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ESG Risk, Technology Risk And Reducing Inequality

One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is about reducing inequality among and within countries. The UN SDGs are a high-level framework of 17 goals that the world can achieve by 2030. They are useful as a way of understanding your firm’s social impact and identifying how to change your operating model to reduce any adverse effects or enhance any positive ones.

ESG risk and reducing inequality may seem entirely unrelated. However, there are ever-increasing community and employee expectations when it comes to issues such as executive compensation, wage growth, sharing in productivity increases, and managing rising living costs.

The detailed sub-goals of Goal 10 are really about the developing world, and not the relative poverty issues in developed countries. Many countries cannot afford social protection policies and legislation that richer countries can. Some richer countries place high tariffs on goods exported from poorer countries which makes it more difficult for people in these countries to trade their way to higher living standards.

An example of the ESG risk in this space is the cost of migrant remittances. Hundreds of millions globally send billions every year back to relatives in their home country. Often, there are high fees associated with this and many global financial institutions have encountered a lot of issues ensuring AML/CTF compliance in this space.

Goal 10.C is quite sad – reducing the cost of remittances to no more than 3% by 2030 and eliminating remittance channels that cost more than 5% in transaction costs. The rise of startups in developed countries that enable you to send money overseas at wholesale FX rates when poor people are charged enormous premiums is definitely in the social risk category.

Product management and pricing decisions around FX or overseas transfers will be even more complicated over the next decade than they already are. It’s certainly an area that is being disrupted by firms with better technology and customer experience than the banks. People who are moving between developed countries or paying less for their overseas holiday shopping and dining out capture much of this benefit in reduced costs.

When researching this particular UN SDG, the issue of technology startups in developed countries coming up with great ways to solve problems that only work in developed countries became quite clear. Many amazing innovations will only work if you have a passport from an OECD country. There are still enormous increases in transaction monitoring capability required to change negative screening for entire countries that some financial institutions still feel the need to do because their technology is decades behind Silicon Valley.

The strength of the focus on risk and compliance over the past decade has led many boards to authorise investment in their technology platforms. But merely spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology isn’t necessarily enough.

How many ESG risks are hiding in the legacy technology ecosystems of major financial institutions around the world? A target operating model for a risk function includes more than just the implementation of transaction monitoring software. The people, processes and systems all need to work to clear principles and deliver the right outcomes for a broad group of stakeholders.

The irony of the enormous spend on risk and compliance technology, particularly regarding regulatory and legislative compliance, is that it has provided many large firms with the right model for how they might need to prioritise investment in climate change risk reduction.

The problem for the customer experience is that if you already have a poor customer experience that will cost $X to fix, and now your bank needs to spend a further $X on more risk and compliance programmes of work, then very soon you start running into a point where the duplication of all of these technology investments across different companies becomes redundant.

The role of a board is to provide governance to an organisation, and this includes making tradeoffs between Project 1 and Project 2. The problem is that many of the loudest voices criticising their every move on ESG risk don’t exactly appreciate the concept of constrained resources. For many financial services firms, they will face a point where they need to consider their entire current operating model and seriously rethink their purpose and strategy.

What is the link between this and the central problem of reducing inequality among countries and within them? Well, previously, a firm could make tradeoffs inside its operating model transformation that included plays like outsourcing or radical restructuring. Now, every person with a Twitter account could set off a backlash for something as random as invoice payment times for SMEs.

The reporting on this issue in Australia has been great because nothing could demonstrate more clearly to a board and senior executives that the operational-level decisions inside their operating model are now fair game. ESG risks must now be fully understood and considered at the customer interaction level and the supplier interaction level.

A board that wants to obtain an independent assessment of its ESG risk and current operating model should consider what social license to operate means in the 2020s. A higher proportion of people will increasingly demand more and more of the private sector.

Unlike politicians, CEOs face the market test. Many are already far advanced in changing their firm’s way of doing business to differentiate themselves from competitors. Higher enterprise value is likely to accrue to firms that have low ESG risk relative to other investment opportunities. Protecting access to finance at all should now be a consideration of boards – one serious enough ESG controversy could see lines of credit cut, investment banks no longer willing to work with you on a debt issue, or even suspension from trading on an exchange.

The level of seriousness boards and senior executives have to take these issues is quite clear. They are skating on thin ice in a real-time communication world. Independent assessment of the ESG risks they face and the steps to take to mitigate, reduce, or eliminate them will be a top focus for 2020 and beyond.

Large transformation projects that have already started may require even larger investments or potentially cancellation and writedowns. The business strategy of a large financial institution is also facing severe risk in an ultra-low interest rate environment. A pandemic related recession could be on the cards in many countries.

When interest rates go down, eventually there is no choice but for net interest margins to go down. The subsequent pressure on high bank operating expense ratios increases ESG risk even further due to the short-term earnings pressure from many shareholders. What a fascinating era!

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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.

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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.

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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.