How To Show Corporate Leadership In Sustainability10 November, 2015 / Articles
Last month, I wrote here about how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals create real opportunities for business leaders based on market opportunities in solving the world’s greatest environmental and social challenges. I followed this with a post about the new ERISA regulations regarding sustainability, and how pension fund fiduciaries can now consider material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues facing the companies in their investment portfolios. But what progress are we seeing in how boards of directors of public companies demonstrate leadership in sustainability?
Here, sadly, U.S. corporations are lacking. A 2014 report by Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership, found that only 32 percent of the largest 613 publicly traded U.S. companies had board oversight over sustainability. The irony is obvious here. For most companies, ESG is really ES and lower case ‘g.’ Consider for example Volkswagen, where weak corporate governance has seriously undermined the company’s “E” efforts and could ultimately jeopardize its “S” efforts. Since the board is responsible for representing the interests of the corporation, I would argue that weak corporate governance on sustainability inhibits companies’ ability to profit from sustainability. And investor desire to see companies do so in the interests of long-term profitability will also be inhibited.
A new Ceres report published last week, “View from the Top: How Corporate Boards Can Engage on Sustainability Performance,” is therefore most timely and welcome. In it, insights from dozens of interviews with senior corporate leaders and corporate governance experts can all be boiled down into two clear guidelines. Firstly, sustainability needs to be integrated into board governance systems and processes. Secondly and crucially, sustainability needs to be integrated into board actions.
Commenting on this report, Mindy Lubber, the CEO of Ceres, said that: “Given the scope and scale of corporate action needed to address climate and other sustainability challenges, we are looking for corporate boards to exhibit leadership for corporate action on sustainability – and to do so smartly and effectively.”
But what does this mean in practice? The report provides a number of recommendations for implementing these guidelines, along with examples of companies that others can learn from. Three of these recommendations are I think particularly important in addressing the “sustainability communication conundrum” between companies and investors. That is, where companies complain that investors are only focused on short-term profits and aren’t interested in sustainability. And where investors complain that companies are only focused on short-term profits and don’t explain how they are managing the sustainability issues that affect long-term performance.