The number of companies including disclosures on climate-change risk in their financial reporting is growing, but many are using vague, boilerplate language that falls short of really helping investors make decisions.
That’s one conclusion from a new report by the sustainability-focused nonprofit Ceres titled “Turning Point: Corporate Progress on the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability.” The report seeks to measure the progress made by more than 600 of the biggest listed companies in the U.S. in meeting goals on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, managing water resources, protecting the rights of their workers, and embracing diversity and inclusion.
“We’re looking at how companies are readying themselves for a future with unprecedented environmental and social challenges, and how they are making commitments and driving resource allocation,” Ceres director Kristen Lang told MarketWatch.
The good news is that companies are making progress on creating policies and setting out expectations for their suppliers, she said. The bad news is that they are not moving quickly enough or being adventurous enough to effect real change. Ceres is a key player in pushing for the U.S. to stick with the Paris Accord goal of limiting the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius by reducing greenhouse emissions. That goal is a crucial one as insurers have said anything higher would make the world uninsurable.
“It is no longer just about raising the ceiling,” said Ceres Chief Executive Mindy Lubber. “It is about lifting the floor. The time has come for bold and scalable solutions, not just from a few leading companies, but from companies of all sizes and across all sectors who need to transition from making commitments to taking concrete actions.”
‘It is no longer just about raising the ceiling. It is about lifting the floor. The time has come for bold and scalable solutions, not just from a few leading companies, but from companies of all sizes and across all sectors who need to transition from making commitments to taking concrete actions.’
The report found that 51% of companies now include climate-risk disclosures in their annual financial filings, up from 42% in 2014. However, a third of companies are only looking at the issue from the viewpoint of regulatory risk, which is neither detailed nor nuanced enough to guide investor decisions.
“Investors need decision-useful sustainability performance information, and they prefer to see this information disclosed within traditional investor communications.” said Mary Jane McQuillen, head of environmental, social and governance investment at ClearBridge Investments.
The report found that companies that tie climate and sustainability targets to executive compensation and oversight are the most successful, said Lang. A full 65% of companies reviewed hold senior-level managers accountable for sustainability performance, but only 31% integrate that into their board charters.
“We’ve seen a correlation in terms of the commitment companies are making, those that have quantitative targets have made more progress on emissions and on managing water too,” said Lang.
Water management has become a key challenge for companies in a world of increasing drought, such as the one that parched California in 2015 and 2016. The report found that 81% of companies in industries that require relatively large amounts of water — for example, the manufacturers of food and beverages, clothing and semiconductors — have water programs in place, but just 37% of those have set targets for prioritizing action in areas that pose the greatest risk to water resources.
Food companies are leading the effort, with 95% of those reviewed showing quantifiable goals for water use, said Lang.
for example, scores top marks in the areas of greenhouse-gas emissions, renewable energy and water management, as well as human-rights policies and human-rights management systems. The company also scored highly for board oversight, investor engagement and standards for disclosure.
Companies still need to do more to ensure their supply chain is managing its environmental and social impact. Fully 69% of the companies reviewed have codes for their suppliers to follow, but only 34% provide the tools and resources needed to ensure implementation, said Lang.
Overall, companies need to take the topic of climate risk seriously, as there is growing evidence that strong sustainability programs boost financial performance. And investors are increasingly demanding information on how weather-related phenomena are impacting the businesses in which they own stakes.
In January, the World Economic Forum cited global water risk and climate change as top economic risks for the global economy.
“If that’s the case, there’s a critical need to businesses to see trends that have been there for 10 years, how difficult it is to do business in a resource-challenged world,” said Lang.
Kellogg shares have fallen 9% in the last 12 months, while the S&P 500
has gained 16% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average
has gained 22%.