A hymn to transformational change:
four key takeaways from GreenBiz 19
6 March 2019 - By Adriana Farenga
“If we want things to stay the same, we need things to change”. GreenBiz 19 (Phoenix, 26-28 February) Joel Makower, GreenBiz Chairman & Executive Editor kicked off the event by quoting The Leopard, an Italian novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
The idea of change and its urgency has been the recurrent theme of the entire conference: an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable development path requires a substantial shift in the way the economic and societal systems currently work – so that “things can stay the same”, i.e. we could continue to live and thrive on our planet.
Business occupies a central role in this agenda, and its contribution can be articulated under four main pillars:
- Cooperating to accelerate change
- Exploring the role of technology in decision-making processes
- Amplifying the role of materiality for transparency and accountability
- Engaging investors and shareholders in sustainable finance
These pillars constitute the four main takeaways of GreenBiz 19 and are strictly co-dependent and interrelated. Let’s examine them one by one.
Pillar 1: Cooperating to accelerate change
As Tim Mohin (CEO of Global Reporting Initiative - GRI) reminded in the opening plenary, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come with a fast-approaching deadline: there are only twelve years – 4,000 days – left until 2030. To get to scale in achieving the Global Goals we need alignment. This can be reached only through partnerships and collaboration, not just between corporations but also between companies, NGOs, and other institutions.
As Fred Krupp, President Environmental Defense Fund pointed out, cooperation with major business can generate large-scale results. “Many companies want to do more, but it is complex. Breaking bread with a corporation can be a path to transformation”.
Keryn James, CEO of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), particularly insisted on this concept. In this spirit, on the day before the beginning of GreenBiz 19, ERM and Datamaran announced a partnership. James commented on the partnership: “Combined experience and collective collaboration would allow us to do in 12 years what in the past has been done in 50”. Technology and artificial intelligence have a deep impact on this process.
Pillar 2: Exploring the role of technology in decision-making processes
"The use of data and technology is forcing companies to move more quickly and make decisions that protect them from risk and create more value.” – James continued.
In these recent years, technology has emerged as "the wind at our backs” and has gained a key role in supporting sustainability teams. New technology advancements enable new technical solutions, such as recycling or upcycling more efficiently, or generating and storing clean energy. In addition, digital technologies such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence have transformed the way we extract and analyze unstructured data, such as narrative, texts and commentaries. Data has indeed become easier to collect and to distribute, shifting the way companies approach their decision-making processes and identify risks and opportunities, but also forcing businesses to be more transparent.
“The world is demanding transparency and data is becoming more available”, maintained Fred Krupp. “That means companies are being incentivized to do more sooner”, which brings us to the next point.
Pillar 3: Amplifying the role of materiality for transparency and accountability
There is indeed a growing interest from investors in company ESG performance. Sustainability is becoming increasingly more embedded within the investment community. As Suzanne Fallender, Director of Corporate Responsibility at Intel Corporation, highlighted: "These days you have to assume all investors are including ESG issues in their analysis."
Investors, shareholders, and rating agencies are asking more questions on why topics are material, forcing companies to react. Yet, companies struggle to identify ESG-related risks and need help in bringing the evidence on what is material for them and what is not. In this sense, a robust materiality analysis should be grounded in the company specific context, and not based on global trends only.
More importantly, making sure that the board has oversight on the materiality determination process results in better risk management and better decision-making. Quoting Rodney Irwin (World Business Council for Sustainable Development - WBCSD): “Risk management does not stop with prioritizing ESG issues: on the contrary, this is where it starts.”
Pillar 4: Engaging investors and shareholders in sustainable finance
The truth is that we are in a transition period, with non-financial disclosures progressively finding place in financial statements. Looking at the current scenario, 25% of US investment dollars are now ESG-related, taking into account negative screening and impact investing strategies. Making sure that ESG investing is done in a rigorous way requires reliable data, strategy and understanding of the financial manifestations of non-financial issues.
According to Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer at Morgan Stanley, ESG has accelerated dramatically in the last few years because the investors community now recognizes that integrating ESG is actually part of being financially responsible.
There is a rising demand from investors for better and more material disclosure. In addition, when issues are considered not material, investors are expecting to read why and these statements need to be supported by robust evidence. This poses the question of how investors can access reliable ESG data.
ESG rating agencies play a fundamental role in this sense. Nonetheless the proliferation of ratings and raters is mudding true performance instead of making it more visible. This is why it is important to “rate the raters” based on some key elements:
- Transparency and accuracy of the rating methodology
- Frequency of the methodology updates
- Effectiveness in capturing material risk/opportunity factors for the industry
- Rewarding disclosure commitments of the company
- Openness to engagement
- Use of technology in the data collection, analysis and rating system
A hymn to transformational change
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