COVID Takes ESG Beyond PR and Into Real Action
The prevalence of ESG reporting about Environmental, Social, and Governance issues by companies across the U.S. and around the globe has been growing in recent years. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic gave many companies a chance to reset their thinking on how they view their employees, communities, social issues, and the environment. The massive disruption in the global economic environment caused large populations of people to live and work differently.
In the U.S. alone, investments in sustainable funds in 2020 hit $51.1 billion, more than double 2019 and almost 10 times as much from flows into ESG funds in 2018, according to Morningstar Inc.
In 2021, with COVID hopefully fading into the rearview mirror, ESG is poised to become a regular part of investing and financial reporting. As this transformation takes place, the challenges for both investors and corporations are to improve not only the frequency and volume of ESG reporting, but the quality.
Reports that are not transparent, or that are used as PR spin, will be hollow. ESG reporting must be more than a reflection of a desire to do good, but an accurate accounting of the progress on key issues investors believe will provide a good return on their investments.
Many eyes – those of consumers, shareholders, activists and even the Biden administration – are now watching to see if companies will move forward following the pandemic in a positive way, and if they will put their intentions into actions.
There is also, of course, a lot of money involved. And although a “pandemic” may not easily fall into one of ESG’s areas of focus, the overall impact the coronavirus had on the world can be viewed by many investors and consumers as having similar effects of climate change or sustainability. These were key issues that grew in interest while many people were quarantined for months, couldn’t drive or fly anywhere, and countries across the world saw declines in emission pollutants.
We can probably all agree that the quarantined way of life wasn’t truly sustainable. Empty highways in major cities would eventually be filled with vehicles spewing pollutants into the air once again.
But perhaps enough people have determined that a return to the status quo that once was pre-pandemic is not inevitable.
Exxon’s shareholders, for instance, took the unprecedented step of removing three board members because they believe the company was not moving fast enough to remedy the effects of the company’s products on the environment. More than just an activist environmentalist movement, the change was backed by some of the company’s largest institutional investors and a large majority of stakeholders.
How other companies integrate their ESG missions on a day-to-day basis and year over year will be critical to creating a sustainable future that doesn’t depend on a global pandemic to good and create new opportunities.