Sustainability and Social Responsibility: Considerations and Tools for Boards

Published by

Ashley Marchand Orme

Learning how to implement sustainable business practices can be challenging for companies in any industry, and boards may wonder how to integrate sustainability issues into discussions with management. NACD has compiled a set of resources offering practical information to help boards discuss climate-related risks, as well as opportunities associated with environmentally- and socially-sustainable business practices.

The first step is to assess why sustainability and social responsibility are such hot topics for the boardroom. Two important factors to consider are the political environment and shareholder expectations.

Signals From the Current Administration

President Donald J. Trump in June announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, an international deal in which 191 countries have pledged to work toward goals to restrict the increase in temperatures globally to less than 2.0°C and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being created.

The president in April also signed an executive order aimed at “promoting energy independence and economic growth,” curtailing federal environmental regulations. The order instructs the Department of the Interior to lift former President Obama’s ban on coal leasing activities on federal land.

Watchdog group Environmental Integrity Project recently reported that this year, the Trump administration, when compared to the prior three presidential administrations in the same period, has collected approximately 60 percent less in fines from companies’ violations of pollution-control regulations.

Opposing Pressure From Shareholders

Despite strong signals from the current administration that enforcement of environmental-related regulations will decrease over time, shareholders are applying an opposing pressure on corporations.

More than half (56%) of shareholder proposals introduced this year on proxy ballots related to social, environmental, or policy issues, and Proxy Monitor reports that this proportion is the highest it has seen since it began tracking such data in 2006.

Shareholder proposals relating to environmental and social issues 10 years ago sought fairly basic changes such as increased clarity into companies’ environmental policies. The proposals now seek, for example, enhanced disclosures around what the company is doing to manage climate risks and how executive pay links to sustainability initiatives, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Proposals about environmental issues received a record breaking average of 27 percent support this year, according to Proxy Monitor. That percentage was 21 percent last year and fell in the teens before that.

Meanwhile, State Street Corp., a global financial services and investment management firm with $2.47 trillion in assets under management, published a report earlier this year in which they found that traditional obstacles (like the lack of quality data about ESG) to investing more heavily in companies that prioritize ESG initiative are diminishing.

“Over the long-term, environmental, social and corporate governance issues can have a material impact on a company’s ability to generate returns,” Ron O’Hanley, president and CEO of State Street Global Advisors, said in a press release.

NACD’s Responses

Given the increasing expectations of shareholders and NACD’s continued focus on long-term value creation—a focus that requires a sustainability-focused mindset—NACD has curated its Resource Center: Sustainability and Social Responsibility.

Resource centers are repositories for NACD content, services, and events related to top-of-mind issues for directors. In these resource centers, individuals can find practical guidance, tools, and analyses on subjects varying from board diversity to cyber-risk oversight. Below we have highlighted a sample of helpful materials from our new resource center on sustainability and social responsibility.

Thought Leadership & Research

The resource center features a handbook called Oversight of Corporate Sustainability Activities—part of the NACD Director’s Handbook Series—that offers guidance aimed at strengthening the board’s oversight of sustainability issues.

The handbook, produced in conjunction with EY, centers around four key recommendations:

  • Directors should understand the company’s definition of sustainability in the context of the company’s strategy and specific circumstances.
  • The board and management should align on the sustainability message and information the company chooses to report publicly.
  • Boards should clarify roles for oversight responsibility for sustainability activities, including external reporting.
  • Directors need to establish parameters for sustainability reporting to the board regarding the information required to support robust discussions with management.

Expert Commentary

A number of items included in the resource center provide expert commentary on myriad issues related to sustainability and social responsibility. A favorite of mine is “Living in a Material World,” an article written by Veena Ramani, program director of the Capital Markets Systems, at sustainability-focused nonprofit Ceres.

Ramani discusses the corporate director’s critical role in engaging with management over which sustainability issues are material for the enterprise. She offers four suggestions for board members who want to address the materiality of certain sustainability risks.

Boardroom Tools & Templates

The resource center houses several tools and templates to assist directors as they oversee sustainability-related risks and opportunities. One such tool is the “Self-Assessment: Is Your Board Sustainability-Ready?” evaluation. Directors can answer a set of questions to gauge their board’s level of engagement—or lack thereof—in sustainability oversight.

Videos and Webinars

The NACD BoardVision—Sustainability Oversight video in the resource center features a candid discussion by EY subject matter experts Brendan LeBlanc and Kellie Huennekens on how investors are engaging with boards around sustainability and social responsibility issues. (A transcript of the video is also available here.)

Conclusion

Our hope is that you find this resource center useful and visit it often. We will continue to update it regularly with new and interesting content. If you would like help finding resources on a specific subject matter, please let us know. We welcome the opportunity to engage with directors on pressing needs and concerns.

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