Sustainable Energy Goals And ESG Risk

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a useful high-level framework to assess your firm’s ability to make a positive social impact. They cover a wide area of topics including equality, energy, climate change, responsible growth and more.

There are many frameworks that governments and NGOs try and get business behind. Each has its pros and cons. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a global framework which enables comparison sustainability reporting between companies that operate in different jurisdictions or industry sectors.

Boards and senior executives should assess their current operating model against the 17 high-level SDGs to capture a baseline. They can then identify the areas of their operating model that make a positive or negative impact on these goals and generate sustainability reporting to track their progress in moving towards a responsible operating model that incorporates sustainability outcomes into the transformation process.

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy

Goal 7 of the UN SDGs is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. Almost 1 billion people still don’t have access to reliable electricity, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Energy production and consumption are responsible for nearly 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Globally, not even one-fifth of global electricity production is from renewables. There are many areas of energy that will need to improve over the next decade including energy efficiency, battery storage technology, renewable energy production, and reliable energy supplies for developing countries that doesn’t cost too much.

The benefits of clean energy for our planet are enormous. Reliable and affordable energy sources mean that cooking, cleaning, and necessary business activities become possible for people in developing countries.

In developed countries, increasing energy efficiency, even more, means that marginal energy producers that rely on fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil can sunset older plants and invest in renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower.

 Some countries have already made enormous progress in developing their renewable energy sources, including China which has some of the most significant solar and wind power initiatives in history in operation and under construction.

The ability to make an impact on goal 7 isn’t just for businesses in the energy sector. Responsible electricity consumption and energy efficiency initiatives are realistic in a company that uses electricity.

Thinking about the energy efficiency of your entire value chain including the energy efficiency of your suppliers and partners means that operational due diligence on suppliers should start to include questions around their electricity provider, their investments in energy efficiency, their analytics and insights into their energy use, and developing a strong understanding of their strategy to reduce their carbon emissions and increase the proportion of their electricity supply from renewable sources.

Board And Senior Leader Considerations

There are many different frameworks and reporting guidelines for sustainability and ESG risk. As at January 2020, there are no global standards like IFRS that enforce certain levels of disclosure. Some companies will not care about transparency on these issues because, for some, it could be “brand destroying” to be open about some of the ESG risks that exist in their value chain.

Boards and senior leaders should start with a high-level assessment of their current operating model. Working through the basics of your business model is necessary before launching into exhaustive ESG risk analysis.

  • What is your purpose? Why do you do what you do?
  • What is your business strategy?
  • How do you deliver your strategy?
  • Who delivers value to your customers?
  • Where are your operations located?
  • Who are your key suppliers?

The business model needs to be understood and decisions made on the boundaries of how much the board and senior leaders are willing to change the business model to achieve the targeted level of ESG risk in their business.

The risk management framework and risk registers will already include many of the risk themes that emerge during a strategic review of this nature. However, some of the ESG risks like social risk and environmental risk, are facing ever-increasing community expectations.

Boards and senior leaders need to be forward-looking in their identification, mitigation or elimination of these risks. They need to be ahead of the curve because an acceptable business practice today could be completely unacceptable from a social license point of view after one newspaper article or one tweet goes viral.

A great example of an ESG risk related to energy is the proportion of your electricity supply that comes from renewable sources. Some organisations have changed their procurement procedures to ensure that only the suppliers with the best effort on increasing renewable sources of electricity supply are even in the running for tender opportunities.

What does this mean? It means that because the era of the press release is over, boards and senior leaders need to be thinking long-term about how to position their business strategy so that their operating model does not give rise to any potential ESG risks that will put their economic engine at risk.

The business case for building a responsible operating model and reducing or eliminating as much ESG risk as possible is not just about return on investment. Customer satisfaction, shareholder approval, cost avoidance, revenue retention, regulatory compliance, social license maintenance, and employee satisfaction all have some elements that can be quantified to support the financial side of any business case for a programme of work to build your responsible operating model.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals have one significant advantage for boards thinking about how to measure and monitor their social impact. They are a global framework, and many major global companies already include their SDG reporting in their annual reports.

