As shareholders and stakeholders focus more on sustainability, board members increasingly are taking responsibility for the long-term sustainability of their companies. In this BoardVision interview, NACD’s publisher and director of partner relations, Christopher Y. Clark, moderates a discussion between Kellie Huennekens, from EY’s Center for Board Matters, and Brendan LeBlanc, partner at EY’s Americas Climate Change and Sustainability Services, on why directors should prioritize sustainability in the boardroom:
Sustainability is no longer being viewed as a “soft issue” for board members. Rather, it’s an issue that is tied to oversight of corporate strategy.
Shareholders are becoming more concerned about how environmental and social issues are affecting companies.
There are so-called quick wins for management and boards who realize their companies should address sustainability issues.
Brendan LeBlanc, partner at EY’s Americas Climate Change and Sustainability Services (left), and Kellie Huennekens, from EY’s Center for Board Matters.
Here are some highlights from the discussions.
Christopher Y. Clark: [Has] there been increased activity and interest by directors in the governance and oversight of sustainability?
Brendan LeBlanc: I would suggest that governance and oversight of sustainability is simply governance and oversight of the corporate strategy. Companies execute their business models in the context of planetary limits and societal expectations. Sustainability is a word that goes by a lot of other synonyms: citizenship, stewardship, responsible growth, resiliency, profitability, [and] in perpetuity. All of these concepts get at the essence of sustainability, and the idea of how a company’s strategy is executed has always been a board issue.
Kellie Huennekens: It’s all about shareholders, at least from my perspective. The EY Center for Board Matters has ongoing engagement with a full range of institutional investors. We track proxy voting of the 3,000 largest companies in the U.S., and what we’re seeing and hearing from them is that sustainability topics, [like] environmental and social issues, are key concerns…gaining traction among a broader range of investors. Basically, what investors are searching for is a better understanding of how nontraditional, nonfinancial developments are impacting the companies in their portfolio, and accordingly, they want to know more about board oversight of these issues.
Clark: The perception is that this was a soft issue, and I want to hear more about EY’s work with boards on not forcing it but enhancing it so it’s no longer viewed as a soft issue.
Huennekens: There are a number of companies that appear to be redefining how boards should be looking at sustainability topics. These companies are the leaders in the space, and they’re constantly communicating with one another [and] with investors to explore how to approach sustainability topics. It’s a very difficult area, partly because it’s new and partly because the topics covered are very broad and very challenging.
LeBlanc: Boards are meant to safeguard the assets of the companies they serve. And one of the trickier but more important assets is your social license to operate, [with] an engaged workforce that comes to work…[not only for a paycheck but also] because they’re doing something that they believe in. And how companies actually understand, report, and capture this information [is] a business issue. Today, that whole process is maturing, and as boards get more engaged on what we think our social license-to-operate issues are, [we’re asking], “What are the things that really matter to our business? What do we depend on for natural resources? What are society’s expectations of us? And how are we meeting that responsibility?”
Clark: I read the appendices of NACD’s handbook, Oversight of Corporate Sustainability, and one tip that stood out to me…was: get quick wins. I was hoping that you could flesh that out for me.
LeBlanc: Quick wins for the management of the company [have] historically [included being] good at cost savings. If you do well by managing energy, [and] reduce costs, that’s fine. If you do well by managing a safe workplace, and you reduce cost and increase morale, that’s fine. The company manages risks very well if they are [also] engaging stakeholders, those who might be impacted by getting them in the tent with them early and understanding what their expectations are of the business. Those are all good, quick wins in producing a report from the company that explains the progress that they’re making….On quick wins for the board, I would strongly suggest taking a look at the [handbook’s] appendix, where we’ve put a model charter [that helps with] understanding the board. Who’s responsible for what? What’s the governance around the nonfinancial commitments that you’ve either explicitly made or are expected of you from your stakeholders?
Huennekens: As an indication of investors’ interest on sustainability topics, more specifically environmental and social issues, we’ve been seeing in recent years that shareholder-sponsored proposals to management on environmental and social topics now make up one of the largest shareholder proposal categories. It’s now about half of all the shareholder proposal topics submitted. While some boards may ask [whether or not this is] really a big deal [considering the amount of stock the shareholder who filed the proposal holds], what we’re seeing is that the broader base of investors is supporting a number of these key topics. [These topics include] greenhouse gas emissions reduction, whether to produce a sustainability report on an annual basis…, a human rights assessment, [and] supply chain management issues. [These issues] are increasingly becoming more prominent in terms of the broad range of topics boards cover, and we’re seeing average support for these proposals increase as well.
