Looking after the sustainabily minded long haul investor

I have been intrigued for some time over the question whether a more active approach to incorporate sustainability into their business thinking within listed organisations helps them shape a longer term communication with thier investors, and ultimately the type of investors they attract.  In particular, is one of the strategic benefits of sustainability leadership the attraction of longer term minded investors who can help an organisation break out of the short-term quarterly demands of stock players, which I feel hinders the development of more comprehensive sustainability plans and business strategy.

There is an increasing number of large investment funds out there in the world who have started to fully comprehend the global threat of climate change to their  investments and the need for concerted action by national and business policy makers to take a more active approach to the mitigation of atmospheric releases of carbon and  climate-related risks.  Governments cannot do this alone and the business community has a key role to play.  The question is – are there printed words on climate change matching thier in-house activities and the culture being set by corporate leaders?

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I was therefore intrigued to read of an initiative led by the Swedish pension fund AP7 and the Church of England Pension fund, who with the support of other 160 members of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), who collectively manage about €21 trillion ($24 trillion) in combined assets wrote a letter to the CEO’s of 55 companies – all identified as the worst carbon emitters in seven industry sectors.

The investment group had also taken note of whether the companies involved had a corporate position that matched their lobbying on climate policy, their influence on policy-makers and on whether their CSR publicly stated corporate climate policies matched those of the trade associations they were members of and who acted on their behalf.

The Letter to the CEO’s

The letter addressed to the chair of each company said:

“We would ask you to review the lobbying positions being adopted by the organisations of which you are a member.  If these lobbying positions are inconsistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement, we would encourage you to ensure they adopt positions which are in line with these goals………”

In addition they clearly set out their expectations as investors on climate change lobbying, which I feel sends a strong and very interesting message out into the global marketplace.

We believe that companies should be consistent in their policy engagement in all geographic regions and that they should ensure any engagement conducted on their behalf or with their support is aligned with our interest in a safe climate, in turn protecting the long-term value in our portfolios across all sectors and asset classes.
Specifically, we expect those companies that engage with policy makers directly or indirectly on climate change-related issues to:

Support cost-effective measures across all areas of public policy that aim to mitigate climate change risks and limit temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius. This support should apply to all engagement conducted by the company in all geographic regions, and to policy engagement conducted indirectly via third-party organisations acting on the Company’s behalf or with the company’s financial support.

Establish robust governance processes to ensure that all direct and indirect public policy engagement is aligned with the company’s climate change commitments and supports appropriate policy measures to mitigate climate risks. Within this, we expect companies to:

  • Assign responsibility for governance at board and senior management level.
  • Establish processes for monitoring and reviewing climate policy engagement.
  • Establish processes to ensure consistency in the company’s public policy positions.

Identify all of the climate change policy engagement being conducted by the company either directly or indirectly, across all geographic regions.

Assess whether this engagement is aligned with the company’s position on climate change and supports cost-effective policy measures to mitigate climate risks.

Act in situations where policy engagement is not aligned. For third-party organisations, actions could making clear public statements where there is a material difference between the company and third party organisation’s position, working with the organisation to make the case for constructive engagement, discontinuing membership or support for the organisation, or forming proactive coalitions to counter the organisation’s lobbying.

Report publicly on:

  • The company’s position on climate change and policies to mitigate climate risks.
  • The company’s direct and indirect lobbying on climate change policies.
  • The company’s governance processes for its climate change policy engagement.
  • The company’s membership in or support for third-party organisations that engage on climate change issues.
  • The specific climate change policy positions adopted by these third-party organisations, including discussion of whether these align with the company’s climate change policies and positions.
  • The actions taken when the positions of these third-party organisations do not align with the company’s climate change policies and positions.

These are interesting questions, not only do they start to get to the heart of how an organisation goes about its CSR or ESG activities, but also the extent to which corporate disclosure really reflects the culture that is being initiated internally by its leadership group.  I welcome the initiative and the thinking behind the initiative’s leaders in AP7 and the #Church of England pension funds.

Out of curiosity the 55 companies written to can be found here.

 

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At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths. Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.

 

 

Where is the Governance? Banned Ozone depleting chemicals still being emitted globally

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It is a slow news day, and my Saturday newspaper is full of ‘here today gone tomorrow’ media stories of little consequence or real importance.  Tucked away at the bottom of page 15 was a small article with caught my attention, not only because of its global impact but my faith in one of the most responsible global actions taken by Governments to date.