One consideration is that some companies are already so far ahead on adjusting their operating model to deliver better sustainability outcomes, that they could already “lock-in” a strategic competitive advantage.

Costs to businesses not taking ESG risk seriously can arise in visible areas such as the ability to raise capital. Look at how thermal coal companies are on the way to becoming unbankable as an increasing number of financial institutions globally stop lending, cut lines of credit, don’t take commercial paper, and don’t invest in equity or debt raises for thermal coal companies.

Thermal coal miners are currently losing their ability to raise capital. Retail and institutional investors will increasingly demand near-perfect delivery from boards and senior leaders on the reduction and elimination of their preferred definition of ESG risk.

The rising community expectations on these issues will impact a firm’s social license to operate, and focusing on short-term operating model changes that deliver outcomes will be judged better than long-term ambitions that will take decades to achieve.

Clean Water, ESG Risk And The UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a useful high-level framework for thinking about your firm’s ability to deliver a positive social impact. Goal 6 is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

In a world with ever-increasing stakeholder expectations, boards and senior executives must to actively engage with and ensure that environmental, social and governance risks in their organisations are identified, managed or eliminated.

Zooming out to consider the global context in which your firm operates is a helpful exercise. The UN Sustainable Development Goals help boards disclose these ESG risks because the 17 high-level goals align with the classification of the material risks your business faces.

Through embracing sustainability reporting with the UN SDGs as part of the reporting framework, comparability between businesses and across industry sectors and countries becomes possible. Over time, institutional investors will increasingly demand more disclosure around sustainability outcomes your business is delivering for stakeholders.

The current focus on ESG risk is predominantly on responsible investing. Setting up processes and frameworks for asset managers to consider whether or not a particular company is suitable to invest capital into or lend to is also known as impact investing.

The focus for the next decade will need to be on building a responsible operating model. A responsible operating model is an evolution of a target operating model that incorporates sustainability outcomes and positive social impact into the strategy, design principles, and execution of the new operating model.

An exercise for boards and senior leaders to run is an assessment of your firm’s current operating model against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Once you have that, consider your purpose and fundamental value proposition for your customers. Are there parts of your operating model that could be modified or enhanced to deliver a positive social impact as well as deliver value to your shareholders?

If you are going through a transformation, it can be like turning a container ship in a large organisation. During the programme initiation and spin-up phases, the sustainability outcomes need planning and analysis. Projects required to enable these outcomes to be delivered will never be scoped, budgeted, delivered and used by the business unless they are there from the beginning.

Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all

The goal of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all has particular application for some companies. They may operate in countries where clean water and adequate sanitation is behind the country where their headquarters are.

Poor access to clean drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor access to reliable water supplies at all are problems faced by hundreds of millions of people every day. Water scarcity affects almost 40% of the global population. Nearly 1,000 children die every day because of preventable water or sanitation-related diarrheal diseases.

If your business operates in the water, sanitation, or engineering industry sectors, there is a clear opportunity to deliver a positive social impact and support the achievement of Goal 6 by 2030.

A business doesn’t have to have an office in a developing country to help. They can use their people and resources to assist developing countries in improving water and wastewater systems. They can offer secondments to experienced engineers and technicians to assist impoverished communities. They can use their voice to lobby for global efforts that improve access to sustainable and affordable finance for water and sanitation projects in developing countries.

Many technologies can benefit from further investment in research & development such as water recycling, desalination, water and wastewater analytics, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.

If you are running a business that works in an office in an OECD country, starting with the water and sanitation efficiency and sustainability of your building and any other premises you own or occupy is a vital part of any current operating model review.

You will need to work with your building manager and landlord to understand the sustainability performance of your office space. There are sustainability analytics tools that can assist in reporting on this. Some older buildings may not be able to deliver sufficient levels of water reuse and recycling without substantial investment from landlords.

If you are a manufacturing company, ensuring there is no environmental impact from water or wastewater pollution from your factories is table stakes for the 2020s. Ironically, many manufacturers are well ahead of many service industry businesses because of environmental regulation and stakeholder pressure over the past few decades in identifying and managing these risks.

