In the corporate ecosystem, it has become imperative to foster sustainability at the environmental, social and governance levels. Measurement, communication and discussion now need structuring and shared, comparable parameters.
For the past few years, the financial market has been changing its expectations and exigencies thanks to a new kind of awareness and attention. In particular, ESG factors have become more and more important in the evaluation of businesses and their potential. ESG, short for Environmental, Social and Governance, indicates factors upon which a new way of evaluating business should be based. Corporate activities should no longer aim solely at corporate development and prosperity, but they should also improve the environmental and social conditions in which these businesses operate.
Emissions, global warming, renewable energies. But also: gender equality, ethical treatment of the employees and the development of local communities. Businesses are increasingly encouraged to take action in such matters. Oftentimes, their own reputation is assessed based on their efforts in these areas and, consequently, investments on the part of the stakeholders depend on them too. Financial risk exposure, mitigating measures, evaluation of bonds and equities are just a few of the many parameters that, today, include ESG data in their calculations.
ESG measurement is all but simple
Evaluating this data is as complex as ever for a series of reasons. First of all, ESG data is not financial data in a narrow sense. Most of the time, these are qualitative parameters relating to corporate activities that are difficult to translate into numerical data that is ready for financial, risk- or interest-assessment calculations. For instance, looking at a corporate portfolio, the difficulty of this numerical translation becomes clear in the case of actions taken to improve the employees’ working conditions or against gender discrimination.
Another issue is the difficulty in selecting data for these evaluations. A report that is full of information is not necessarily an efficient and valuable report in terms of the integration of ESG data into financial calculations. In this sense, ESG data is benefiting from an increased interest: compared to the past, ESG data is becoming more structured, precise and tangible. The scrutiny under which companies find themselves today, together with an increased internal awareness, is encouraging greater accuracy and transparency.
But there remains much progress to be made in the search for an optimal implementation of the ESG factors. Often, sustainability-related initiatives are complex and take place in the most varied ways, making calculation even more complex. For stakeholders, then, comparing data on performances across businesses is very difficult.
At the same time, the methodologies implied to translate ESG factors into financially useful methodologies largely differ from business to business. Based on dimension, assets and number of initiatives, every business presents different data, resulting from personalised and specific parameters and paradigms. For stakeholders, this differentiation makes it difficult to compare performances from different businesses in a meaningful way.
Share, inform, educate
How, then, can one solve the comparability issues of ESG data? Sharing is the key. In order to compare the sustainable performances of different companies, a common methodology should be applied consistently, a methodology that implies univocal parameters across the different market actors. This way, the data produced would be homogenous throughout the market, and more comparable in financial analyses. With transparency and honesty, businesses should make more high-quality data available. Data should be consistent over long periods of time, and coherent to the data sets of other actors.
Furthermore, effort should be put into educating stakeholders, so that they become more aware of the meaning behind the data and scores they use when they evaluate the performances of the companies in which they want to invest. Intentions, meanings and interpretations of ESG data should be unified in order to promote an increased awareness and an overall view that could facilitate responsible investment.
Implementing ESG data: the Italian evolution
Published in 2021, but relating to data from 2020, the CONSOB Report on non-financial reporting relating to the Italian businesses listed on the stock market provides a picture of the implementation of the Legislative Decree 254/2016. The Decree imposes the annual publication of a sustainability report, together with the implementation of ESG and multicapital factors in the strategic plan.
One of the goals of the report is to highlight the progressive cultural change triggered by the integration of sustainability into the corporate decision-making process. This process is structured around three axes: awareness, capabilities and engagement.
At the very beginning of this process lies the respect of normative obligations and, most importantly, awareness on the importance of ESG factors and NFSs (non-financial statements). NFSs should not be perceived simply as a duty, but rather as an opportunity for the organisation to evaluate its own efforts with a more comprehensive perspective, which will allow an improved understanding of its specific role in a context that goes beyond its own corporate confines.
Relating to this phase, the Report identifies five main indicators. In terms of compliance with the regulations, the number of companies that published a NFS remained unchanged between 2019 and 2020, with 151 companies publishing, three of which did not have any obligation to do so. The evaluation of the acknowledgement of the relevance of ESG factors was carried out by looking at the involvement of the board in the approval of materiality analyses (25% of the cases, compared to 14% in 2019) and the number of companies that performed induction on ESG theme at the BoD level, which went from 16% to 21%. As a last indicator, the institution of sustainability committees within the companies was considered. This number changed from 54 in 2019 (36%) to 73 in 2020 (48%).
The second phase necessitates awareness of the importance of ESG factors as they relate to proper corporate behaviours at multiple organisational levels. The key elements of this stage vary greatly and are those that registered the greatest change, compared to 2019. The most substantial progress regards the integration of ESG factors into:
- The guidelines for the creation of new BoDs (78% in 2020, compared to 28% in 2019)
- The self-assessment of BoDs (from 14% to 25%)
- The remuneration of CEOs (from 22% to 42%)
Other aspects were also examined, such as the involvement of the board (from 46% to 50% in 2020) and the stakeholders (from 47% to 55%) in the materiality analysis. The number of businesses that implemented systems to gather non-financial data ranged from 7 to 13 (from 5% to 9%), whereas the number of businesses the implied data analytics platforms for a more accurate materiality analysis went from 5% to 8%. Particularly relevant is the number of actors that offered training programmes on ESG themes, which doubled from 54 in 2019 to 107 in 2020 (71%).
Engagement represents the third and last phase in the evolutionary process outlined so far, an ideal end point where a business adopts sustainable practices and the ESG and multicapital factors are internalised at the governance and at the business model levels. The evaluation criteria implied in this phase are centred around the strategic plans of companies that published an NFS.
The companies that published a synthesis of their strategic plan on their corporate websites ranged from 47 (31%) to 59 (39%). Of these, 28 (4 more than in 2019) mentioned themes relevant for the long run, whereas 15 (12 more than in the previous year) have referenced the ONU Sustainable Development Goals in their strategic plans. A smaller number of business (7) also shared the factors which generate short-term and long-term value and integrated financial and non-financial considerations.
Lastly, only one business (same as in 2019) specified materiality as a fundamental element in the strategic planning.
ESG factors are bound to become the future gravitational centres of corporate life. From a distinctive trait, the effort in sustainability will become an essential prerequisite for corporate citizenship. The future path of businesses now need to pass through the understanding and interiorisation of ESG and multicapital themes, the standardisation of methodologies for the creation of NFS and a systemic comparison of the results, that will ultimately allow a transparent dialogue on sustainability.
Spindox is involved
Sustainability has always been a guiding principle in shaping our corporate activities and our growth. In 2012 already, we adopted a Code of Ethics to regulate corporate dynamics with respect to all stakeholders.
Educating our employees, granting a work-life balance and fighting gender bias within our company and in the more general ICT industry: these are just a few of the ways in which we are committed to social responsibility.
In terms of environmental sustainability, Spindox has launched several internal and external initiatives. Since 2019, our GO!GREEN campaign has been promoting sustainable practices in our corporate life, such as a responsible use of private means of transport and of material and energetic resources of the company. In 2021, we voluntarily compiled and published our first Sustainability Report, containing the guidelines of our corporate ESG strategy. Also included in the report is our Carbon Footprint, which we calculated in order to quantify the toll that our corporate existence takes on nature. In order to make up for our emissions, we began a collaboration with Treedom. Started in 2019, this initiative has the goal of creating a Spindox forest through agroforestry systems. A forest that counts 200 trees already and is bound to reach 500 by 2023.
Our report will be updated and published every year, so that we can keep adhering to the evolution of sustainability standards over time.