By Dieter Zinnbauer.
Why a powerful push by the world’s top asset manager towards more sustainability reporting still falls pretty short.
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager promises to leverage its weight and voting power for more consistent and comprehensive corporate reporting on sustainability. And this includes corporate lobbying.
The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standard that BlackRock backs also includes a reporting dimension on what it calls “Management of the Legal & Regulatory Environment”. According to the SASB this category “addresses a company’s approach to engaging with regulators in cases where conflicting corporate and public interests may have the potential for long-term adverse direct or indirect environmental and social impacts.”
Now, this sounds quite promising.
It really seems to recognize the urgent imperative for business to align corporate political activity with its social and environmental responsibility and to assure all stakeholders in your reporting that this is the case.
Or to take a plain language and not entirely hypothetical example: as a responsible corporate citizen show everyone that you are not a hypocrite and that you do not lobby against improved fuel efficiency standards while at the same time celebrating your green credentials by supporting smart transport initiatives.
As the SASB further elaborates on this reporting dimension, the category addresses among other “a company’s level of reliance upon regulatory policy… actions to influence industry policy (such as through lobbying) … [and ] it may relate to the alignment of management and investor views of regulatory engagement and compliance at large”. And the related accounting metric mandates a “discussion of corporate positions related to government regulations and/or policy proposals that address environmental and social factors affecting the industry.”
One could be a stickler and criticize that this is not comprehensive and specific enough, as it, for example, does not require to disclose how much money is spent on specific lobbying issues or what other of the growing repertoire of corporate influencing and communication strategies beyond lobbying are deployed to shape the public policy debate on these issues.
But let’s be pragmatic, the fact that the world’s largest asset manager has chosen to explicitly demand reporting on lobbying from the many companies it invests in and also threatens openly to vote against boards of companies that do not play along is a great step forward.
But then the really not so good news
The SASB only requires companies to report on corporate political activity in sectors where this category is judged to be material. And quite startlingly corporate political activity is only viewed as material for some segments of the oil & gas sector, biofuels, and chemicals. That’s it.
How can this be? No mention of air freight & logistics, airlines, marine transportation or the car industry – sectors in which many (but not all) companies are out in force to lobby against green taxes and/or higher resource efficiency standards, thus delaying much-needed investments in future-proof technologies and creating a regulatory backlog that all but exacerbates the material risks of stranded assets and failing business models further down the road.
How about construction materials or the steel industry whose future trajectories in energy efficiency or recycling and the rules and regulations that will apply are material to global sustainability and corporate success alike?
How about the meat, poultry and dairy sector? I have not researched their lobbying activities but would imagine that they are very much engaged around evolving rules for methane emissions as one of the most potent climate gasses in a world of growing appetite for meat. No need for investors to know how corporate strategy, public policy engagement and sustainability dynamics line up?
Or how about coal and electricity & power generation? Are these sectors viewed as a lost cause where corporate political action will simply be assumed to be misaligned with societal sustainability goals and thus not worthwhile accounting for? Does this do justice to and incentivize responsible corporate political engagement where it is perhaps more material and needed more than in many other areas?
These are just some examples with regard to climate change. Corporate political engagement is plausibly a material issues for many other sectors as well, for example when thinking about social aspects of sustainability, e.g. how platform economies craft business models and lobby on the rules that apply to gig work, how big tech seeks to shape privacy rules that are closely linked to their advertising-based business models…
Corporate political activity is a highly cross-cutting material issue. Expecting corporate reporting on it is urgent and most welcome. Yet, limiting this push to only five of overall more than seventy business sectors is more than unfortunate. Trailblazing trustees of our savings and investments and the reporting standards that they promote must and can do better.
About the author
Dr. Dieter Zinnbauer is a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at CBS’ Department of Management, Society and Communication. His CBS researches focus on business as political actor in the context of big data, populism and “corporate purpose fatigue”.
Working papers: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1588618