Last month, Exxon Mobil Corp. appointed a leading climate scientist to its board. Exxon’s move underscores the growing pressure shareholders are exerting on the issue of climate-competent boards.
Climate competency of boards—and broader corporate attention to escalating climate change risks—isn’t just a hot topic for one set of shareholders and one oil company. It is a key investor imperative for all sectors of the economy.
Look no further than the new guidelines from the G20’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure to understand how profoundly expectations are shifting. The task force, chaired by Michael R. Bloomberg, was created by the Financial Stability Board at the request of the G20 ministers to help companies identify and disclose which climate risks have a financially relevant impact on their business. The task force’s very first recommendation focuses on the governance practices of companies for climate change, including deeper board engagement on the topic.
So what does it mean for boards to be climate competent? Climate competency means much more than just getting one person with expertise on a corporate board. So while we applaud the important step that Exxon has taken, it’s only a first step.
At the end of the day, a climate-competent board is one that can make thoughtful decisions on climate risks and opportunities that a company is facing. When trying to set up a climate-competent board, companies should think holistically about what needs to be done for boards to achieve competent, informed decision-making on this issue.
1.) Put board systems in place for climate change oversight. Boards need to have a committee that is assigned formal responsibility to oversee climate change. By doing so, companies can ensure that boards oversee how climate risks are integrated into operations and decision-making on an ongoing basis. Numerous companies have dedicated board sustainability or environment committees that can be leveraged for this purpose. Companies like Citigroup, Ford, and PG&E have specifically identified climate change as a key focus area in the charters of their board public affairs or sustainability committees. Having the issue identified in such an explicit manner ensures it will be discussed systematically in committee meetings.
2.) Include directors with expertise in climate change on boards. When climate change is a material risk to a company, boards should recruit directors with expertise on that material issue. Such companies should also explicitly identify climate change expertise as a board qualification. This means making it a part of board skill matrices. It’s worth noting that two of the country’s largest pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, recently amended their global governance guidelines to ask portfolio companies to recruit directors with climate change expertise.
3.) Train the full board on climate change. Boards and management should provide climate-related training opportunities to all board members, or, at a minimum, to relevant committee members. Organizations like The Co-operators have detailed systems in place to train its board on sustainability issues that are crucial to their businesses, including leveraging external experts for this purpose. Certain groups offer education curriculums where issues like climate and sustainability are addressed.
4.) Consult stakeholders and shareholders to inform directors’ understanding of climate change. Internal training sessions are key, but it’s just as important that directors reach out to external stakeholders, including investors, to share firsthand the company’s different approaches to climate change learn from voices outside of management. Investors in particular are critical groups to engage. Having this broader multi-stakeholder perspective can help directors make better-informed decisions. In 2016, shareholders filed a record 172 shareholder resolutions on climate change and sustainability. Given that directors are fiduciaries to investors, director-investor dialogues on climate trends will provide an important context to board discussions on this issue.
5.) Be more transparent. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need more transparency on climate-related board decisions. We need to know whether boards are prioritizing climate change as a material issue. Companies have to do a better job of disclosing how climate trends are affecting corporate strategies and risks that are relevant to investors.
Market and shareholder scrutiny of board engagement on climate issues is only going to grow sharper with time. While companies will be impacted differently by these risks, few industries are immune. Climate change affects 72 out of 79 industries and 93 percent of the capital markets, according to SASB’s Technical Bulletin on Climate Risk.
The key for board members now is to ensure that they’re well positioned to exercise informed oversight so that they can make thoughtful decisions on this escalating issue.
Veena Ramani is program director, Capital Market Systems, at Ceres.
It is clearer than ever before that sustainability practices can affect corporate value. That was the main thread of a panel that I led at the National Association of Corporate Directors’ 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit in Washington, D.C. My co-panelists Christianna Wood, director at H&R Block, and Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, and I discussed the potential risks and opportunities that environmental and social issues pose to companies.
Sustainability is a broad term, and not every environmental or social issue belongs on the board agenda. But when an environmental or social issue has the potential to affect corporate revenue and earnings in the short and long term, sustainability absolutely should be on the table.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to materiality, and this is where corporate directors have a critical role to play.
Materiality is about determining a company’s priorities. As fiduciaries responsible for overseeing a company so that it not only survives but also thrives in the long term, directors have a responsibility to assess whether a company is making the right choices.
But the much harder question is: When does an environmental or social issue rise to the level of being material?
Here are some steps directors can take to drive discussions about whether sustainability issues are material to the companies that they oversee.
1.) Understand how sustainability is being integrated into your company’s efforts as a way to identify material issues.
There are a few ways to do this. Directors could point management towards the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board’s Company Implementation Guide, which provides a great starting point for companies to assess whether certain sustainability factors could be considered material for the purposes of the company’s financial filings. Directors could also integrate themselves more meaningfully into corporate efforts aimed at identifying material sustainability issues. They could provide perspectives on the connections between sustainability factors, corporate strategy, risk, and revenue.
2.) Include key issues being raised by critical stakeholders in the materiality exercise.