On July 17, NACD hosted a Directorship 2020® forum in Seattle that focused on how disruptive forces are changing the way companies do business. Through keynote addresses, expert panels, and small group discussions, the program provided an in-depth look at environmental and innovative disruptive forces and how boards can oversee management of the risks and opportunities such forces create. This event was held in partnership with Broadridge Financial Solutions, KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute (ACI), Marsh & McClennan Cos., and PwC.
In his keynote address, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) Global Director of Sustainability and Social Innovation Nathan Hurst examined the nexus of environmental issues and innovative technology. Motivated in part by concerns about the anticipated effects of climate change, consumers are more alert than ever to the impacts that businesses and their products are having on the environment. As our increasingly data-driven society shifts to digital media, the new technologies being used to store, manage, and process this data are producing a larger environmental footprint than one might expect. Hurst estimates that if cloud computing were a country, it would rank as the fifth largest country in the world in terms of energy use.
According to Hurst, companies must understand their environmental footprint in order to leverage the opportunities provided by “big data” and other technological tools for managing corporate sustainability. HP, for example, examined its operations, supply chain, and product portfolio to gauge its end-to-end carbon footprint. This assessment involved an organization-wide effort that required expertise and feedback from senior management, information technology departments, and operations departments, which was then used to determine the company’s baseline performance, set sustainability goals, and collaborate with organizational units on initiatives to reach those goals. For Hewlett-Packard, the relationship with supply chain managers was especially important, as the company sought to develop products whose production consumes fewer resources—such as power or water—and generates less waste—such as greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Hewlett-Packard signed a power purchase agreement with SunEdison, the world’s largest renewable development company, to provide wind-generated electricity to its 1.5 million square-foot data center in Texas. Hewlett-Packard originally set a deadline of 2020 for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of 2010 levels; however, the SunEdison agreement will enable HP to realize that goal by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.
Hurst succinctly summarized HP’s rationale for its sustainability and social innovation initiatives: the benefits of these initiatives for the company’s reputation and employee engagement, combined with new opportunities for profitable growth, collectively have the potential to produce major gains for HP.
In the second keynote address of the afternoon, Mark Silva, founder and CEO of KITE, spoke on innovation partnerships and described them as a gateway to investments, mergers, and acquisitions. Many companies at the forefront of innovation begin as small start-ups. While these businesses may initially be viewed as competitors with larger corporations, pursuing partnerships can be a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows established companies to embrace the latest wave of innovative ideas, provides start-ups with quick access to infrastructure and resources, and empowers both organizations to unlock growth opportunities. For example, the management team behind Sphero, a toy robot that can be controlled via smartphone or tablet devices, participated in a mentorship program offered by The Walt Disney Co., which subsequently used Sphero’s technology to create a robot featured in its Star Wars franchise. Through this partnership, the Sphero team has realized growth and greater exposure; and by providing a forum in which entrepreneurs can test their ideas, Disney continues to stay abreast of the latest innovations and trends. Other established companies, including Nike and Unilever, have similar brand accelerator programs to rally resources, invest in learning, and develop new capabilities.
Subsequent presentations and panel discussions generated the following key takeaways for board members:
Keep disruptive forces on the agenda. Trends and events that could potentially overturn the company’s business model should be routinely discussed at board meetings so that directors are always aware of and up to date on how management is approaching risks and realizing opportunities. Being proactive and thinking ahead about how to manage disruptors also promotes resiliency when a company faces a crisis. Boardroom discussions should address how the organization can diversify its supply chain so that the success of the business is not dependent on a single link in the chain in order to maintain production. For example, the board might ask management to consider how environmental changes—such as prolonged droughts or severe weather patterns—might lead to new business norms, and to plan how the company will adapt and stay competitive. Panelists agreed that boards need to “ask for the data”: What questions are customers and suppliers posing? What factors are driving their business decisions? What are, or could be, the game-changers in the company’s industry?
