The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) recently released its sixth annual edition of Governance Challenges 2017: Board Oversight of ESG, produced in collaboration with NACD’s five strategic content partners: Heidrick & Struggles, the KPMG Board Leadership Center, Marsh & McLennan Companies, Pearl Meyer, and Sidley Austin LLP. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues encompass a variety of areas in which shareholders have demonstrated an increasing interest: sustainability, diversity and inclusion, human rights, labor practices, executive compensation, employee relations, and board independence.
According to Institutional Shareholder Services, a record number of shareholder resolutions on climate change were filed in 2016, and the average shareholder support for environmental proposals in general has increased dramatically over the last decade—from receiving an average of 11 percent of the vote in 2006 to 21 percent of the vote by June 2016. Shareholder proposals for the 2017 proxy season are also expected to focus on social issues, as there will likely be a regulatory downshift in these areas under the Trump administration.
Drawing from NACD’s report, here are five ways boards can improve ESG oversight this year in response to growing expectations from investors and consumers in this area.
1. Integrate ESG initiatives into company strategy.
How companies consider ESG issues and link them to financial and operational performance demonstrates the company’s approach to creating sustainable, long-term value for investors. KPMG recommends boards set the context for the company’s discussion around ESG issues by asking how they are applicable to the company, customers, employees, and investors. Specifically determine how environmental sustainability can support the company’s financial future. What are the board’s expectations regarding ESG? Will the company broadly address environmental and social issues, or will the company only focus on areas that directly relate to its strategy and operations?
2. Ensure key functional leaders proactively apply ESG in business operations.
All leaders in the C-suite should understand the importance of ESG and how it impacts their functional responsibilities, according to Heidrick & Struggles. For example, does the CFO include ESG elements when conducting financial analysis? Does the CMO clearly demonstrate how the company is committed to ESG goals instead of resorting to greenwashing (i.e., dedicating more effort to claiming to be environmentally responsible than actually doing it)? The board may also consider adding director ESG expertise should the company be recovering from a company-caused environmental disaster or missed opportunities in the marketplace due to lack of attention to ESG.
3. Use executive compensation to support ESG goals.
While many public companies are already engaging on ESG issues, Pearl Meyer research indicates companies fall on a spectrum from conducting basic reporting on ESG to fully integrating ESG into company strategy, culture, and executive compensation plans.
Alcoa and Exelon are two examples of companies that have linked ESG goals such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction to executive compensation. At Alcoa, “20 percent of executive cash compensation is tied to safety, environmental stewardship (including GHG reductions and energy efficiency), and diversity goals.” Exelon rewards executives for “meeting non-financial performance goals, including safety targets, GHG emissions reduction targets, and goals engaging stakeholders to help shape the company’s public policy positions.”
To link ESG to financial results, boards can consider the following questions regarding compensation:
- Which components of ESG should we link to our business strategy?
- How do these ESG factors affect our short-term earnings versus long-term value creation?
- What are the leading and lagging metrics that matter, incorporating both financial and nonfinancial metrics?
4. Improve disclosure on the impact of climate change.
The Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) Task Force on Climate-related Disclosures (TCFD) is an organization initiated by the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors that has produced recommendations for disclosing climate-related risks and opportunities. The task force recommends that directors consider the following, as summarized by Marsh & McLennan Companies, to promote better disclosure:
- Processes and frequency by which the board and/or board committees (such as audit, risk, or other committees) are informed about climate-related issues
- Whether the board and/or board committees consider climate-related issues when reviewing and guiding strategy, major plans of action, risk-management policies, annual budgets, and business plans, as well as when they are setting the organization’s performance objectives, monitoring implementation and performance, and overseeing major capital expenditures, acquisitions, and divestitures
- How the board monitors and oversees progress against goals and targets for addressing climate-related issues
See the Recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures for additional guidance.
5. Engage shareholders on ESG issues.
According to Sidley Austin LLP, it has now become the norm for investors to consider environmental and social issues when making investment and voting decisions. Boards should determine who from the board and management will engage investors on these issues. These representatives may vary based on the severity of the topic to be discussed and which shareholder the discussion is with. Tracking shareholder voting records, and analyzing which types of proposals are seeing increased traction over time, will also provide insight into the minds of investors.
For more on how your board can improve ESG oversight, download your free copy of Governance Challenges 2017: Board Oversight of ESG. For NACD members, also see NACD’s handbook on Oversight of Corporate Sustainability Activities.