While a broader range of stakeholders is raising a variety of issues these days, the financial community is a particularly critical constituency to direct attention towards. As we discussed in our panel, the U.S. investor community is starting to make the connections between sustainability and the financial value of companies in their portfolios. During the 2016 proxy season, close to 400 shareholder resolutions on climate change and other sustainability issues were filed. Large investors including CalPERS, CalSTRS and State Street Global Advisors are asking their portfolio companies to put directors with climate expertise on their boards.
In addition to tracking broad sustainability trends that investors are paying attention to, prudent directors could consider opportunities to engage directly with key shareholders to get a sense of issues specific to the company and the industry. Directors could also track and engage with the broader activist and advocacy community as a risk management exercise.
3.) Weigh in on the time frame over which issues are considered to be material.
Since the board in particular is responsible for long-term corporate performance, directors play an important role in examining whether their company’s materiality process focuses on considering issues over the long or short term.
Overall, momentum is building to adopt a more long-term view to encourage companies and boards to think more broadly about sustainability and materiality. The recently released Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles, which are backed by major U.S. companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Berkshire Hathaway, and Blackrock, support the move to long-term thinking. And more companies including Unilever, Coca Cola, and National Grid are moving away from the practice of issuing quarterly guidance specifically to encourage investors and other stakeholders to adopt long-term thinking.
4.) Disclose details on what you consider to be your company’s material priorities.
Noting that determinations of materiality depend on whom the company considers to be its most significant stakeholders, governance experts are starting to call on corporate boards to release a statement noting critical audiences that the company is oriented towards and issues that the corporation is prioritizing. Companies like the Dutch insurance company Aegon have started to issue such statements.
The process of helping to identify the right issues is just a first step in a director’s responsibility on materiality. Directors have an important role to play in ensuring that material issues, when identified are integrated into board deliberations on strategy, risk, revenue and accountability systems. However, getting to the right issues lays an important foundation for the company and its key stakeholders to build on.
“The last several decades have proven that, more than ever, we are all interconnected and interdependent,” said NACD Chair Karen Horn. “We will rise—or fall—together, based on that trust.”
NACD Board Chair Karen Horn
Horn’s opening speech at the recent 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit revealed a compelling case for strong, conscientious corporate governance in light of recent political, economic, and social turbulence.
Horn’s governance experience is extensive and includes serving as a director at Simon Property Group, vice chair of the U.S. Russia Foundation, and vice chair of the National Bureau of Economic Research. She also previously served as chair of the audit committee at Norfolk Southern Corp., lead director and chair of the compensation committee at Eli Lilly & Co., and a director of T. Rowe Price Mutual Funds.
Horn began by thanking outgoing NACD chair Reatha Clark King for “her leadership and her positive influence on our organization’s growth,” and praised the audience for their own strength of leadership in the boardroom. She then turned to the guiding concept behind this Summit’s programming—convergence.
“Convergence is an important theme at a time when our world appears to be tearing itself apart,” Horn said. She pointed out that hostility seems to be the prevailing sentiment of our time and that frustrations with the current domestic and geopolitical environments are the impetuses for growing division. “I feel we must focus on a wider, longer view—a more broadly encompassing perspective that leads us back toward convergence,” she said.
Horn—who previously served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and as an economist for the board of governors of the Federal Reserve—made several recommendations meant to address the evolving relationship between society and capitalism, using conscientious governance. (For more information on the roles of capitalism and corporations, view the NACD blog post “Re-Thinking Capitalism: Best-Selling Author Espouses Higher Calling for Boards.”)
Addressing Income Inequality
Directors can take a role in addressing social issues like income inequality, Karen said, adding that income inequality is an example of a challenge that “affects not only our immediate stakeholders, but everyone downstream who will be affected in the long term as well as the short term.”
Horn agrees that free trade is an excellent driver of economic value across the board, but that the path to growth can unintentionally leave some individuals behind. She suggested public, private, and government entities alike should develop programs that lift up those who are taken advantage of or otherwise harmed on the path to greater economic progress. “Looking at an issue like this from the perspective of those who will not benefit, or may even be hurt by it, is the first step toward finding compromises and solutions that will minimize negative fallout,” Horn said about the corporation’s role in growth as a greater good.
One such program that directors could collaborate with policy makers, social leaders, and other stakeholders on is how to address the controversial debate over minimum wage increases. “Everyone has an opinion, and it is clearly a divisive issue,” Horn conceded to the audience. “If we are to find a solution that works, again, we must become familiar with the divergent perspectives.”
The Imperative to Lead
Capitalism is being impacted by “globalism, social and demographic shifts, new technology, increased transparency and resource scarcity,” According to Horn. In the face of these paradigm shifts, directors have the opportunity to converge with stakeholders to build a better path forward for all, and have a unique opportunity to rebuild the public’s trust in the role of corporations.
“People are searching for leaders they can trust, leaders who are smart, confident and strong—who are understanding and compassionate,” Horn said. “This is a role sometimes filled by government, but trust in government is at an all-time low, so the leadership gap needs to be filled. I believe we are some of the leaders who can and should fill that gap.”
Horn’s address closed with a charge to directors that will resound through her term as chair of NACD and beyond.
“Corporate America has an immense amount of talent, and we need to step up before we are stepped over,” she entreated. “There is no question that we have the ability to take this leadership challenge, but only if we act responsibly, transparently, honestly and with careful regard for different perspectives. If we can do that, we can move our culture back toward civil discourse—toward convergence.”