Sustainable Infrastructure And ESG Risk Management

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a useful high-level framework for business to use in assessing its negative or positive social impacts. Global partnerships between government, NGOs, and the private sector will be required to achieve them by 2030.

The rise of community expectations around climate change and other ESG risks means that boards and senior executives can no longer function in “press release” mode when it comes to sustainability initiatives.

The management of ESG risk is a crucial part of your risk management framework, and firms need to identify and manage both quantitative and qualitative risks. The excuse that it is difficult to quantify some ESG risks will not cut it with stakeholders over the coming decade.

Institutional and retail investors will increasingly expect rapid and decisive responses to controversies, including the immediate resignation of directors and senior executives. “Riding out” the storm of displeasure will be very difficult given the increasing volume in the media on these issues.

One of the important considerations when thinking about sustainability reporting and the achievement of the UN SDGs by 2030, is that innovation and profitability in the private sector is a crucial success factor.

Many businesses have the opportunity to assess their current operating model, identify where and how they can make a positive social impact, and move towards implementing a responsible operating model that delivers for a full group of stakeholders while still generating an appropriate level of profit.

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

Goal 9 of the UN SDGs is about how essential investments in underlying infrastructure are to enabling sustainable development. Technological efficiency, energy-efficiency, and increased productivity enabled by investments in transport, energy, technology, healthcare, education, and irrigation will all help developed and developing countries alike in improving their standard of living.

A lack of necessary infrastructure in developing countries means that their people are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to ease of access to more markets to sell their products and services. Sustained employment growth will become more realistic for some countries once appropriate infrastructure investments are made and brought online.

Environmentally sound infrastructure development will help achieve other sustainability outcomes while providing lower environmental impacts from infrastructure development. Firms who operate in the infrastructure sector will be able to share their best practices with developing countries to enhance ecological efficiency for new projects.

For firms operating in developed countries, assisting in developing countries and providing technology investments where feasible can help accelerate sustainable development. For example, substantial investment in mobile phone networks in Africa has enabled a wave of entrepreneurship and innovation to take place in previously unconnected communities.

Board and Senior Executive Considerations

Boards and senior executives in other sectors may not think they can have any impact on this particular goal. However, UN SDGs are a broad church of targeted outcomes for a global society. One of the more effective ways that any business can make an impact on these goals indirectly related to your business is through due diligence and standards for your broader value chain.

The first exercise is a current operating model assessment that looks at your present purpose, strategy, and operating model. The outputs of this exercise can be mapped at a high-level to each of the 17 UN SDGs to provide input into the next activity.

The second exercise is mapping the current operating model outputs to each of the UN SDGs and identifying the positive or negative social impacts your business currently has. There may be somewhere there are none, there may be others where some substantial impact is possible.

The third exercise is taking the first two exercises into account and re-examining the purpose of the business. Why do you do what you do? Is your goal relevant in the 2020s? Are you a sunrise or a sunset business?

The fourth exercise is then revisiting the business strategy. Does it help or hinder the achievement of sustainability outcomes? Are there any products or services that need changes or closing down in light of changes in community expectations today or anticipated changes in community expectations tomorrow?

Once the current operating model, mapping exercise, purpose re-examination, and strategy re-examination are complete, a broad group of stakeholders should participate in the development of a responsible operating model.

The current trend in transformation is to speak of the target operating model; however, in the 2020s, it will be necessary to design and implement a responsible operating model. Sustainability outcomes must be incorporated into the design and planning stages of any transformation program. If they aren’t, they won’t be delivered.

One of the changes in thinking about ESG risk is that the business case is about the enterprise value of the business itself. Issues that even five years ago may not have merited a mention in a footnote to a presentation could now present themselves as existential crises for a board of directors.

Over the past decade, the cost of implementing appropriate systems and controls to manage compliance risk has been billions of dollars for the financial services sector. The coming decade will see a further increase in required technology and project expenditure to give boards and regulators assurance that a framework is in place and monitored actively at all levels of a business when it comes to ESG risk.

Other industries have faced similar costs, such as the impact of health & safety legislation on the construction sector. But no one would argue that making sure everyone goes home from a worksite at night is less important than making a profit at any cost. However, 30 years ago, those arguments were undoubtedly being made by some construction sector executives and boards.

Times have changed, and old attitudes towards ESG risk will need to be updated. The current economic environment globally, where the asset markets have boomed, and many companies rebounded from the Global Financial Crisis after brief tests in 2008 and 2009 of their operating model, means that the next downturn will provide an opportunity for deep introspection and consideration of what a responsible operating model needs to look like for a secure strategic position relative to your competitors in the coming decade.

