It’s difficult to imagine a world without ESG. It certainly feels like it’s all anyone talks about now. It seems like everyone is covering it. Here’s Matthew, who has just become an ESG Consultant. There’s Annie, who completed her CFA Level 4 ESG-Investing certificate. And Jason, who has a daily blog post covering the top 10 largest US companies’ efforts concerning ESG.
It’s understandable that some of us are experiencing a level of “ESG-fatigue” as we continue to be washed in news, updates, regulations and content. But none of this is without good reason. All this is to preserve our quality of life as a species, and it will take herculean efforts spanning all across the globe in EVERY industry.
ESG is a relatively new term (reportedly coined in the early to mid-2000s after the now famous ‘Who Cares Wins’ conference). However, “stewardship” is not. The word ‘steward’ is derived from an old English saying describing an estate’s guardian; charged with ensuring the safety of the estate’s asset.
In this vein, as stewards of business and investment, we are charged with being guardians of our customers, shareholders, ourselves and our operating environment. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that.
ESG factors can be traced as far back as the 17th and 18th century; when Methodists and Quakers set out guidelines for their followers about which companies they should invest in (this is the first recording “exclusionary screen”). Via advancements such as the Sullivan Principles in the 1970s (two guidelines that sought to bring economic pressure on ending apartheid in South Africa) and the growth of impact/social investing through the 1980s and 2000s, we find ourselves at a tipping point of what can overall be categorised as a stewardship revolution. But what makes this more than just another passing cloud?
1. Greater political and regulatory commitment
In April of this year, the US President, Joe Biden, hosted a virtual two-day summit where both the US and the EU pledged to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. In the UK, the Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), has engaged in consultation to bring all large UK firms into regulation. This is regarding their governance, strategy, risk management and metrics and targets, as they relate to carbon emission reductions. It comes into effect by 2022. Japan has been steadily trying to incorporate higher diversity, inclusion and ESG into corporate governance codes. Similar efforts are being made in China and Korea.
It’s clear that there is already a buy-in from “the top”. We predict stricter ESG regulatory frameworks going forward, affecting both smaller and larger companies alike. We believe businesses should prepare for this eventuality sooner rather than later.
2. Greater efforts to standardise disclosures
One of the pain points in the ESG market is that data is often incomparable. The levels of disclosure differ by company, industry and geography. Additionally, among ESG research companies, there are differing views of levels of materiality (a crucial aspect of ESG incorporation) which has led to differing opinions on firms’ ESG readiness. It is widely accepted that industry ESG scores correlate somewhere between 0.3 and 0.5. Recently, The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) announced a 2021 merge into a unified organisation, The Value Reporting Foundation. This is intended to simplify sustainability reporting disclosures for companies and investors alike.
We think this represents a turning point in how companies and investors will be able to assess risk and opportunities; opening the doors for greater global collaboration on solving complex yet common ESG issues.
3. Technology opening new doors
Blockchain technology has a range of applications in the ESG market, e.g. enabling companies to more quickly identify instances of money laundering and bribery (higher governance); to playing a major part in data security and privacy. There has been a higher use of AI and other forms of technology to aid the ESG-data integration process. While there is some discrepancy as to the view of how intense technology exacerbates the climate change issue, there is a range of applications that technology can play in improving our current, and future quality of life.
We expect to see soaring use of tech in the ESG landscape going forward, as companies explore ways of becoming more efficient in executing their stewardship frameworks and action plans.
There always was and continues to be room for stewardship in every business model. In that vein,
ESG will simply not come and go like Blu-ray technology. It’s here to stay and we should all buy-in.