University of Bristol researchers, led by Dr Matt Rigby, have identified that significant emissions containing banned ozone depleting chemicals were being emitted from eastern China.  These findings may go a long way in explaining why global emissions of such substances have not continued their atmospheric decline but have stalled over the last few years.  It is estimated that 40,000 tonnes of these substances are still released into the atmosphere annually, with over half now believed to come from a region within eastern China between 2009 and 2016.

This is so disappointing as the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer) is an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.  Since then, it has undergone eight revisions, the last as recently in 2016  which has been adopted but is yet in force.   Th Protocol is the first universally ratified treaty in United Nations history, having been ratified by 197 parties (196 nation states and the European Union). It has been a fantastic example of the world’s policy makers getting their act together cooperatively to address a very clear and real global risk.  That is what makes this research so dismaying.  

To produce emissions on such a scale you either have to be producing them intentionally or inadvertently:

If it is intentionally, then it means that there is:

  • a Business (or sector) out there who are openly flouting the rules and have been do so openly for some time.
  • A plant that has been licensed by a regional authority or environmental regulatory agency to operate as a production facility for the production of some activity that is actively releasing ozone depleting substances (probably carbon tetrachloride).  It also suggests that it has no pollution monitoring regime or emission reporting schemes:
  • There is a supply chain supplying the feedstock, supporting the maintenance and operations of the plant in the knowledge of what it is doing:
  • A marketing team in this business actively looking for customers to either use the facility or act as a supply outlet for its products, and finally:
  • An established customer base out there for the products, with again I suspect business owners who knowingly understand what they are procuring.

If it is inadvertent, and these are ‘accidental’ releases then it means that there is:

  • a Business (or series of businesses out there) who have no apparent awareness of what they doing, have no environmental management system or monitoring regime by any name, and who are handling waste tonnes of material with no understanding of their nation’s legal international obligations.  Neither has their marketing, engineering or facility teams an awareness of the presence of ozone depleting substances.
  • A plant or series of operational activities  that is not being regulated by a regional authority or environmental regulatory agency, and that those agencies have no effective inspection regime, monitoring or understanding of pollution issues, or have sought to deliberately turn a blind eye to an international treaty its central government has openly signed up to.
  • A supply chain out there that is ‘inadvertently’ supplying these operations with material that ‘inadvertently’ contains ozone depleting substances in vast quantities of which they are unaware, and finally:
  • An established customer base out there for the service, products or operations with no understanding of what they are procuring.

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The lesson for business

The whole story is a dramatic illustration of either a business deliberately turning a blind eye to the environmental consequences of its activities or a significant governance breakdown in the business leaders, the regulating agency and the supply/client chain of these organisations.  Cumulatively it demonstrates that poor governance, ethics and an absence of social responsibility can have a global impact.

The Montreal protocol is also noteworthy for the speed of its implementation, with only 14 years between the basic scientific research discovery (1973) and the international agreement signed (1987).  When I first led on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting of CFC and other ozone depleting substances for a Scottish power company in 1990, I remember our surprise at the level of emissions that were inadvertently escaping from our electricity transmission systems.  This knowledge led to a tightening up of protocols to record, safeguard and eventually mitigate the usage of substances.  We were supported in this action by the Business leadership group, although they were initially wary of the action, and were one of the first power companies to openly report on the issue.

Are all the business leaders responsible for these releases ‘bad’ , are they so economically greedy, environmentally unaware or have they simply become stuck in that high risk management black spot of ‘groupthink’.  They may individually or cumulatively know their actions are wrong and may think about speaking up in the boardroom about what they are doing but have decided against it because they did not wish to lose face, isolate themselves from the rest of the Board, risk their position within it or appear ‘disloyal’ to the business.

Think about the parallels with the VW emission fixing scandal in Europe and the US?  There was a collective decision to keep on even as the evidence increasingly pointed to a significant variation between predicted air quality and monitored air quality in California and other major cities.  The wheels were literally about to come off the lie.  Traditional profit-centred business seeks to maximise profit and return on investment with no particular regard for how the profits are made and what the social effects of the business activities are.  I presume that this is the ‘business model’ being followed by the companies knowingly releasing banned or excessive air pollutants into the atmosphere without regard for local or global consequences.

