ESG data: why is it important and what is its future?

How have environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria become so important? And how are ESG data and reporting evolving to reflect this?

Investors, corporates and banks alike are increasingly realising the importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria at a time when climate crisis threatens and social issues have been pushed to the forefront. We talked to Karinne Chapel, Chief ESG Data and Digital Officer at BNP Paribas Corporate and Institutional Banking, about the vital role of ESG data.

How has ESG data become so important?
From an investor perspective, over the past few years there has been an increasing focus on sustainable matters, especially as the younger generations are “sustainable native” and are putting this topic at the heart of the economy and their consumption habits. This has left investors with no choice but to become more sustainability-conscious and to invest directly or indirectly in products that are shown to comply with ESG criteria or to help drive this transformation.

Corporate clients are under similar pressure: they know that if they don’t take sustainability into account, they will risk losing their investor and bank support. Sixty percent of the more than 2,000 academic studies published since the 1970s on the link between financial performance and ESG show a positive correlation. And companies need to be able to look at sustainability across the chain, from suppliers to clients. All this requires data.

Finally, we as a bank need ESG data to understand where our clients are heading, what their strategy is and how to help them on their sustainability journey. ESG targets and actions can be a key differentiating factor in deciding which clients – and sectors – we want to support and accompany.

At the same time, all this is still so new and moving so fast that efforts to centralise definitions of words like “green” and “sustainable” are ongoing, and we hope that regulatory frameworks will help align and standardise disclosures and reinforce risk management.

Given the importance of ESG criteria, what’s the state of play on reporting them?
More and more companies are carrying out ESG reporting. The G&A Institute‘s research team found that 65% of the companies included in the Russell 1000 index (representing the top 1,000 companies by market capitalisation in the US) published sustainability reports in 2019, up from 60% in 2018. And 90% of the largest 500 companies by market cap in the index published sustainability reports in 2019, after 86% in 2018.
Sustainable finance disclosure in the EU
  • The new Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) is designed to encourage transparency and uniformity in ESG disclosure within the financial markets. From Q2 2021, financial market participants and financial advisors will be required to disclose specific information about their approaches to the integration of sustainability risks and the consideration of adverse sustainability impacts.
  • The Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) demands that certain large companies include a non-financial statement concerning main sustainability risks and adverse impacts resulting from their activities as part of their annual public reporting obligations. While guidelines have been issued, flexibility has been allowed. However, the elaboration of possible mandatory standards is under way, with a proposal expected by early 2021.

However, for many small and medium-sized companies, such disclosures are complicated to make, as highlighted at The Future of ESG Data 2020 Virtual Conference. Yet regulation will increasingly oblige them to disclose. The question is no longer about whether this will happen but when and how.

Another challenge is the fragmented reporting landscape: companies have to wrangle with lots of different frameworks. A company that deals with five, six or seven banks will have to fill in that many questionnaires: there’s certainly room for a single form that could serve everyone’s purpose and simplify the life of corporates, banks, suppliers and partners. In fact, there are already some moves in this direction, for example by the banks that are signatories of the Katowice commitment.

Another example is the recent announcement by  the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) of their intention to merge into a unified body, the Value Reporting Foundation, providing investors and corporates with a comprehensive corporate reporting framework.

What about the data provider side? What about new solutions?
Until recently, most ESG data used was historical, as is data analysed by ESG research and ratings providers such as Vigeo Eiris or Sustainalytics. But this data doesn’t really give us a full picture of a company’s footprint or an understanding of future trends. Some providers are now providing real-time data – for example firms that use satellites to look at deforestation, enabling detection of whether a specific project is harmful. ‘Big-data’-type technology will increasingly be used for sustainable purposes.

Companies’ reporting needs are attached to their business and their production – so there is still a role for historical data. But the new kinds of data could be invaluable, allowing firms to go beyond the benchmarks that are set for reporting, to differentiate themselves, as well as enabling them to be more forward-looking.

Why are we still hearing that it’s difficult to get ESG into the C-suite?
Some companies are pioneers and this subject is already embedded in their boardrooms. However in general, the younger generation – which has always been aware of climate issues – has not yet reached this management level. And current senior management are not always adequately educated on the topic, though there are now courses designed to provide this education. Linking bonuses to ESG performance indicators can also be an effective way of ensuring these criteria are taken into account! The bonuses of BNP Paribas top management are linked to this kind of KPI.

Outside of the boardroom too, apart from experts in sustainability or ESG, the subject is not really integrated into business people’s DNA yet and they don’t always feel comfortable talking about it, although everyone has heard about the climate and social issues we are facing. Some of them still say things like “I’m only looking at the financial aspect, not ESG”: they haven’t yet realised that there is an organic link between sustainable and financial aspects.

Finally, what, for you, are the main issues for ESG data now, and how best can we move towards the future?
The first issue is to understand what data we need and to define the benchmarks and frameworks to analyse and standardise it. Then we need to solve the issue of access. And of course finally, we need to know what to do with the data to ensure it fulfils the needs of investors, corporates and banks. If this were a project, each aspect would be dealt with separately, but it’s not, it’s a market and everything is taking place at the same time. So we need to try to manage all these aspects simultaneously – and to adopt a forward-looking approach.