Goal 6 is about water and sanitation, and every business will be able to do its part to identify and report how it is supporting the achievement of this goal. It may not be the highest priority for a business in terms of how it can help sustainability outcomes, but similar to supporting gender equality it is table stakes for being able to communicate to stakeholders how it holistically considers its overall social impact.

Considerations for directors and executives

Boards and senior leaders that decide to use the UN Sustainable Development Goals in their sustainability strategy and reporting should consider a wide-ranging review of their current operating model against the 17 high-level goals.

The active engagement and governance of ESG risks inside a business will become increasingly critical for boards of directors. Boards should consider how they want to incorporate ESG risk into their risk management framework and ensure there is sufficient budget available to spend on sustainability projects, reporting, and assurance.

 A decade ago, a business could respond to ESG risk issues with a press release. They could even donate to a project in a developing country. These PR focused measures did not involve deep introspection and analysis of their current operating model and its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sustainability outcomes.

In the 2020s, from the board-level down to the operational level, the enterprise value of the business is increasingly going to be impacted positively or negatively by the ability of the company to deliver value to its customers through a responsible operating model that has sustainability outcomes considered, measured and achieved through the capabilities the business assembles to provide value to customers and a broader set of stakeholders around the world.

Health, Wellbeing And Sustainability Reporting

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030. 

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

Is supporting health and wellbeing solely the preserve of companies in the healthcare industry? Goal 3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is a complex and detailed one that highlights how far developing countries have come, but also how far they still have to travel to catch up to developed country data on health and wellbeing outcomes.

Increasing life expectancy and reducing infant mortality includes a target of fewer than 70 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030.

Improving the financing of healthcare systems, boosting economic growth so that countries can afford better healthcare, increasing the number of medical professionals available in developing countries and improving sanitation and hygiene are all ways to improve global health and wellbeing outcomes.

The maternal mortality ratio is still 14 times higher in developing countries, which is a shocking statistic. The specific goals here highlight the enormous gap in health outcomes between developed and developing countries and the importance of taking action to reduce these gaps.

Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

3.1 By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.

3.2 By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births.

3.3 By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other infectious diseases.

3.4 By 2030, reduce by one-third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.

3.5 Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol.

3.6 By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.

3.7 By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.

3.8 Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.

3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.

3. A Strengthen the implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries, as appropriate.

3.B Support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and noncommunicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries, provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines, following the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, which affirms the right of developing countries to use to the full the provisions in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights regarding flexibilities to protect public health, and, in particular, provide access to medicines for all.

3.C Substantially increase health financing and the recruitment, development, training and retention of the health workforce in developing countries, especially in the least developed countries and small island developing States.

3.D Strengthen the capacity of all nations, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/health/

Board And Senior Leader Considerations

The specificity of the goals above might make you wonder how your firm can make a positive impact on these goals. What is the business case for a healthcare company giving away services for free, for example? That would be an incorrect take on the situation.

The business case for using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to understand how your operating model supports or hinders the achievement of the goals is compelling – enterprise value decreases through actions or activities that harm society.

In the current low-interest-rate environment, the discount rate to be used when assessing projects has fallen for many organisations. Higher spending on investment projects to deliver sustainability initiatives can make sense if the payoff to the firm is ongoing and has a long time horizon.

Lower cost financing of these projects is possible through the use of sustainable finance strategies such as the issue of green bonds. Alternatively, borrowing from a bank that focuses on supporting businesses wanting to invest in improving the sustainability of their operating model.

When it comes to reporting on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, an example of how an infrastructure firm that owns toll roads could make an impact on goal 3.6 – reducing global deaths and injuries from road traffic incidents – would be to highlight investments in safety on the toll roads they operate.

What is their safety goal? Zero harm on their toll roads? If so, thinking about how to centre their operation around zero damage to their staff, their road users and other stakeholders could lead to innovations in their operating model and capabilities they have around safety.

Infrastructure funds could use the health and wellbeing goals as part of their operational due diligence on prospective investments – at the business-as-usual level of a target company, are they helping or hindering the achievement of these goals?