Sustainable Economic Growth And ESG Risk Management

An environment of ever-increasing expectations on corporate leaders to do the right thing when it comes to sustainable business means it’s an issue to be taken seriously from the board-level down. The identification, active management, mitigation, or elimination of ESG risk from your operating model is a vital part of building a sustainable business that makes a positive social impact as well as delivering a profitable business for shareholders.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful high-level framework for assessing your firm’s ability to deliver sustainability outcomes and is increasingly used by global firms as the core 17 areas for reporting their sustainability focus in their annual report.

You can map the 17 UN SDGs against your current operating model to identify the areas where your firm is making a positive or negative social impact. This exercise could assist in the analysis work before a transformation programme begins, ensuring that the development and deployment of the target operating model incorporate sustainability outcomes.

Ever-increasing community expectations around what businesses are doing to reduce ESG risks and deliver a positive social impact for a full group of stakeholders means that thinking about what a responsible operating model for your business incorporates can help the process of positioning your firm ahead of the curve.

Boards and senior executives might consider assessing their current risk management framework to identify whether the broad array of ESG risks as some choose to define them are present in their existing risk register.

Environmental, social, and governance risks can be much harder to quantify than many financial or operational risks. Firms should develop a defensible framework for estimating the cost of these risks and the severity of their impact on the operations of the business.

The business case for making significant investments into projects that reduce these risks and enhance the enterprise value of your business is clear. Increasingly, firms that do not take these issues seriously or engage in a press-release driven approach will find it difficult or impossible to raise capital.

Institutional investors in 2020 expect well-aligned corporate behaviours and communications on sustainability issues with their preferred responsible investing frameworks than even five years ago. Investor relations and corporate access teams at investment banks will have higher rates of inquiry from stakeholders who may previously never have engaged with them, and that means that the operating model for an investor relations function or corporate sustainability function needs to adapt and improve as part of the core operating model of the business, instead of being tucked away in a small department.

Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all

Goal 8 is about sustainable growth that cares about people. Eradicating global poverty depends on increasing the quality and compensation levels of workers around the world through raising productivity and sharing some of those gains.

In many developing countries, having a job doesn’t mean that your family is out of poverty. Roughly half of the world’s population lives on less than US$2 a day even with global unemployment around 5.7% according to the UN.

“Sustainable economic growth will require societies to create the conditions that allow people to have quality jobs that stimulate the economy while not harming the environment. Job opportunities and decent working conditions are also required for the whole working age population. There needs to be increased access to financial services to manage incomes, accumulate assets and make productive investments. Increased commitments to trade, banking and agriculture infrastructure will also help increase productivity and reduce unemployment levels in the world’s most impoverished regions.”

Some of the detailed sub-goals associated with Goal 8 include per capita economic growth, higher levels of productivity supported by investment in technology, a focus on high-value-added services, implementation of development-oriented policies, and eradicating forced labour and modern slavery.

8.1 Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries

8.2 Achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation, including through a focus on high-value added and labour-intensive sectors

8.3 Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services

8.4 Improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead

8.5 By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value

8.6 By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training

8.7 Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms

8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment

8.9 By 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products

8.10 Strengthen the capacity of domestic financial institutions to encourage and expand access to banking, insurance and financial services for all

8.A: Increase Aid for Trade support for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, including through the Enhanced Integrated Framework for Trade-Related Technical Assistance to Least Developed Countries

8.B: By 2020, develop and operationalize a global strategy for youth employment and implement the Global Jobs Pact of the International Labour Organization

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/economic-growth/

Board and Senior Executive Considerations

Boards and senior leaders will see that, like the other SDGs, there are several areas where any business can make a positive social impact. Procurement processes need to ensure that risks such as forced labour and modern slavery are not in your supply chain.

When you assess your current operating model, the key areas to explore when considering Goal 8 include people and culture processes and policies. If you are in financial services, finding what actions you could take to support the achievement of goal 8.10 would be a key focus. If you are in transportation or travel, exploring sustainable tourism such as going beyond net-zero or carbon neutral and thinking about carbon-negative operating models that create local jobs where you operate your business would be worth consideration.

The use of the UN SDGs as a high-level framework to map your current operating model against the ability of your business to deliver a positive social impact is a useful exercise for businesses. Many leading global firms already incorporate this reporting in their annual reports.

The decade ahead will be necessary for firms as they strategically position themselves to be ahead of their competitors on ESG issues. Moving beyond reporting and engagement to actively choose where your operating model (people, processes and systems) can adjust to improve positive outcomes or reduce adverse consequences will be tables stakes.

Institutional and retail investors are growing their awareness of ESG risks and expectations of the pace at which boards and senior executives will respond decisively if any controversies arise. Waiting it out or sending out a press release won’t cut it. Resignations and ending supplier relationships will become far more frequent and building a responsible operating model with in-built flexibility that can respond if a critical supplier needs to be changed because of an unacceptable level of ESG risk will increasingly mark the leaders in this space distinctly from the laggards.

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.