Not long ago, only 30 companies around the world reported data about their social and sustainability (that is, nonfinancial) endeavors. Today, more than 7,000 organizations do so.
While that transparency is undoubtedly a good thing, the market has become a noisy place for investors trying to decipher what kind of company they are buying into. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is an NGO established in 2011 with designs on cutting through that noise. Much the way the Financial Accounting Standards Board has systematized accounting principles in the United States over the last 40 or so years, SASB hopes to simplify and standardize how businesses report data from their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives.
George Serafeim is the Jakurski Family Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and an expert on sustainable and inclusive capitalism. Below, he describes how such standardized reporting could empower both companies and investors, and how it could revolutionize business practices in the future.
What prompted you to study the impact of ESG investments?
George Serafeim: Corporations can have an enormous impact on the very big problems we’re facing in the world today: natural resource scarcity, social inequality, and poverty, as well as on governance issues like product safety and corruption. More and more CEOs are leading their organizations to get seriously engaged with ESG issues. At the same time, more investors are using the reported ESG data in their capital allocation decisions. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 30 companies around the world releasing this kind of data. As of this year, there will be more than 7,000 companies doing so. It’s exponential, mind-blowing growth, but we still have a very poor understanding of the value implications of these kinds of actions. So there’s lots of room for improvement.
Are there certain companies excelling in this area, or any industries where ESG investments are particularly valuable?
GS: Economic activity around the world has become more concentrated in recent years, with most of it now controlled by just 1,000 companies. That allows economies of scale and scope and very high returns of capital, all of which give those companies tremendous power. With that power comes great responsibility. In supporting them and giving them license to grow to such an extent, people expect that these businesses will behave in a responsible way. So ESG data is important for every industry because it helps measure that behavior, though the value of different ESG investments varies by industry.
“WITH THAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY. IN SUPPORTING THEM AND GIVING THEM LICENSE TO GROW TO SUCH AN EXTENT, PEOPLE EXPECT THAT THESE BUSINESSES WILL BEHAVE IN A RESPONSIBLE WAY.”
There are some good examples of companies encouraging and funding ESG innovation. Dow Chemical has enormous energy consumption in their operations, but they’ve managed to save more than $10 billion through efficiency programs and are moving the world toward the adoption of renewable energy sources much faster in the process. Unilever is increasing yields in their production while moving the supply chain toward more productive and just labor conditions. Novo Nordisk, a leading healthcare provider for diabetes, is making great strides in product affordability.
Most business leaders are now realizing that if you’re going to be in the group of elite firms, you need to be a responsible actor.
What kinds of things should investors look to leverage from this study? What are the key performance indicators (KPIs) to pay attention to?
GS: KPIs are the Holy Grail. Since companies are still learning which ESG initiatives are most impactful within their given industries, and how to tackle them, there’s confusion in listing all that data. As an investor, you’ve gone from a period of very little information in the nonfinancial domain to a state of play where there is almost too much information coming at you. The key is to understand which data is relevant.
On average, our study found that only about 20 percent of data in any given industry is material from an investment standpoint. That has huge implications in terms of the signal-to-noise ratio. For example, climate change management is very important for oil and gas firms and energy companies, whereas it’s not that important for financial institutions. Affordability is important for healthcare companies, but less so for tech companies.
“ON AVERAGE, OUR STUDY FOUND THAT ONLY ABOUT 20 PERCENT OF DATA IN ANY GIVEN INDUSTRY IS MATERIAL FROM AN INVESTMENT STANDPOINT.”
If you understand which 20 percent is important, you have a real advantage. SASB helps provide this kind of information via a materiality map for each industry. In our paper, we take those maps and construct scores showing how different companies are investing on material ESG issues. That allows investors to construct better risk profiles and portfolios that will perform much better. Companies that focus their efforts on key ESG issues tend to have the best future investment performance.
Why is that?
GS: If we have better information around ESG issues, and it is communicated and used more effectively, then that information will be incorporated into stock prices and affect the cost of capital. If that happens, capital markets will provide incentives for companies to behave responsibly and companies will exhibit those behaviors because they’ll have lower costs if they do. But that will depend on organizations like SASB, and to what extent they’re successful in creating a better information environment for both companies and investors.
How do your study’s findings correlate with how and what you teach at HBS?
GS: When I teach, I have a few key messages. The first is that our students have agency and can make a difference in a system. Companies are moving to create more diverse workplaces and provide solutions to big global problems because certain business leaders have provided the blueprint for how to do it and remain competitive. Individuals have brought tremendous change to the system by providing leading examples, and our students can do the same.
The second lesson is that if you’re strategic in your business model and your industry, your company will have a big impact. That will positively affect your future profitability through brand building, cost savings, and employee engagement, which then allows you to be a responsible actor and at the same time run a very profitable organization.
The third lesson is how those two things come together— making a difference and operating an efficient and profitable organization. It’s what I refer to as the transparency revolution. In corporate reporting, we’ve gone from very few to very many companies reporting their ESG data. We have the internet exponentially increasing the speed and flow of that information, making the system that much more transparent. And we have social media restoring democracy with free speech. Before all of this, the information flow was much more controlled and usually one-way, from companies to consumers. Now when corporations act, whether good or bad, they can get a lot of credit or take a lot of heat, even in the same day.