Sustainability and the Reasonable Investor

SASB logoDirecting capital toward better results for the planet requires that companies and investors have clear information about how environmental, social and governance issues translate to real business risks and opportunities. Of the many groups today that are looking to standardize how companies report on sustainability issues, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) takes a distinct approach by zeroing in on what publically traded U.S. companies should disclose in their filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). When I attended a recent workshop the organization hosted in Boston as part of Sustainable Brands’ New Metrics conference, I learned more about what SASB is up to and what impact the group’s work could have.

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From the inside-out: Warburg Pincus and EDF Climate Corps’ recipe for replication

Since 2008, EDF has worked with private equity firms to integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) management into their practices. Leveraging our EDF Climate Corps program is a key strategy for replicating our work and we have now placed 44 EDF Climate Corps fellows among private equity firms and portfolio companies, to date. To learn more about how a particular firm has benefitted, I recently spoke with representatives at Warburg Pincus to hear how the EDF Climate Corps program has enhanced their continued efforts to share ESG-related best practices with Warburg Pincus' portfolio companies.

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This summer, Warburg Pincus hosted an EDF Climate Corps fellow for the second year in a row, and again chose to place the fellow at the firm level, rather than with a single portfolio company. “Running this process from the center allowed us to identify different opportunities, across our portfolio and coordinate work on each of them,” Warburg Pincus Vice President Michael Frain told me.

From speaking further with Frain and Daphne Patterson, Warburg Pincus’ first EDF Climate Corps fellow and newly minted associate, four key themes emerged:

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Private Equity Interest in EDF Climate Corps at All-Time High

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CC 2012 fellow Sarah Stern presents her work to CD&R's Daniel Jacobs, left, and Thomas Franco, right

Summer at EDF is always an exciting time as EDF Climate Corps fellows fan out and begin their placements at organizations across the country. This year we're thrilled to see a dozen fellows working with private equity firms and their portfolio companies, the highest number of such placements in a single summer. In total, EDF has now placed 44 EDF Climate Corps fellows in the private equity sector to date.

Managing investment dollars equivalent to roughly 8 percent of U.S. GDP, the private equity sector is critical to sharing, replicating and advancing corporate environmental best practices, so it's gratifying to see the level of activity continue to build. New hosts this year include portfolio companies Associated Materials, Avaya, Floor & Décor, Philadelphia Energy Solutions and Taylor Morrison. Private equity firms KKR and Warburg Pincus are also hosting fellows this year, as they have previously.

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Be humble, be bold: inspiration from the 2014 Shared Value Summit

“Be humble; be bold,” said David Browning of TechnoServe, offering his advice on developing partnerships at the 2014 Shared Value Leadership Summit. By that, he explained, your goals should be aspirational, but that you should “ground-truth” your strategies before getting too far ahead of yourself.

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As a manager in new project development with EDF’s corporate partnerships team, I was drawn to the Summit to learn from other organizations working to harness the power of markets to drive societal and environmental progress, creating “shared value” for all involved. Browning’s talk was just one of the highlights of the Summit, where an inspiring combination of expertise, experimentation and uncommon alliances was on display.

Redefining shared value

Shared value is a still-evolving idea, first defined in 2011 as “a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business.” While the terminology is new, the concept of creating it through corporate-NGO partnerships thankfully isn’t.

What is new, as noted in the opening plenary, is the rapid shift of companies from launching many small-scale pilot projects to “developing the playbook”–codifying and scaling best practices across business units and entire sectors.

Honing the playbook

The term playbook itself captures the diversity of efforts that companies at the Summit described as necessary to drive real results. “You have to take a variety of approaches to do something big,” said Beth Keck of Walmart in summing up the company’s wide-ranging efforts with international NGO TechnoServe to incorporate one million smallholder farmers into its supply chains. JPMorgan Chase & Co and the Nature Conservancy announced the launch of NatureVest, an innovative new platform drawn from both organizations’ strengths to drive impact investment in conservation.

Partnerships that require both expertise and experimentation to scale up impacts are never easy and speakers offered their hard-won insights. According to Zia Khan of Rockefeller Foundation, partners need to not only care about the problem to be solved, but see it as important to their organization. Our partnership with AT&T came quickly to mind; water scarcity represents a critical operational issue for the company and an important issue for EDF, which has driven us to work together to help AT&T and other companies in five water-stressed areas reduce their water use.

Applying lessons learned

At EDF, I work with colleagues to develop new models to engage business in addressing critical environmental issues, including efforts to reduce pollution from fertilizer and emissions from deforestation, and EDF’s playbook’s getting richer and more diverse with each new project. At the moment we’re ramping up a competition to identify innovative technologies to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to find and quickly fix methane leaks, as well as working with Walmart to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chain.

With exciting challenges ahead, I look forward to applying lessons learned from the Summit: to be bold in seeking transformational change; be humble in learning from the expertise around me; and to seek alliances, however uncommon, with those willing to work together.