Clarify the payoff. Directors should ask management to demonstrate how responses to disruptive trends will impact the company’s bottom line. Nathan Hurst illustrated this point with an example from Wal-Mart, which has worked with several of its suppliers to reduce waste and costs. Noting the high water content of its liquid laundry detergents, the retailer joined forces with Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Church & Dwight to create “doubleconcentrated” detergent, a product that delivered the same washing power as the old formula in just half the volume. Because of doubleconcentrated’s reduced water content, manufacturers could pack the product in smaller plastic bottles. The new product size allowed more bottles of detergent to be packed onto trucks and store shelves, while its lighter weight resulted in lower transportation costs.
Companies can also consider incorporating sustainability metrics into executive compensation plans. Some companies will not embrace sustainability unless it entails demonstrable cost savings or a failure to address environmental impact will cause the company to lose ground to competitors. But, as the Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart initiatives illustrate, focusing on sustainability offers a way to drive more efficient business practices, which in turn allows management to make better-informed and more effective decisions.
Furthermore, sustainability reporting can foster positive relationships with both shareholders and the general public. According to an analysis by Gibson Dunn, shareholder proposals on environmental issues—specifically those concerning climate change and greenhouse gas emissions—are among the most frequently submitted types of proposals. NACD’s Oversight of Corporate Sustainability Activities handbook advises that directors should understand how the company has chosen to define sustainability in the context of its strategy, and the board should be comfortable with management’s decisions about how the company communicates sustainability information within the organization and to shareholders. Reporting not only demonstrates the company’s culture and character; it can also give it a competitive edge.
Examine board composition. Another example raised in the panel discussions was that of Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., which had a board composed of bookbinders who, by virtue of their profession, were disinclined to embrace digital innovation. The advent of Internet-based rivals, such as Wikipedia, quickly made the company’s business model and flagship product obsolete.
The board should analyze the company’s current and future business models to see how well the criteria for director selection correspond to those models. Maintaining a balance between tenured directors, who have invaluable insights into the company, and newer directors can present challenges when that new talent pushes against the status quo, which in turn can lead to culture clash within the board. Since culture, by definition, functions to preserve the status quo, it can make or break innovation. By bringing in outside perspectives and people who will question it, the board can keep the company moving forward.
Directors attending the recent NACD Directorship 2020® event in Denver, Colorado engaged in group discussions about how boards can anticipate and effectively respond to environmental and competitive disruptors in the marketplace.
The half-day symposium at the Ritz-Carlton on July 15 was the second of three NACD Directorship 2020 events this year addressing seven disruptive forces and their implications for the boardroom. Summaries of the Denver speakers’ main points are available here.
Following each speaker, directors developed key takeaways for boards. Those takeaways fell within the parameters of the five elements of effective board leadership defined at last year’s NACD Directorship 2020 forums: strategic board leadership and processes, boardroom dynamics and culture, information and awareness, board composition, and goals and metrics.
Environmental Disruptor Takeaways
Strategic Board Leadership and Processes
Crisis response plan. Ensure that the company has a contingency plan in place that takes into account a potential environmental crisis. The plan should include how the company will respond to disruptions in the supply chain and production cycle, as well as to employees, customers, and investors.
Boardroom Dynamics and Culture
Culture. Boardroom culture should reflect that directors are ready and willing to be held accountable for environmental or climatological issues that arise for the company.
Information and Awareness
Engagement. The company should have an established communications plan to use in response to requests from shareholders and stakeholders regarding environmental matters.
Goals and Metrics
Green metrics. Becoming a sustainability-focused company requires adopting a long-term commitment to the cause. The board can communicate that commitment by establishing environment-related performance metrics that align with the corporate strategy.
Competitive Disruptor Takeaways
Strategic Board Leadership and Processes
Board agenda. Set aside time on the board agenda to discuss forward-looking strategy, so that the board’s focus is not limited to reviewing the company’s past performance.
Boardroom Dynamics and Culture
Culture. Fostering innovation requires risk. The culture throughout the organization should support failure and risk taking within the company’s tolerances. Also invite outside experts—or “white space” teams—to help trigger new, innovative thoughts.
Composition. Board composition should reflect a diversity of thought and experience. Regardless of background, directors should be willing to ask probing questions and stay aware of marketplace trends.
Goals and metrics
Understanding the marketplace. Management should be able to answer who future competitors might be and what trends might gain traction.