Investors have welcomed a proposal to make companies report on their environmental and social impacts, to be discussed at the Rio+20 sustainable development summit in June, but say it could be improved in several ways.
The ‘zero draft’ of the text to be agreed by governments at Rio+20 includes a call for a global policy framework “requiring all listed and large private companies to consider sustainability issues and to integrate sustainability information within the reporting cycle”.
Meanwhile, a High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, recommends that governments consider making integrated reporting mandatory for corporations with market capitalisations of more than $100 million.
Steve Waygood, chief responsible investment officer at Aviva Investors in London, told a meeting in the city last week, organised by the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, that this is a “huge step forward” in communicating sustainability issues to investors.
However, he insisted that there is no need for Rio+20 to create another framework. “There are plenty of reporting frameworks out there,” he said, citing the Global Reporting Initiative, among others. “There’s already sufficient technical guidance out there.”
Furthermore, the high-level panel’s recommended minimum company size “unintentionally misses large unlisted companies that do not have a market capitalisation”.
Waygood also urged governments to adopt a “comply or explain” provision, so that companies either report to their shareholders on their sustainability issues, or explain why they choose not to.
“Comply or explain has been very successful in the various markets it has been implemented within, most notably the UK’s approach to corporate governance,” he said.
“This will provide corporations with the freedom to define their own reporting ... it would be a mistake to attempt to create a one-size-fits-all approach to [key performance indicators] as this would preclude the need for boards to consider the issues – which is one of the key benefits we think a report would create.”
However, Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK, said a lack of a common, mandatory approach to sustainability reporting is a “real problem”.
“If anyone stood up and said companies should voluntarily report on financial matters, they would be laughed out of the room. So why not on their social and environmental reporting?”
Fiduciary duty should include ESG factors
Meanwhile, one of the biggest barriers in getting investment managers to invest sustainably is that many do not believe it is their fiduciary duty to consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.
The high-level panel says “a review of investors’ fiduciary responsibilities is needed”, and Waygood said he would welcome such clarification.
Nick Robins, head of the climate change centre of excellence at HSBC, told the meeting that one of the real tests for the success of Rio+20 is if it can convince investors to align their assets with the sustainable development agenda.
He agreed with Waygood that “a positive interpretation of fiduciary duty” is needed and said that investors need “hard, reliable policy goals” if they are to redirect investment to sustainable companies.
“If you want sustainable development, you have to look for it in within the existing economic development process,” said Janos Pasztor, executive secretary of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which published its report Resilient People, Resilient Planet at the end of January.
“You have to redirect investment and use limited public money to leverage” private investment, he added.
Original article published at www.environmental-finance.com