If you’re on the lookout for the most important business trends of 2020 then you’ve found one of the big ones. ESG has been picking up speed in the past few years, and the first month of 2020 has already suggested that businesses need to be more ESG-aware this year than ever before.
In early January 2020, Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, published a letter announcing that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” After the climate strikes in September 2019 – where demonstrators across 150 countries stressed the ecological and economic consequences of climate change – the markets were slow to react. But now, Larry writes, “awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance”.
Sustainability and ESG are not only important to those in the world of finance, but for all businesses and sectors. So what does ESG actually mean, why does it matter, and how can all businesses – big and small – boost their ESG rating this year?
Here are the 3 things you need to know about ESG in 2020.
ESG refers to environmental, social and governance criteria. These criteria are a measure of how sustainable, ethical and law-abiding a business is. A company’s ESG score is a useful indicator for those who want to make socially conscious buying decisions.
This means that ESG is particularly useful for investors. As Investopedia puts it, ESG is a set of standards that “investors use to screen potential investments”. For this reason, ESG investing is also referred to as ‘sustainable investing’ or ‘responsible investing’.
The term was born when former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, invited 50 financial institution CEOs to discuss involving ESG in the markets. The culminating report titled “Who Cares Wins”, argued that integrating ESG into the markets would lead to businesses making more ethical and profitable decisions.
Here’s a look at each of the criteria in detail:
Evaluating a company’s environmental impact means looking at its energy use, pollution, treatment of animals, waste, and nature conservation. If a company is neglectful of government regulations, has a large carbon footprint or owns contaminated land, it’s likely to have a low environmental score.
This refers to all the relationships a company has with its business partners and employees. The social category examines whether a business works with responsible partners, donates any of its profits to the local community, looks out for its employees’ health and safety, and maintains good working conditions.
These criteria test the company’s internal proceedings. It looks at any conflicts of interest, any political agendas, and illegal practices. It examines whether accounting methods are transparent and if stockholders are consulted on big decisions.
ESG isn’t necessarily something new, but it’s being used in a new way to evaluate the long-term sustainability of companies.
BlackRock’s ESG criteria are being used to help traders make decisions about which stocks to invest in. They can rule out companies that don’t have a high enough ESG rating, and prioritize those who do. This means that companies who haven’t yet focused on their ESG rating could now look unfavorable on the markets.
BlackRock isn’t the only large corporation to ramp up its focus on ESG this year. In recent years, studies have shown that ESG isn’t only important for promoting sustainability, but is actually profitable for companies. In 2014 and 2015 the first studies began to show that companies with a high sustainability performance were more likely to have good financial results. A review of the studies found that:
Consumer-facing brands reported similar financial gains from boosting their ESG. Robert Swannell, former Chairman of Marks & Spencers, reported:
“At M&S we have put Plan A, our ethical and sustainability program, right at the heart of our business. It makes perfect business sense as well as being the right thing to do…the work we have done on sustainability provided a net financial benefit to the business of around £145 million last year through efficiencies in energy consumption, packaging, less waste, etc.”
This means that investors might start to look at ESG as an indicator of a company with a financially stable future, and CEOs might consider ESG a driver of financial benefit.
All in all, if companies weren’t paying attention to their ESG rating before this year, they should be now. The pressure on businesses to be sustainable is not only coming from consumers who want to make socially conscious decisions, but also stakeholders who want to invest responsibly. These pressures are only going to grow as other financial institutions make it easier to choose based on ESG factors, and as individual businesses are as transparent as Barclays over their ratings. As the Independent reported, in the US “89 percent of consumers said they would consider switching brands to one associated with a good cause if price and quality were equal.”
So what can businesses do to increase their rating? One way is to turn to technology. Small decisions, like cutting down on paper use to go digital can go a long way. Plastic Oceans found that a key way of reducing their footprint was by swapping out paper brochures for QR codes and digital guides. Not only did this distinguish the company at events but it increased the company’s sustainability and saved them printing costs. See the results they saw when they went paper-less in the full story:
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