As a business leader, what can you do when you become aware of CSR or Environmental social governance (ESG) issues that are intentionally or inadvertently caught up with your business or its supply chains, and that form of a degree of future reputation risk to yourself and the business?   

Interestingly what is considered unethical in present times, rapidly becomes unlawful in the near future.  The behaviour of one part of society in terms of its apparent risk to other parts of society tends to pioneer social and civilization change.  With business impacts to the environment and society rapidly moving up the global agenda, and with the speed of media communication within society, there lies substantial advantage for corporations and other leadership in business groups which anticipate such changes in advance.  They adapt quicker, and are seen generally to lead rather than follow. They also manage change more successfully, since they have time to do it.  Organisations and institutions which fall behind public ethical expectations find catching up a lot more difficult, and rapidly go into decline or administration.

So what can you do?

Firstly consult widely – especially with independent and knowledgeable people, and especially beyond your close circle of (normally) biased and friendly colleagues.   Build up your own detailed awareness of the situation, it will help formulate subsequent communication and options for action.

Consider cause and effect in the deepest possible sense – the ongoing actions may affect many people and aspects of life, now and into the future.

Aim for solutions – Can I defuse the situation through my own leadership actions.  The ‘Broken Windows’ theory championed by former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, promotes an ideology where individuals report or fix a broken window. This means rectifying issues and seeking to instill similar responsibilities in others.

Ultimately leadership and ethical decision-making are the basis of an ethical executive and as an ethically responsible member of society.  If the organisation has wandered so far from your own ethical standards then it may be time to sever the connection.  You can do this without further reference to the issues at hand – if you are happy leave an ongoing scenario that may have continued impacts on communities and their environments, or you may wish to whistle blow.  Whistleblowing can be a divisive topic and, while most would agree with the value of reporting wrongdoing.  The whistleblower is ultimately torn between loyalty to their employer (or the subject of their revelation) and their moral commitment to the law and society at large. As long as the whistleblower is sure that their motivations are sound and that they are confident in the system then they should not hesitate to relay such information.

When it comes to gross negligence, compliance in pollution with a risk to society and the environment, or the allowance of unregulated actions then Government, Business and Society  must adopt the “it-takes-a-village” mentality — everyone is involved as everyone is affected by the eventual outcome when it involves global environmental risks.  Organizational leaders should never be exempt from their behaviours and governments should never be exempt from their international responsibilities.  Both are ultimately accountable to themselves and thier societal stakeholders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first 4 questions Sustainability leaders should ask themselves before starting anything

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While you may think that sustainability leaders rush like knights in shining armour from organisational crisis to crisis, or constantly correct flaws in operational culture, many seek to balance their ethical leadership skills and approaches with careful pragmatism and problem-solving skills in advance of issues becomming critical corporate concerns.   The focus is always on the long-term leadership and business growth that sustainability can bring to the business, rather than the shorter term management of day-to-day risks.

This blog seeks to set out a few tips on how to think more like a sustainability leader in business building on your environmental management skills.

Whether you are new to the role and have never implemented a new operational policy, or even if you consider yourself a corporate CSR wizard.  There are still a few brainstorming principles that you should with before any proposed initiative goes public.  Taking the time to strategise will pay significant benefits as you eventually shape, form and ultimately deliver a sustainability solution.  A solution that clearly communicates to the business, its sector or society what you are trying to achieve in terms of business sustainability.

1   Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the initiative and what will it achieve for others?

It may surprise you to learn that sustainability professionals are at their heart system thinkers and problem solvers, or if not solving a problem, then raising awareness of issues as opportunities for future change, advancement or beneficial re-alignment in the businesses. So the first place to start when laying the foundations for a future initiative is to give your proposed initiative a clear and simple business success objective. This way, later in the project, if you hit a roadblock, obstructions or find yourself confused by the direction it is taking, this objective can serve as your overarching target to help you shape the route to achievement or solution selection.

If you’re implementing a new process or policy, or seeking investment within the corporate planning cycle, your objective should be bold and inspiring to those that you want to influence or support you in making the initiative a reality, yet ultimately pragmatic.  Be careful in making it so bold that it starts to detach itself from business reality or value.  Sustainability initiatives in business should always be grounded in commercial reality or purpsoe, or possess a comprehensible logic path that inspires an alteration in overall business strategy.  The expected organisational and business benefits of your initiative must be clear, set out succinctly and supportable.

