Board Sustainability Governance: A Watershed Year?

Published on September 19, 2018

We’ve made leaps in progress in sustainability governance; I predict this will be a watershed year.

Throughout 2018, environmental and social concerns have dominated shareholder proposal submissions, with shareholders asking boards to urge their companies to establish Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) committees, build ESG board expertise, compensate executives on ESG performance and report on their ESG results. The Canadian Coalition for Good Governance – whose  members manage almost $4 trillion in assets on behalf of institutional investors – released their ground-breaking call to action to Directors. The report recommended that Board oversight and disclosure of ESG issues be enhanced, signaling the Coalition’s intent to increase engagement of companies they invest in for those who fall short. 

I  have updated my ten-year-old guidance to Boards on ESG oversight with this new Guest Commentary for the Conference Board of Canada: Embedding Sustainability into Corporate Governance. A must-read for Board members and those who advise or support boards.

There’s progress in other sustainability governance areas as well. Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC) – which represents Canadian governance professionals and corporate secretaries – launched its new GPC.D designation education program, with sustainability governance a central theme. As a faculty member for its sustainability governance module, I am seeing significant receptivity to these ideas and an uptick of interest in this emerging role of the board. Indeed, at GPC’s annual conference this past August, Peter Dey – Canada’s preeminent governance guru – signaled ESG governance as a leading worldwide issue, one that should be watched and observed by governance professionals and corporate directors alike.

Korn Ferry published its annual benchmarking report on governance trends in Canada, which reveals some encouraging turning points in board sustainability governance. The 2018 report – which analyzed practices of about 90 boards – found that about one third have a sustainability committee, and close to 50 per cent have an ESG policy adopted by the board; of those, half are reviewed annually and audited periodically.

Despite the promising efforts by boards to identify their ESG risks (and presumably address them in their business plans), two-thirds don’t incentivize management for achievement of sustainability targets in their business plan. Further, ESG ranks #7 on the list of significant governance issues, with only 15 per cent of boards finding these topics compelling enough for inclusion on their regular agenda.  

A telling sign of future progress (aka “leading indicator”) is that 20 per cent of boards now significantly consider sustainability skills, knowledge and competencies when recruiting new board directors. Half are providing board education on ESG trends affecting their firms and as these trends play out, even more boards are expected to include ESG within their corporate strategy and incentive packages. 

For those who are keen to explore these and other pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in sustainability, I encourage you to consider attending GreenBiz 19, being held Feb. 26-28 in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s an outstanding annual event for sustainability leaders. I’ll be there to present on board sustainability oversight: trends, practices, drivers and standards. Details here. 

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