Corporate Sustainability Reporting Is Growing Up
Larry Fink’s now-famous letter seems to have made a difference.
Sustainability reporting is quickly going mainstream. While companies aren’t always required by regulators to report their greenhouse gas emissions, human rights records and wastewater management, investors are pushing them for this information at a faster clip.
Part of the issue is that global investors are under pressure from governments and asset owners themselves to report their impact on people and the planet. Sustainability information companies provided up until now has rarely been comparable, timely or consistent year-to-year. There’s been a focus on gloss over substance. Big companies, such as Tesla, Amazon and UnitedHealth, are still relatively young sustainability reporters.
Investors who find such information critical to understanding future business prospects can make educated guesses or hire analysts, but what they really want is information from the companies themselves. That was the thinking behind the pre-pandemic push by BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink to specifically ask companies to use Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) metrics. “For a long time, companies weren’t really convinced investors wanted this information and weren’t convinced investors were using it. It’s a significant investment for companies to report high-quality sustainability information,” said Janine Guillot, chief executive of the SASB, which created industry-specific sustainability standards that she said matter most to investors.
It turns out that Fink’s letter in January may have changed some minds.
So far this year, SASB said 279 companies are reporting in line with its standards, up from 118 in all of 2019. SASB has been helping those companies new to the reporting concept. This is especially needed by those firms that operate in multiple industries, which requires finding metrics that best reflect their business models.
SASB said it also has 150 investors using its metrics in their investment process.
Now that more companies and investors are using SASB standards, the real test will be whether transparency and market competition pushes companies to improve their ESG performance. Will energy companies get out of coal faster? Will they feel like they have to diversify their workforces as quickly as competitors? Will they compete on how much water they use or the amount of waste they generate? “Companies already benchmark their financial performance against their peers,” Guillot said. “If you have comparable, consistent information, companies should start to compete on those metrics.”