While the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our personal and business lives upside down, we can’t ignore the silver linings that have emerged—perhaps none greater than a renewed sense of collective responsibility and urgency in taking on climate change.
Leading companies are creating meaningful financial sustainability incentives with accompanying metrics to measure their progress. To meet our ultimate climate change goals, however, change must be led from the CEO— and in partnership with finance.
There has been a steep change in the U.S. sustainability landscape over recent years, which is expected to accelerate as we emerge from COVID-19 in the coming months and years. Company leaders increasingly recognize the competitive imperative to take action. ING’s 2019 survey of U.S. executives found that 45% are now strongly influenced by sustainability when setting business growth strategy, up from 29% in 2018.
U.S. investors and consumers are adding impetus too. The sustainable finance market has surpassed $1 trillion globally with the Americas growing to be the second largest market with $322 billion worth of sustainable finance issuances to date. On the consumer side, ING’s latest circular economy research, surveying 15,000 consumers globally, found that 54% of those in the US are less likely to buy from companies that perform poorly on environmental issues.
Finance as a sustainability advocate
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable transformation, but it is clear that to achieve the best results it needs to be embedded across every corner of the company. Commitment from the CEO, of course, is critical. But the finance team, with its roles in forecasting and planning to ensure growth, risk management, capital planning, investor relations, and budgeting, is vital to a successful outcome. Together, the CEO and the finance function are critical in aligning sustainability objectives up and down the company.
Here are several ways the finance team can support the CEO to chart effective sustainable transformation:
Aligning funding with sustainability objectives
Sustainable financing transactions continue to grow, both globally and in the U.S., driven by the introduction and availability of more product types in the market.
As the range of sustainable finance products expands, there are more opportunities for finance professionals to align their company’s funding with its sustainability objectives. Whether they are following the Green Bond Principles, or setting loan terms based upon sustainability performance targets, sustainable finance instruments can provide a very visible means of holding the business accountable for its progress on sustainable transformation.
In December 2019, Johnson Controls became one of the first industrial companies to link its senior revolving credit facilities to specific sustainability metrics in the U.S. The company’s action linked interest rates and fees to the company’s performance in areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That made it critical for the finance team to closely track and validate the organization’s sustainability progress — and report this up to senior management, as well as to the wider organization and external stakeholders.
Another more recent example is Xylem’s green finance framework, released in June 2020. The framework adopted by Xylem, a global water-technology company, follows the Green Bond Principles 2018 and the Green Loan Principles 2020, and covers four key areas: use of proceeds; the process for project evaluation and selection; management of proceeds; and reporting. It offers a great example of interconnecting business strategy and purpose with finance and sustainability goals.
Tracking and measuring to maintain momentum
As the old adage goes: “What gets measured gets done.” One of the strengths of finance professionals is that they like to measure organizational performance in a quantitative manner — a valuable attribute in the context of sustainable transformation.
A company’s sustainability strategy may encompass wide-ranging objectives, from reducing its environmental footprint to ensuring positive social outcomes in communities where it—or its supply chain partners—operate. And while initiatives such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures are helping companies to identify the right metrics to track and report on, each business will need its own customized performance indicators to achieve a detailed view of progress towards sustainability goals.This information is critical to holding internal stakeholders to account on sustainable transformation and in helping company management to see what is and isn’t working.
Communicating the sustainability story
Using green finance can help reinforce a company’s sustainable transformation because it usually involves publicly stating a set of green objectives for the funding. By externalizing this vision, the company maintains inward pressure on making the operational changes happen across its ecosystem, establishing and monitoring sustainability targets for different teams across the business, from procurement to production.
It creates opportunities to align the organization’s internal and external communication of its sustainability narrative too. For instance, the growth of the green finance market raises the possibility of attracting a broader base of investors, as the demand for sustainable investment opportunities increases. The finance function, with the communications team, can engage investors with a defined set of green objectives and performance metrics, and a clear vision for the company’s transformation, helping to attract long-term capital.
Not only is sustainable transformation an environmental imperative, but it is increasingly becoming demand-driven, whether it is business customers refusing to buy from suppliers that don’t meet stringent green standards, or everyday consumers boycotting brands that are shown to be ignoring their responsibilities. Competing against this backdrop means accelerating organizational transformation, but to do so effectively will require both the CEO and the finance function to commit fully to a sustainable vision for the business. Only then will other business teams be empowered to unlock the full extent of sustainable opportunities for the organization.
Gerald Walker is the CEO of ING in the Americas.
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