Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending GreenFin at the scenic JW Marriott Camelback Resort in Scottsdale, AZ. As the finance-focused gathering that precedes the broader annual GreenBiz summit, GreenFin provides an opportunity for current, former and would-be Wall Street and Fortune 100 sustainability-minded “titans” to gather at the resort that bills itself as the place “Where Time Stands Still.” Attendees gather to figure out how to collectively convince everyone else that sustainability really is a thing, that ESG doesn’t stand for “Eggs and Smoked Gravlax” and that the future of capitalism and the planet are in fact interconnected – and collectively at stake!
This was my first invite to GreenFin, and I must say I walked out quite impressed by the depth and seriousness of the discourse, albeit not fully sanguine about the direction of travel. What began as a rather predictable and pedestrian discussion over the “Tyranny of Short-Termism” and the challenge of quantifying “non-financial” risks evolved into a quite rigorous examination of the likely implications of Larry Fink’s letters; the maturing dialogue between portfolio managers, investor relations professionals and sustainability leads; and, perhaps most relevant to The Shareholder Commons agenda, the need for a more sophisticated, sustainability-focused search for “Better Beta”: in other words a marketplace where all companies are doing their “fair share” across the ESG landscape. I was particularly primed for a debate on this latter point but, to my pleasant surprise, the room was fairly aligned: yes, pension funds, institutional investors and other universal owners have a critical role to play, given their broad market exposure and long-term lens. Reaching consensus on what that role is, independently and relative to active investors, proved more elusive.
In parallel, it was clear to me that equity markets, while increasingly aligned on the relevance of ESG as a tool for identifying winners and market-beating “alpha,” are still struggling to translate company sustainability information – some quantified and some not – into actionable data. This is unsurprising given, among other challenges, 1) the lack of consensus on reporting frameworks (GRI vs. SASB vs. TFCD vs. 100 other schemes); 2) the inability to quantify the inherently unquantifiable; and, perhaps most significant, 3) the struggle many companies have of incorporating sustainability factors into business risk, strategic planning and other governance processes. Yet interestingly, there was a collective sense that ESG is emerging as financial sector vernacular for “21st Century Risk” and that the more consensus there is on this point, the more effective markets will be in integrating social, natural and human capital into valuation decisions. Presumably the customers, employees and investors of Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, PG&E and Boeing would agree!
Ultimately, the theme of GreenFin was: “It’s the Day After Groundhog Day”— we’re finally talking with rather than over and around each other on ESG. That’s quite gratifying for those of us who for years have been mumbling and grumbling about the imperative of rethinking the way we define and manage business “value,” “risk” and “trust.” Whether as an outgrowth of corporate scandals, scary weather, or – I don’t know – something like $10 trillion dollars of assets (and the executives behind them) being reexamined for their sustainability bona fides, the dialogue is finally evolving. But now what? Consensus-based measurement, reporting and valuation tools? More sophisticated and transparent enterprise risk management programs? Better C-Suite engagement and storytelling around the business opportunities involved? Public policies that demand transparency and price in externalities? I’ll take “all of the above.” Ambitious commitments recently announced by my former employers AstraZeneca and Microsoft deserve praise and can help lead the way but will not suffice.
So, on this “Day After Groundhog Day” and every day thereafter, let’s also resolve that the financial and corporate sectors (and perhaps one day federal policymakers) must collectively recognize that it’s high time to both level AND raise the playing field. The search for Alpha must continue –our collective ability to invest, innovate and meet the critical needs of our planet and social systems depends on that. But what we could also really use right now is some “Better Beta.” After all, there are no winners – only losers – until the bar is raised across capital markets and there is universal recognition that, despite the wishes of JW Marriott’s owners and guests, time is NOT standing still. Not for our economy, not for our progeny and certainly not for our planet.
From The Shareholder Common’s February 2020 Newsletter. Sign up for our newsletter here to get more updates from TSC on our work, research, and opportunities for action.