The additional sunlight on some companies will highlight how their operations either do not help society outside of the shareholders who earn a return on their capital. These processes may lead to divestment or even shutdown of business units or operations that do not meet new community expectations around social performance.

Every business should at least consider thinking through the totality of the UN Sustainable Development goals and then focusing on those it can impact the most. The board should deliberate on whether the company’s purpose, strategy, and operating model are sufficient to maintain a social license to operate with ever-increasing expectations on the private sector.

The initial assessment of a business to identify its current operating model and how it either helps or hinders each of the 17 goals is a process achieved through workshops and interviews with the board and senior leaders.

The report prepared for senior leaders should drive further examination of the strategy and the portfolio of initiatives underway to realise that strategy help or hinder each of the 17 goals. This way, reporting in the management reports and annual reports can include these factors to be monitored by the board.

A business may find that considering a positive global social impact means that significant changes to parts of its operating model are required. Engaging with external support through this process, including setting up appropriate gateways and monitoring of portfolio, programme and project activity and outputs that take sustainability outcomes as crucial success criteria are essential.

In this series of posts, as I work through each of the UN Sustainable Development goals, it is clear that the ability of a business to positively impact the achievement of these goals is in one of the 2nd level goals or through considering an alternative way of supporting the achievement of the outcome through clever use of scarce resources.

Focusing on the outcomes desired and creatively exploring ways to support them if applicable to your business or industry gives boards and senior leaders freedom to act boldly in a manner increasingly expected by stakeholders and an increasing proportion of shareholders, particularly institutional investors for whom ESG considerations are now standard due diligence for new or continued investment in any asset class.

Zero Hunger, Your Business And Sustainable Development

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030. 

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a useful high-level group of global sustainable development goals that can be used as a framework to assess how your business makes a positive social impact.

This series of posts explores each of the goals and proposes some considerations for boards and senior leaders. The rising pressure on business leaders to make genuine changes in their operating model to ensure that their people, processes and systems work together to make a positive social impact means that trade-offs must be made with scarce resources.

Considering how to benefit all stakeholders means that careful consideration of your firm’s purpose business strategy and target operating model to realise that strategy is a crucial part of building a sustainable enterprise.

Traditionally, value creation for shareholders was achieved by delivering value to customers and earning a reasonable profit. Today, value creation for stakeholders is the more popular terminology.

What does this mean? It means keeping customers happy, shareholders happy, regulators happy, politicians happy, industry partners happy, suppliers happy, employees happy, and certification authorities happy.

This mixed group of actors is outside the traditional boundaries of the firm, meaning that when it comes to approaching ESG issues, a press release won’t cut it.

Environmental, social and governance risks have to be identified, triaged, managed, mitigated or eliminated through the risk management process. A board should set clear expectations around how the operating model of the business ensures that the capabilities developed to deliver value to stakeholders actively consider these risks both during project phases and in a business-as-usual environment.

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Goal 2 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is Zero Hunger. In 2017, over 821 million people were under-nourished. Over the past few decades, enormous reductions in this number have occurred, but there is still work to do.

Differences in markets and institutions between developed and developing countries can explain much of the problem with hunger. Many states don’t have the infrastructure or even electricity to take advantage of agricultural productivity-enhancing technology at an appropriate scale.

One of the most disturbing statistics concerning hunger is the number of children who die every year from poor nutrition – 3.1 million each year. But merely sending more donations doesn’t solve the societal problems in these developing countries.

Businesses in developed countries can make a positive impact on the goal to reduce hunger in the world. An example of how technology positively impacts developing countries would be the spread of mobile phones, enabling farmers to trade more easily with neighbouring towns and villages to sell their produce or livestock, raising incomes and encouraging more trade inside countries.

One way the private sector can assist developing countries is helping the internal free movement of goods and services. Mobile phone networks, education, infrastructure investment in roads, and assistance with agricultural productivity are crucial.

How might a developed country firm help reduce global hunger? Consider pricing frameworks and intellectual property protections for agricultural productivity-enhancing goods and machinery. Is what makes sense in Canada, a wealthy developed country, necessarily appropriate in sub-Saharan Africa if you’re selling into that market?

