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The Forces Driving Corporate Sustainability

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Investors, government regulators and nongovernmental organizations are pushing for increased disclosure of environmental, social and governance factors

MOST EARLY PRACTITIONERS of socially responsible investing (SRI) were limited to a single strategy known as negative screening. Simply put, this strategy avoided investing in companies connected to products considered harmful to society, like weapons or tobacco. Portfolios constructed using negative screening often underperformed broader stock indexes, leading SRI to be viewed as a niche strategy, one more suitable for investors who were willing to accept lower investment returns in order to invest according to their values.

Over the past decade or so, much has changed. Modern social investing – often called impact investing – is focused as much on return potential as on positive societal and environmental change. Impact investors are finding they can pressure companies to be more transparent about the sustainability of their supply chains and the environmental and societal impact of their production processes and products. Similarly, environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have become a more important part of the investment process. There has also been a parallel growth in corporate ESG self-reporting, third-party data analysis, and public and investor demands related to ESG. Amid all these advances, assets under management focused on sustainability (a major ESG factor) have grown from negligible to about one in five dollars of total managed assets.1

Growth in corporate sustainability disclosures (see exhibit 1) and other ESG factors has allowed investors and independent rating agencies, along with academics and stock exchanges, to form increasingly reliable assessments of the risks and opportunities associated with ESG issues and their effect on company performance. While some challenges remain in regard to evaluating sustainability reporting, organizations such as the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) have developed important sustainability reporting standards that can provide guidance to reporting companies.

Exhibit 1: S&P 500 Companies Sustainability Reporting

S&P 500 Companies Sustainability Reporting

Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. 2017. 

Voluntary Reporting

An increase in the number of corporations that voluntarily report sustainability data has been driven by factors such as:

  1. The growing importance of brand recognition and other intangible assets.
  2. From negligible a decade ago, assets deployed in ESG-related investment strategies have grown to more than $1 of every $5 under professional management in the U.S.1
  3. A rise of investor networks such as the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a United Nations supported organization, which now has over 1,700 signatories.
  4. Outside entities such as government regulators, stock exchanges and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) prompting a rise in the availability of sustainability data.

As sustainability reporting has grown, stakeholders have helped create a reinforcing cycle that has helped improve the depth of ESG reporting (see exhibit 2). Here's how it has often worked: Investment managers, asset owners and others, finding available ESG data useful yet limited, have engaged with companies to improve corporate disclosure. Examples of this include expanding the kind of information released and heightening data accuracy. Third-party organizations have then created guidelines on sustainability standards and ESG metrics that reinforce the cycle.

Exhibit 2: Corporate Sustainability Reporting Cycle

Exhibit 2: Corporate Sustainability Reporting Cycle

Source: U.S. Trust. 2017. 

What this Means for Investors

For investors, the growing availability of corporate sustainability and ESG data opens the door for new investment opportunities while also creating a complex landscape that requires expertise and institutional knowledge to navigate. Working with an advisor, investors can utilize the enhanced data to better evaluate and pursue both financial and environmental or social impact outcomes. Please keep in mind Impact investing and/or Environmental Social Governance (ESG) investing has certain risks based on the fact that ESG criteria excludes securities of certain issuers for nonfinancial reasons and therefore, investors may forgo some market opportunities and the universe of investments available will be smaller. To find out more about corporate sustainability reporting, read the full report here or contact an advisor today.

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