2   Ask yourself: What already exists around me?

The next step, despite how excited you are to start implementing your initiative, is to make sure you have undertaken some local research and consultation.  Go out and talk about the issue with operational contacts, managers and with those who hold the keys to implementing the solution.  This provides an opportunity to gauge what skills, ideas, initiatives and future asset/maintenance investment plans are ongoing.  Forming a network of future participants, supporters or the identification of future blockers, will help  you evaluate what +ve or -ve issues will be raised or the assets that need to be/can be adapted to suit.  When researching solutions, it provides a clearer idea of other technologies, approaches or concepts that those more familiar with operational management issues can buy into and support.  Remember it is about achieving the final objective of business improvement, not whether your preferred solution is better than an alternative suggested by others.  You may have the right idea but companies operate on subtle inter-personnel communications and influence pathways, and it is the internal political battles that deliver change and which you need to win to ensure the longevity of your initiative.

Take note of the suggestions, proposals and even offers of help, so that you can use these ideas when plotting out the structure of your initiative when you decide to really push the ‘go’ button.

3   Ask yourself: What business problems am I trying to solve?

This step involves asking yourself further questions to help create a clear leadership briefing paper or proposal for your initiative.  It also helps you streamline the intent of your proposal.  Yes, it must have a clear business sustainability element to it, but it must also have readily identifiable long or short-term business benefits when viewed from other perspectives.  Unfortunately in business life – ‘because it is green!’ is sometimes not a good enough argument to initiate change!  Below are the types of questions to ask yourself:

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

Here, you seek to identify both the long-term and short-term challenges that the business faces, and what you are trying to solve through your initiative.  In the case of carbon emissions, the problem is not only the global impact of carbon, but locally the focus may be more strongly focussed within Procurement on the current cost of energy provision.  In Planning – the long-term rise in energy costs, or in Marketing how energy use is to be reported in supply chain carbon calculators, or in the C-suite the organisations reliance on a 3rd party for a key production input, or competition for that resource in future production.  Reflected through the worldviews of other colleagues, it still amounts to carbon emissions.  The lesson to learn is how others associate or view the same issue!

Who will benefit from the Initiative?

When starting to plan out an initiative or sustainable change in operational culture, it is important to consider who your internal (and increasingly the external) audience is, and what their current or future needs will be.  Having already engaged many internally on the issue you should have started to formulate ideas on how to shape the initiative for greatest success, what solutions will others buy into, or what objections still remain to be overcome, and how these can be turned around.

What would the business want the solution to look or feel like?

Instead of focusing on the aesthetics, process or ultimately maximising the sustainability of the solution, remember that sustainability leadership is all about ratcheting up the overall sustainability performance of the business.  Often as long as the business is moving forward steadily on its sustainability journey – then that is a win in itself!  Be prepared to sacrifice 20% of your initiative if its still delivers 80% success.  Don’t lose the initiative entirely through unreasonable expectations on others, their worldview, their lack of support.  Their worldview and the immediate pressures they are under will strongly influence their decision-making and buy-in.

It is always worth spending time considering the emotions that you want your initiative to elicit – a sense of pride in the business, ownership for a solution, buy-in to participate or even just acceptance and compliance with the new direction if it means minimum disruption. .

4   Ask yourself: How will I roll this out?

Now that you’ve outlined the key business objectives and benefits of your initiative and have built a supportive network internally, it’s time to decide how you will roll it out.  If it is outside your immediate budgetary allowance, then at this point it can be advisable to approach the key decision makers, those who will ultimately decide on the labour, investment or even operational space for change and ask them directly for advice and for help by sketching out their preferred route through the corporate jungle.

As they think through the issue and outline a proposed route, you can gain satisfaction in watching their mental buy-in to the initiative and its alignment with their preferred worldview of how best to move your objective into business operations and ultimately into a more sustainable corporate culture.

Corporate Social Responsibility – Why change? Why Bother?

The meeting with the Board hadn’t started well. Asked in by the Company Secretary to facilitate a group discussion on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its role in next year’s corporate plan, I should have been warned by his earlier remark that they were a ‘lively group!’

