EY chief: net zero no longer ‘nice to have’ as green companies grow faster
Julie Linn Teigland argues there is a critical link between sustainability governance and business performance
Pressure from investors to meet short-term financial goals often hamper businesses that are making bold attempts to work towards a greener future.
The main reason is usually that capital owners claim too many companies fail to articulate the rationale for long-term investment in sustainability.
At least, that is the view of a senior partner and regional chief at professional services giant Ernst & Young (EY), who told Net Zero Investor that her firm put this notion to the test in a recent survey.
Ironically, Julie Linn Teigland, EY's managing partner for Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA), said that both businesses and investors agree on the need to bias long-term sustainable commitments over short-term profits.
Teigland discussed the findings of a new EY survey of more than 200 companies across 15 countries in Europe, which found a critical link between effective board-level sustainability governance and business performance.
Controls go hand in hand with revenue growth
The study brought to light that respondents with stronger sustainability governance controls in place are significantly more likely to expect strong revenue prospects than those with less well-developed sustainability governance controls.
Of the companies classified as sustainability governance “experts,” 76% report feeling optimistic about their performance, compared to just 45% of companies categorized as sustainability governance “beginners.”
Experts report being significantly more likely to avoid accusations of “greenwishing” – where green ambitions don’t match up to reality – by actually delivering on their stated climate ambitions.
Just 13% of beginners report being “very satisfied” with the progress they have made to date in achieving the climate targets they have set, indicating potential reputational risk, compared to more than half of “experts” reporting satisfaction with progress on their own ambitions.
The survey further found that experts are much more likely to take concrete action by stepping up their sustainability investments.
Nine out of 10 of these companies report they were planning to increase investments, including close to a third that plan to “increase a lot.” This compares to just more than half of “beginners” planning to make increases, with only 9% planning a significant increase.
Teigland stated that "there is a critical link between effective board-level sustainability governance and business performance. Companies with strong sustainability governance are not only more likely to invest more in sustainability and achieve their climate goals, they expect better financial growth too."
While EY found significant variation between the companies in the way sustainability is handled at the board level, the vast majority of respondents think there is room for improvement, with just 7% reporting that they feel sustainability issues are fully integrated into their board’s structures and decision-making processes.
Also scrutinising the findings, Sonia Tatar, executive director, INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre and INSEAD Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise, said that “the ESG paradigm is getting more and more complex, and regulations are evolving quickly."
Tatar pointed out: "Even if the board has created a sustainability committee or an advisory board, these cannot work in isolation: sustainability issues are multidimensional and involve areas such as remuneration, risks, opportunities, audit and broader stakeholder engagement."
She added: "To effectively address ESG in a holistic and strategic way, concerted efforts are required.”
Short-term investor pressure vs long-term investments
According to the survey, 74% of all respondents say their company should address environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, even if doing so reduces short-term financial performance.
However, nearly two-thirds of respondents also reported that short-term earning pressure from investors was impeding their longer-term investments in sustainability. This suggests that despite the clear business benefits of addressing ESG issues, pressure from short-sighted investors remains a serious concern.
Companies are also feeling the pressure from their own employees, with more than half (55%) of all respondents saying that their employees do not feel they are moving quickly enough on climate issues.
“Stakeholders are piling the pressure on businesses to take the lead on sustainability, but drastic changes must be made to make this happen," Andrew Hobbs, EMEIA Public Policy Leader at EY, said.
"There are concrete steps companies must take today, from fully integrating sustainability into board business to bringing more diverse skills to the table and rethinking executive compensation, all to help ensure they don’t get left behind as we move toward a more sustainable future.”
EY calls for a series of changes that companies can take to improve sustainability governance and move from being “beginners” to “experts”.
These include integrating sustainability into strategy and governance structures so that it becomes part of the board and committee “business as usual.”
Just 7% of all companies surveyed felt that sustainability was fully integrated into their board structures, with 83% of experts reporting that they are effective at managing the board agenda to help ensure long-term ESG risks and opportunities are always discussed, compared to just more than half (52%) of beginners.
It also calls for looking for "creative ways" to bring additional diverse skills and experience into the board’s decision-making, such as shadow boards, advisory boards, expert advisors, accessing more of management and refreshing board composition.
Of the companies surveyed, 86% of experts say they felt effective when it comes to increasing boardroom diversity and ensuring new voices are given equitable speaking time to provide fresh perspectives on ESG topics, compared to just 36% of beginners.
Finally, designing executive compensation policy based on ESG-based KPI targets that are aligned with the organization’s business strategy, including material sustainability objectives.
Less than half (47%) of organizations surveyed made sustainability a significant element of remuneration, with experts much more likely to include ESG metrics as a significant element when setting the compensation of senior executives, 61%, as opposed to 29% in the case of beginners.