1) Stakeholders demand it
- Consumers: More than a third of consumers around the world said they preferred to buy from brands viewed as doing social or environmental good in a recent Unilever study. Sustainability-marketed products accounted for 50 percent of growth in consumer packaged goods from 2013 to 2018.
- Employees: Nearly two-thirds of employees responding to a Bain & Co. survey said sustainable business was extremely important to them
- Investors: More than 70 percent of investors responding to a 2016 survey said that sustainability was central to their investment decisions
- Activist investors: Whether through ESG resolutions or direct engagement, activist investors increasingly are affecting corporate decision making. 2018 saw a record number of public activist campaigns, continuing the trend of recent years.
Responding to stakeholders’ changing expectations, CEOs of nearly 200 of the world’s most influential companies issued a new vision for the purpose of the corporation in August 2019. In addition to generating profits, the group declared, they must also invest in their employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers.
2) Indices and raters track it
Raters and rankers like Bloomberg, MSCI, Sustainalytics, Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, Thompson Reuters, Morningstar, and CDP are responding to shareholder interest with reams of ESG data.
3) Raters increasingly assess risk exposure
For example, in November 2015, Moody’s scored 86 industry sectors for credit exposures to environmental risks. It deemed 11 sectors, representing $2 trillion in rated debt and including unregulated power generation, coal mining and coal terminals, as having elevated credit exposure to environmental risks. Another 18 sectors scored as “emerging, moderate risk.”
In 2016, Moody’s began using the national climate action commitments established as part of the 2015 Paris climate accord in its analysis of the credit implications of carbon transition risk.
4) Pressure grows to address global challenges
Responding to stakeholder expectations and the business opportunities therein, more companies are integrating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Science Based Targets into corporate strategies. By 2018, more than 80 percent of the UN Global Compact’s 9,500 corporate members had committed to advancing one or more of the UN SDGs.
5) More companies demonstrate it’s good business
- Improved financial performance: A growing body of data demonstrates that companies adopting sustainability practices outperform their peers. A Harvard Business School study found that a $1 investment over 20 years yielded $28 in return in companies focused on ESG versus $14 for those without the focus.
- Improved risk management: As much as 70% of EBITDA is at stake from sustainability issues in the supply chain, according to McKinsey. To help ensure the long-term supply of their agricultural products, companies like Unilever, Mars and Nespresso have invested in Rainforest Alliance certification. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa farms produced significantly more cocoa and net income per hectare than non-certified farms.
- Cost savings due to efficiency improvements: U.S. companies investing in process energy efficiency measures, for instance, realize an average internal rate of return of 81%, according to one report. For example, GE achieved $300 million in savings by the end of 2013 by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 32% and water use by 45% compared to 2004 and 2006 baselines, respectively.
- Pathway to innovation: In the four years after launching its $1 billion-plus Flyknit line, Nike avoided 3.5 million pounds of waste and diverted 182 million bottles from landfills.
- Improved ability to attract customers: Unilever’s “brands with purpose,” for example, are growing 69% faster than the rest of the business. They delivered a record 75% of Unilever’s growth in 2018.
- Better ability to attract and engage employees: Companies with strong sustainability programs reported 55% better morale and 38% loyalty among employees than firms with poor programs, according to one study.