on its operation, ranging from regulatory costs to operational impacts resulting from changes in rainfall patterns and water shortages. The report makes clear that if these impacts materialize they could damage the company’s production and financial performance.
These effects are not trivial: The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, damages from climate change could reach $54 trillion by as early as 2040. And the severity of these damages is now estimated to be greater — and likely to occur earlier — than previously thought. The business community has a significant role to play here. When it comes to climate change, aligning investor needs with social needs will achieve the fabled win-win scenario.
Another key topic emerging from our analysis is gender diversity in business leadership. We found that women fill fewer than one in five board seats globally. The differences
by country are significant: Companies in France, for example, have the highest median share of women directors (40 percent), followed by Italy (33 percent), and Belgium (30 percent). Female directors at American companies account for a median 21 percent of board members. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the median percentage of women on company boards was reported to be nil among Russian, Mexican, Indonesian, Pakistani, and South Korean companies.
These low levels of boardroom gender diversity have triggered responses in several countries. Norway, for example, in 2003 became the first country to pass a quota mandate for women’s representation on corporate boards of firms based there. Several European countries have since followed suit, including Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. In the United States, some states are commencing legal action to counter low levels of gender diversity on boards of firms headquartered in their jurisdictions. For example, in 2018 California passed a law requiring companies “whose principal executive offices” are in the Golden State to have at least one woman on their boards by the end of 2019. That mandate increases to two women directors (for companies with five directors) or to three women directors (for companies with six or more directors) by the close of 2021. This new requirement will be of particular interest to technology companies, many of them headquartered there, as our data show that, globally, this sector has the lowest representation of women on company boards of any sector: On average, roughly 1 in 10 tech company directors is female.
Large asset managers, including BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard, are also announcing stewardship programs and actively supporting shareholder proposals aimed at increasing board diversity. In 2018, for example, five board-diversity shareholder resolutions came to a vote among Russell 3000 Index companies, although none passed. Discovery Inc. faced a resolution to adopt a policy for improving board diversity that was supported by one-third of the votes cast. At Oracle Corporation, a gender pay gap resolution received almost two-fifths of the votes cast.
Gender pay gap transparency is a related issue in which companies are increasingly interested, one that overlaps with the governance space. Currently, few U.S. companies provide such details. Our analysis found that, of the 250 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, only 3 percent, including Apple, Microsoft, and Johnson Controls, publish a breakout of their gender pay gaps. While by no means widely practiced, gender pay difference transparency is more common among European companies. For example, 10 percent of sample companies in Italy disclose such details; in the U.K., only four percent of companies report this information, but disclosure is likely to surge because of a 2017 regulation requiring organizations with over 250 employees to publish gender and bonus pay, as well as the proportion of male and female employees in different pay bands. Virgin Money, a U.K.-based bank and financial services company, began reporting this information in 2016. The company’s most recent gender pay gap report reveals a mean pay disparity of 29.7 percent (based on hourly rates of pay). For bonuses paid, the mean gap is 48.7 percent. Notably, the company also discloses the gender distribution across four equally sized pay quartiles, revealing women represent 70 percent of the lowest pay quartile and only 37 percent of the highest. In its report, Virgin Money admits it has “more work to do in increasing the number of women in senior management roles.”
In recent years, U.S. shareholders have put increasing pressure on companies to report information related to gender pay disparities. And while there is no federal requirement for companies to disclose information on gender pay gaps, there has been a recent flurry of related state and local regulatory activity. For example, some states (California, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Oregon) and cities (San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia) have banned the use of salary history in setting pay. At the federal level, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that wage differences between male and female employees based on “prior salary alone or in combination with other factors” violate the federal Equal Pay Act.
Reporting is necessary, but not sufficient to remedy gender pay gaps. The real gains will be made by understanding the reasons for gaps and introducing measures to achieve equality and support women’s rise to senior management roles or to overcome bias in pay negotiation.
