Where Sustainability and Boards of Directors Intersect
With consumers and Wall Street continuing to put pressure on companies to be open about their sustainable practices, boards of directors are feeling the pinch. Investors certainly expect that board members understand and help prepare for challenges. Investing in sustainability is increasingly seen as a risk mitigation strategy, particularly now that it is clear that there is a connection between sustainable efforts and how companies perform.
There are a number of sustainability issues — climate change, water scarcity, labor inequality, product safety — that impact the bottom line. By understanding the impact of these risks on their companies and incorporating that information into the decision making process, boards can meet the demands of a growing number of investors around the world — and unlock real business opportunities.
This Greenbiz.com article, How to Build a Board that’s Competent for Sustainability, was an excellent round up of how to manage boards effectively when it comes to sustainability issues.
When an environmental or social issue impacts production and more, board members must respond. And it’s the job of the corporate staff, from investor relations to corporate secretaries to sustainability officers, to help the board become fluent in these sustainability risks — so that directors can understand why it matters to their business and what they can do about it. While some would say you could simple add a member or two to the board who is well versed in sustainable issues, a report recently release by Ceres suggest you should build a sustainably competent board.
How to build a sustainably competent board
Key suggestions include integrating sustainability issues into board recruitment and educating directors on sustainability issues and why it’s critical for them to engage with external stakeholders, including investors and experts on sustainability issues. The end goal is totally straightforward and by tackling material sustainability risks as a group, the board can ask the right questions, support or challenge management as needed and make knowledgeable decisions on strategy and risk.
There are other important elements that can assist in this process such as investor relations. Investors have long paid attention to board composition, including leading the charge calling for more diversity on corporate boards. Now that focus has grown to include climate competency, with major investors including CalPERS, CalSTRS, Blackrock and State Street (PDF) demanding that boards bring on climate-competent directors.
To work on this transition, the sustainability department and investor relations team can pair up to help educate directors when it comes to sustainability issues. They can prepare educational materials and sessions, report on material sustainability issues and discussion to boards and involve boards in materiality assessments, including ongoing updates of the business case for managing sustainability issues. Materiality assessments are particularly important. A growing number of companies are putting in place formal process to assess materiality sustainability issues. Board members should be involved in these processes to provide input, as well as to vet the results.
Finally, corporate staff can help the board engage with investors and other expert stakeholders on the topics important to the company through outreach to stakeholders or by creating advisory councils that have sufficient expertise to engage with directors and help brief and prepare board members for investor engagements on sustainability issues.
If a board wants what is best for the company, it’s clear that establishing a focus on sustainability issues will be good for business. Would you like help making the case to leadership on the power of sustainability, contact us!