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Why You Should Care About Climate-Competent Boards

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Vanguard Group CEO William F. McNabb III just tipped the list. The world’s top three asset managers—Blackrock, Vanguard, and State Street Corp.—are now calling the companies that they invest in to adopt climate risk disclosure.

Veena Ramani

In a recent open letter to corporate directors across the globe, McNabb explained that Vanguard, the $4.5 trillion mutual-fund management firm, expects businesses to embrace materiality-driven disclosures to shine more light on sustainability risks.

Summing up the challenge of climate risk, McNabb wrote that it’s the kind of risk that tests the strength of a board’s oversight and risk governance. That’s the crux of the challenge for directors. As investors ratchet up the pressure on companies to analyze their exposure to the impacts of a warming planet, they’re calling on boards to be knowledgeable about material climate risk and capable of preparing for its impacts and capitalizing on its opportunities.

As we heard in Karen Horn’s opening keynote of NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit, directors can no longer ignore the inherent impact of these issues on the long-term value creation of the corporate world —ranging from climate risk, natural resource capital, and implications of the Paris Climate Agreement.

This growing scrutiny has directors’ attention—especially after a high-profile vote in May by nearly two-thirds of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s shareholders demanding an analysis of climate risks. The number of directors who think that disclosure of sustainability risk is important to understanding a company’s business jumped to 54 percent  in 2017 from 24 percent last year, according to a survey of 130 board members by the accounting firm BDO USA.

Board-level competence around climate change and other sustainability risks is the way forward. Through an understanding of what climate change means, why it matters to their business, and what their organizations are capable of changing, directors can successfully make climate risk part of their governance systems.

In a new report by Ceres called Lead from the Top, we outline ways that companies and boards can build up that competence.

But rather than settling with bringing on a director who is competent in sustainability, our report explains why companies must work to build an entire board that is competent to oversee these risks. By engaging thoughtfully on material sustainability risks as one cohesive body, this kind of board is able to ask the right questions of its management, support or challenge senior management as needed, and ultimately make informed and thoughtful decisions affecting corporate strategy and risk.

We identified three key principles that companies and boards can use as they work to build a sustainability-competent board:

1. Sustainability needs to be integrated into the director nomination process. Finding directors who can apply their knowledge about climate and other sustainability risk to relevant board deliberations is a good first step. Companies can get the right people on board by approaching this systematically as a part of the board nominations process, specifically identifying experience in material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks in the board skills matrix and by casting a wide net to consider candidates with diverse backgrounds and skills.

2. The whole board needs to be educated on sustainability issues that impact their company. For sustainability to become part of the fabric of board oversight and integrated into decision-making on strategy, risk, and compensation, all directors on the corporate board need to be well informed on material sustainability issues so they can lead thoughtful deliberations and make strategic decisions. Companies can do this through focused, ongoing training programs that bring in experts from outside the company and by educating the board on the connections between climate change and material impacts and the connections to risk and strategy. Embedding ESG into the existing board materials so it does not become one additional issue topic to vie for directors’ attention is essential. Sustainability managers embedded within companies can play a key role in driving this integration.

3. Boards should directly engage a diverse array of stakeholders, including investors, on sustainability issues impacting their company. With more investors paying attention to climate change and other sustainability issues, shareholders increasingly expect boards to engage directly with them on critical issues. One of the goals of McNabb’s letter was to nudge directors to engage directly with shareholders. Given this growing focus, material environmental and social factors should be made a part of any dialogue between directors and investors.

It all comes down to the bottom line. Risk and opportunity define business. Corporate boards will have a difficult time performing their fiduciary duty to the companies they lead and the shareholders that they represent without understanding the risks and opportunities created by climate change. Our report lays out practical steps directors can take as they consider how to make their board competent in addressing climate change and other environmental, social, and governance issues.

 

Veena Ramani is the program director of Capital Market Systems at Ceres. Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.