How about the issue of subsidies and tariffs? Lobbying for tariffs on some goods predominantly produced in developing countries takes money out of the mouths of the global poor. Even more concerning is marketing cooperatives who play on fair trade to pay a fixed price for goods below the world market price and then capture the price premium for those goods in hipster neighbourhoods in developed countries.

One of the themes in the UN Sustainable Development goals is the removal of unfair subsidies and tariffs that disproportionately privilege farmers in developed countries over farmers in developing countries. If we consider global hunger, losing some farms in the West to keep bringing millions out of poverty in developing countries could be regarded as a reasonable tradeoff as long as the West budgets for appropriate transition payments and arrangements for the impacted farmers.

Banks and insurers don’t need to open a branch in a developing country to make an impact. Letting subject matter experts spend a month upskilling their peers or conducting a training course in a developing country is a modest cost but high impact way of sharing knowledge and capability.

If your global supply chain includes agricultural products exported from developing countries, performing due diligence on the supply chain is essential. Ending unfair labour practices and exploitation of small farmers is something any business trading with these countries should incorporate into their operating model.

One example of how adjusting your operating model to ensure that a positive social impact occurs is by physically tracing the entire value chain for a particular product.

  • Who does the work?
  • How is it done?
  • How are they compensated?
  • Is it fair, giving account to local realities and expectations?
  • Where is it done?
  • Who captures the value?
  • Are there any health & safety concerns?
  • Are there opportunities to provide upskilling or coaching to suppliers?

Corporate Governance Considerations

If your business trades with developing countries, you need to make investments in technology so that qualitative information associated with your supply chain can be captured and analysed for insights.

Setting up a framework for supply chain risk management with the right supporting policies and processes is a complex project. Many businesses are already doing a great job at ensuring the integrity of their supply chain, but this is a topical issue and emerging issues when it comes to agriculture must be monitored.

Eliminating global hunger is just one of the many UN Sustainable Development goals. As an exercise, working through the plans may convince you that your business can only make an impact on 1 or 2 of them. But the activity itself is valuable because using a high-level framework for considering social impact will enhance your understanding of your operating model and offer up possibilities for small adjustments that could make a positive impact on others.

The drive to have companies consider a more comprehensive set of stakeholders doesn’t mean that no one can make a profit anymore. Many sustainable business practices can lead to lower operating costs and enhanced shareholder value.

There is only one planet Earth, and using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an initial broad set of considerations can help refine the purpose of a business. Simplifying your operating model and identifying business units that may no longer be suitable to own and need to be divested or shut down will be a natural outcome of more boards and senior business leaders thinking about these issues deeply.

ESG Issues, Social License To Operate And Your Target Operating Model

The rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues as a priority for business leaders was a theme of the past decade. To ensure that your firm’s social license to operate continues to be renewed by the community, embedding a positive social impact into your operating model is essential.

A firm’s social license to operate has to adapt to changing community expectations of corporate behaviour. In the fallout from the revelations during the Financial Services Royal Commission in Australia, the extent to which community expectations can drastically shift against any industry is evident.

Ever-increasing considerations and requirements of businesses and how they manage ESG risks mean that balancing scarce resources is more complicated than ever before. Firms have to worry about legislation, regulation, environmental concerns, social impact, social risks, governance issues, operational issues, technological disruption, climate change, responsible investment disclosures, and more.

Designing and implementing a target operating model to deliver a firm’s strategy is vital. A firm needs to focus its purpose and concentrate on the core capabilities required to provide value to customers and other stakeholders.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful high-level framework for considering a firm’s global social impact. Are you doing anything that could lead to negative headlines? Are there any small changes to your operating model that could support any of these goals and be an example of how your business is delivering above community expectations?

The Sustainable Development Goals are:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • Reducing Inequality
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life On Land
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals certainly aren’t the only framework for thinking about building a sustainable business or considering how to provide comfort to your stakeholders that your operating model is in line with community expectations. Many companies will be able to make a positive social impact on at least 1-2 of the goals.

