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Investors demand more ESG disclosure, new study says

Tammy Whitehouse | April 11, 2017

Investor interest is growing in getting expanded information out of companies about their environmental, social, and governance practices, based on a recent global study revealing more investors want the information than those who don’t.

EY and Institutional Investor polled 320 engaged investors in 2016 to take their pulse on how important ESG information might be to their investment decision making. More than 80 percent agreed that environmental and social issues present both risks and opportunities for companies, but companies have not considered them core to their business operations or strategies. More than 90 percent said public company CEOs should outline explicit strategies each year for how they plan to create value within the organization over the long term, and it should be reviewed by the company’s board.

Nearly 90 percent of investors in the poll agreed or strongly agreed that companies can only generate sustainable returns over time if they bring a sharper focus on governance, environmental, and social factors. A similar share of investors agreed or strongly agreed that over the long term, ESG issues have real and quantifiable effects on companies.

The movement for greater transparency around ESG factors has sputtered along for years, initiated early on for concern over environmental issues, including climate change. The adrenalin came in early 2016, the EY/II survey report says, when the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment manager, wrote to the CEOs of the S&P 500 and Europe’s largest corporations. In that memo, Laurence Fink called on CEOs to give up the common fixation on short-term gains and focus more on long-term value, open and transparent disclosure of growth plans, and ESG factors.

Even before the Fink memo, EY and II point out, the case for greater focus on ESG factors was already growing due to academic research demonstrating links between companies with solid ESG practices, better operational performance, and better stock performance. The growing body of data brings global capital markets to “an inflection point,” the survey report says, where evidence is emerging to show that ESG information plays “an increasingly influential role in investment decision-making.”

Companies currently are under no explicit requirement to address ESG in their reporting to investors, but regulators are beginning to discuss whether they should begin exploring the possibilities, including at the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board is writing standards it believes companies should follow where securities law already requires certain risk factors to be disclosed.