‘Greenwashing’ had been the first utterance from the Finance Director, which at least indicated an appreciation of CSR issues and terminology, but it was soon clear that the Marketing and, surprisingly, the HR Director were of the same opinion.
I was starting to admire the Company Secretary and the challenges he had admitted to in earlier conversations. The company was doing well, but stuck strategically.  He also wanted to lay down a stronger sense of accountability and governance within the Board, helping them develop collectively as a group in their strategic thinking.  The symptoms were all too apparent in this well-respected food manufacturing & processing company – there seemed to be no long-term strategy only a focus on today’s problems, no one had direct accountability for SHE leadership only a collective awareness of ‘problems’, ‘brand’ was indelibly linked to ‘marketing & sales’; with ‘cost and efficiency’ left to Operations.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should not be a new concept for any Board or executive group – although many still see it negatively in terms of business irrelevant; box ticking in supplier relationship dynamics; window dressing designed to improve company image and PR; or feel good brownie points with staff or the local community.
So, it was in this Boardroom. Why should these executives and businessmen engage with CSR concepts when they felt little personal connection with the subject and had other more pressing issues?

Strangely the first chink of light came from the Finance Director. I had run through the generics of CSR and was starting to bring the concept back to how it could align with their business and what it seeks to achieve going forward.

‘Build sales, margins and client relationships!’ was his interjection ‘Explain how CSR can deliver these!’

CSR failures can have clear negative impacts on a company’s reputation and financial fortunes, so 5 good reasons why CSR should be important to you:

  1. Because your competitors are already thinking about it in their Boardrooms – there have been too many food hygiene scandals over the last few years.
  2. Your clients and customers want you to do it.
  3. Because all things being equal – price, quality, service, timing, etc, consumers tend to lean towards food brands with the better ethics.
  4. Because some of your competitors are already doing it.
  5. Because your bottom line, access to prime resources and ultimately brand value will suffer if you don’t do it start to consider it as a business economic option

There are a lot of questions here that every board should take time to examine strategically:

  • Why are our competitors thinking in this way?
  • What competitive angle do they perceive?
  • How are we perceived on these criteria?
  • etc

Many executives, through unfamiliarity, miss out on making the most of CSR practices as an added business tool. When you start to examine your corporate social responsibility, it is easy to get side tracked into the PR spectrum – it is a good feeling and a news-worthy story to hand a cheque out to a local charity, or allow staff volunteering days. You assume that the charity and the staff will be able to do good things with the money or time. This can be a great way to develop your employees, build team working and help them feel engaged with the local community, but it doesn’t give you a business strategy to build on.

These benevolent approaches often have little vision, or clear direction, which means identifying their ‘value’ becomes harder, and why often executives see little clear benefit in CSR or what it is achieving.

Products that are good for People, are good for Society, and are also likely to be good for Business

The first thing a Board must be clear on is what it is trying to achieve as a business, or even what it is trying to distance itself from.  It may be that you are picking up feedback or on consumer trends such as the growing awareness around food welfare, future resource scarcity, single use plastics or other sector specific issues and you want to reassure your customers that they can trust you.

The first thing a Board must be clear on is what it is trying to achieve as a business, or even what it is trying to distance itself from.

The next step is to build the conversation around what difference you would like to make, where you wish to position the company, and to investigate what strategic options deliver on that aim. Smart CSR is about using the power of business to improve the world, in a way that safeguards or enhances your long-term corporate interests. It doesn’t hurt a business to have “something else” in its brand locker that helps you stand out from your competitors, or to be have seen to have taken early steps in advance of crisis.

The best CSR programmes are ones that can relate back easily to your business. Used strategically internally or externally CSR helps organisational leaders and their teams engage in big picture thinking. Not only will being involved in CSR help boardroom dynamics – it forces people to come out from their power silos and think collectively as a group in terms of wider organisational sustainability, governance and brand reputation issues. It also helps executives link financial & non-financial intangibles with long-term growth and market sector issues.

As for the Finance Director, his parting shot after we had discussed my past experiences of working in the energy sector.

‘Did Enron have a CSR policy?’

‘Yes, and it was clear when I worked with them on a co-venture with ScottishPower that they didn’t follow it!’

‘We don’t want to be an Enron or a 2SFG (an earlier food processing firm scandal)

No idea where to start with your CSR strategy? Give us a call, we help businesses develop smart CSR strategies that are strategically aligned with their business goals.

This article updates an earlier Linked in post