It has been 25 years since Ceres, the Sustainability Leadership Advocacy organization, was formed by a small group of investors to further the adoption of sustainable business practices that could protect the planet while ensuring long-term prosperity for its people. What better way to celebrate a quarter century of progress than to attend the Ceres Annual Conference, held April 30th in Boston.
Attendees included a great blend of Asset Owners, Asset Managers and Corporates furthering the debate on establishing better business practices and standards. Among the key issues addressed during the two-day event: climate change, corporate responsibility and Ceres’ own benchmark report, “Gaining Ground: A Roadmap for Sustainability,” outlining the still spotty progress by corporations in adopting sustainable frameworks to meet pressing societal needs.
Beginning with the Asset Owners, one of the main recurring topics was Governance. Companies are increasingly being asked about the framework, composition and expectations of their Board and Committees. Factors such as diversity and the environment continue to be areas of interest, as well as relevant expertise of the Board and committee members, particularly on topics such as industry regulation and executive compensation. The independence of the Board is paramount as is the ability to engage shareholders on material issues related to sustainability.
Asset Management constituents focused on research and information access. Portfolio managers and chief investment officers continue to struggle with the various reporting tools and formats now deployed across industries and are pushing for more unified progress on standards, investment-grade tools and analytics. Meanwhile, analysts in attendance pressed for more material and forward-looking analysis, in addition to the historic or static data that has become more readily available. Also of note was the demand from across the asset management caucus for more independent sustainability focused “institutional level” research. Interestingly, this group clearly felt that having a handle on sustainability is a competitive advantage.
From a Corporate perspective, it was very clear that sustainability is a real economic imperative that’s increasingly seen as building competitive advantage. The idea of viewing sustainability as a culture and a language – as opposed to a department – is now a common theme among leading brands. Companies such as Nike, Gap, Ford, Suncor, EMC, Intel and others, outlined very specific strategies to address key issues that affect resources, markets and consumer demand. They discussed plans to better manage their industrial footprints and understand how demand for their core products will change based on scenarios around climate change. Despite regional and industry differences, a common theme was reducing the use of non-renewable materials, water and energy. Several discussed the important subject of supply chain management, including working with suppliers and production facilities to achieve greater energy efficiencies. Impressively, some of these companies have programs to educate their workforce to ensure productivity and retention.
As a leading advocate for change, Ceres is to be commended for creating another world class event, where dialogue is pivotal and progress can lead to meaningful commitments in a world economy shaped by sustainability risks and opportunities.
Tanya Khotin is Head of Institutional Business Development at Cornerstone Capital Inc. Previously she focused on sustainable investing opportunities at Hugo Neu Corp. and served as Head of the Russian Equities business in Moscow and Head of the Emerging Markets Institutional Sales Desk in New York at UBS.