How Do Companies Deal With This?

There are ever-increasing pressures from the media, from regulators, from industry bodies, from politicians, and from peers in your industry that mean that a few pages in the annual report no longer cut it – a genuine commitment from the board level down to the operating teams of the business has to be “baked in”.

In this new era, can you ever do enough to satisfy your stakeholders? I’m not sure it’s realistic. The level of constant change in the regulation of financial services, for example, has radically shifted how banks and wealth providers need to spend their investment budgets each year.

If the current level of investment on regulatory and compliance change is half of the spend, and investment in digital transformation or operating model change represents the other half, then which projects need to end to finance spending on sustainability projects?

This reality is where the rubber hits the road – the intersection of idealism around sustainable capitalism with tradeoffs in a commercial context. If a business has to be all things to all stakeholders, then radical simplification of the entire operating model is a high-probability method to ensure that the right trade-offs will happen at executive-level and operational-level.

The fascinating thing about the rise of responsible investment or ESG awareness when making investment decisions is that the light is rarely shone back on the operating models of the asset managers and data providers making these decisions themselves.

Public market investors and everyday people with their retirement savings in their 401(k), superannuation, Kiwisaver or pension increasingly tell market research companies and their providers that they care about not investing in companies that could have a negative social impact.

The plethora of filters available to asset managers means that what one asset manager believes is “responsible investing” is not necessarily what another asset manager defines it as unless they are using the same principles, framework and processes in their investment due diligence process.

When companies make disclosures around ESG issues to their investors, many have done a fantastic job in articulating where they see the risks in their businesses and how they are changing their business to reduce, better manage or eliminate those environmental and social risks.

Key Considerations For Boards And Executives

A key consideration for boards and executives here is that while you can compile an initial list of ESG risks and potential mitigations in a half-day workshop, that is only the beginning of the journey. An ongoing programme of work for some businesses – another substantial investment in people, processes and technology in addition to existing regulatory and compliance programmes of work.

Almost all boards and executive teams are aware of this, but balancing the pressures from shareholders and regulators can be a delicate act. There are earnings pressures, regulatory deadline pressures, and interpretation problems when it comes to how your operating model can deliver compliance with some requirements.

Without deeply examining the purpose of the business itself and going line-by-line through each operating division, hidden risks can remain that emerge at the least convenient time and undermine any previous efforts to promote that the business was trying to make a positive social impact.

The sorts of questions that I would be asking include: what is the purpose of our business? How complicated is our current operating model? How do I have confidence in the data and conclusions in the board reports I receive? How do we know we are ready for the “next” ESG issue that emerges in our industry? Who owns ESG risk in our business? If it is the audit and risk committee, are all members actively engaged in professional development on these issues?

One of the saddening things about reading some of the data attached to each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the realisation of how fortunate many of us are to live in highly developed countries. In a sense, many of the issues around managing these risks are “first-world problems”. However, that doesn’t mean that taking such a broad view is unhelpful to a business in an OECD country.

The critical consideration for boards and corporate leaders when it comes to social license to operate is recognising the need to be ahead of the curve on these issues. What is currently acceptable commercial practice today in one of your most profitable service lines or products could be completely unacceptable after a poorly served customer explains their poor customer experience.

A real-time feedback loop now exists between customers and businesses. Regulators, the media and politicians are always watching and listening. Empowering front-line people to do the right thing by customers and removing conflicts and any potential negative perceptions around your value chain are now an essential part of running and optimising your operating model.

What are the UN Sustainable Development goals?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a collection of 17 high-level goals that serve as a blueprint for “a better and more sustainable future for all”. The United Nations General Assembly set them in 2015, and the goal is to achieve them by 2030.

ESG or “environmental, social and governance” issues are top of mind for regulators, legislators, and corporate leaders. The UN Sustainable Development Goals serve as a useful framework for thinking about how your enterprise currently operates and how it could change to enhance its impact on society.

Over the next few weeks, I will outline some considerations for corporate leaders for each of the goals. I will pose many of them as questions around the relevant components of your operating model.