Indeed, while nonfinancial impact transparency is important, what ultimately matters is that disclosure leads to improvements in sustainability. And one way companies are driving such progress, particularly in the United States, is by linking incentive compensation to sustainability performance. The analysis finds that almost one-quarter of sample U.S. companies — including Verizon, American Electric Power, Suncor Energy, and Microsoft — link incentive compensation to sustainability performance. Verizon, for example, includes diversity and sustainability metrics as part of executives’ short-term incentive compensation plan. They account for five percent of the award opportunity, and include the following targets: ensuring that at least 58.9 percent of the U.S.-based workforce is comprised of minority and female employees; directing at least $4.6 billion of overall supplier spending to minority- and female-owned firms; and reducing the company’s carbon intensity by at least six percent compared to the prior year. This linking practice is also gaining traction among British companies, as 19 percent of the U.K. sample report having it in place.
U.S. shareholders have also paid special attention to this topic during the most recent proxy seasons. In 2018, for example, four shareholder resolutions came to a vote requesting that company boards include sustainability as one of the performance measures for senior executives (none passed, and on average they received 11.8 percent of votes). Five similar proposals were also voted on in 2017. Even when such resolutions don’t pass, they can be shareholder bellwethers.
The quality and reliability of nonfinancial information are becoming increasingly important. As more investors turn to ESG data to make portfolio decisions, there is growing pressure to ensure it is on par with traditional financial reporting. This is one reason the use of external assurance for sustainability information has grown in recent years — almost doubling in the S&P Global 1200 in five years, to 44 percent last year.
Globally, the use of external assurance is most prevalent among companies in Japan and Taiwan, where 42 percent obtain some assurance of their nonfinancial data. By comparison, 28 percent of sampled U.S. companies utilize such external assurance. Despite its becoming more prevalent, the actual scope of what is assured remains limited. Most companies currently include assurance only for a small number of environmental indicators (most commonly, those related to greenhouse gas emissions, and occasionally energy use and water consumption), and in some cases the scope of assurance is limited to the data-collection process and methodology and does not include verification of the data itself.
There are a few companies, however, that extend assurance to a wider range of indicators, including social ones. For example, Walgreens Boots Alliance includes information related to corporate giving and employee diversity in addition to more common indicators such as CO2 emissions, energy use, and waste. Similarly, Lockheed Martin extends assurance to 21 GRI indicators, including those related to employee diversity and injury rates.
Overall, external sustainability assurance is most common among higher-revenue companies. This is likely due in part to the extra cost and other corporate resources. Recent academic research, however, suggests the benefits of assurance can outweigh the associated costs. A study by Ryan Casey and Jonathan Grenier in the Journal of Accountancy last year found that sustainability assurance can lead to reduced cost of capital for companies, and that this benefit surpassed assurance costs for more than half of examined companies.
The last two decades have seen corporate sustainability reporting established as a mainstream practice. The frameworks, guidelines, and standards designed to help companies and their stakeholders navigate sustainability reporting have also evolved, focusing less on breadth of disclosure — what some may view as disclosure for its own sake — and more on its quality and materiality. Another development in this respect is integrated reporting, a model that encourages more holistic disclosure focusing on value created.
For many large companies, remaining on the sidelines is no longer an option, as many countries are introducing nonfinancial reporting requirements. Even in the absence of mandates, stakeholder pressure to disclose nonfinancial impacts such as climate-related risks, board diversity, and gender pay inequity is greater than ever.
While the growth of sustainability reporting should be lauded, nonfinancial disclosure alone does not necessarily translate into better performance. As Professor Sarah Dadush notes, “The reality is that more reporting does not necessarily mean better reporting or indeed better sustainability performance. For reporting requirements (whether mandatory or voluntary) to be effective in terms of generating positive change in sustainability performance, the quality of the reporting requirements must itself be improved.” In Japan, for example, virtually all companies in the sample report the percentage of women on their boards, yet only three percent of directors among Japanese companies are female. As nonfinancial reporting requirements continue to emerge and develop, frameworks should be designed to achieve not only greater disclosure but also performance improvements. The key is recognizing that disclosure alone is insufficient — and performance must follow transparency. TEF