Category Archives: Governance

A 1960s Economic Model for Sustainability Value

Innovation can create “extra-normal profits” – profits higher than the normal expected ROI based on the risk. But these extra-normal profits are short-lived and disappear once the innovation has been adopted by competitors, thereby equalizing the playing field. You may know these by the term “first mover advantage” – something intangible. But there is a 50 year old economic model for this, known by a far more difficult-to-pronounce name – Schumpeterian profits,  after German economist Joseph Schumpeter.

In April 2004, Yale Economics Professor William D. Nordhaus penned what has become a widely referenced Working Paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Then in 2015, Xie Fan School of Economics & Management at South China Normal University followed up with a study more specific to sustainability matters (more on that paper later).

To summarize Nordhaus, innovation generally leads to reduction in the cost of production without a concurrent reduction in the price charged for the product, meaning increased profit for the innovator until such time as others “appropriate” the innovation and create more or less equal competition. An example of this is patents – once a patent expires, other companies can sell essentially the same product, driving prices down, along with the “extra-normal” profits of the original patent holder. Very simply, the longer a company can hold on to its innovation on an exclusive basis, the longer it can maintain those higher profits. Nordhaus presents a formula for calculating specific values. Looking at historical data from 1948 – 2001, he estimated the Schumpeterian profits (i.e., the extra-normal profits only) to range from -1.3% (during the major recession of the 1970s) to a high of 6.3% of total corporate profits.

We reached out to Nordhaus to see if his paper has been updated and the applicability to sustainability. He answered that no update has been issued. His response about sustainability reflected a limited (and perhaps erroneous) concept of sustainability as relating primarily to environmental protection. This is important in one respect that we won’t delve into here (it relates to the social value of innovation), but in our view is less of a factor than the direct production cost reductions achieved from business-focused sustainability initiatives.

Xie Fan explored whether innovations related to CO2 emissions regulations in China had an economic development benefit as well as an environmental one. Fan’s summary states that

… first of all, the environmental regulation affects the total factor productivity growth in China’s pollution-intensive industries; in the second place, the environmental regulation does not promote producer’s scientific and technological innovation level in China’s pollution-intensive industries; in the third place, the environmental regulation has reduced Schumpeter profits in China’s pollution-intensive industries.

In the end, we see that both Fan and Nordhaus offer complementary  models for sustainability value. In our view, Fan’s point is that once an environmental issue becomes regulated, compliance innovation may not provide Schumpeterian profits, although this seems to contradict the famous Porter Hypothesis. Yet applying Nordhaus to discretionary sustainability business innovation, short term extra-normal profits are to be expected and can be estimated with his formula.  But doing so may also involve reducing transparency in order to maintain exclusivity of sustainability innovations.

All food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Is The Money Moving Away From Sustainability?

Sustainability professionals just got a kick in the gut, or a boost in confidence depending on how you look at it.

Jason Karp of Tourbillon Capital, a $3.7 billion hedge fund, wrote a letter to investors earlier this summer stating “One of today’s greatest market inefficiencies may stem from the scarcity of capital devoted toward long-term, fundamental investing.” He continued, “People are just paying significantly more for assets without any fundamental improvement in those assets… big multiples got bigger while fundamentals remained the same.”

We’ve all known about short-termism for some time, but this got me thinking – just how far has equities valuation moved away from business fundamentals? And if disparities between stock price and the company’s underlying fundamentals continue as Karp cautions, might that call into question whether foundational principles of sustainability value are valid? This could be an existential crisis for the concept of sustainability.

There are differing schools of thought about equities valuation, including the “efficient market” and behavioral economics. The efficient market theory is similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the market analyzes all available information about a company and the stock price quickly adjusts in response. Behavioral economics theorizes that stock prices are a result of imprecise impressions and beliefs – human emotions and gut feelings rather than formal analyses.

On one hand, it could be argued that increased sustainability transparency helps an efficient market and should provide a “feel good” basis for less rational decisions short term (i.e., behavioral economics). Numerous studies over at least a decade have generally shown inconclusive results at best.

Yet sustainability is inherently a long-term view and business fundamentals are also a reflection of a company’s anticipated future. Karp’s comments demonstrate the difficulty sustainability practitioners have had in attracting management attention.

The same thinking is mirrored in recent comments from Tim Koller, a principal in McKinsey & Company’s New York office.  When asked about sustainability, he said

I think we have to separate the mechanics of valuation from what managers should be doing to maximize a company’s value and how investors react to the whole thing. For hundreds of years, the value of a company has ultimately come down to the cash flows it generated. That’s what you can spend as an owner, whether you’re a private owner or whether you’re a shareholder in a large company.

Now, there have been periods of time when people said, “Oh, the rules are changing.” For example, during the dot-com bubble, all of a sudden, people said, “Traditional methods of valuation don’t make sense anymore—look at all these companies with high valuations that have nothing to do with cash flow.” Well, ultimately, it was the lack of cash flow that brought those companies’ valuations back down.

That sums it up pretty well.

But lets be honest here – $3.7B really isn’t that big a fund so its’ sphere of influence is limited. Still…

 

New Advanced Auditor Training Program for HSE/CSR Auditors

Elm Sustainability Partners and Elm Consulting Group International have launched a new training module for senior-level and experienced health, safety, environmental and social auditors seeking to improve their auditing skills and get updates on timely topics related to non-financial auditing and technology.

It is also relevant to those buying HSE/CSR audit services who are looking to improve the quality of audits they receive.  After this course, buyers can identify specific areas of audit practice improvements to request of their providers.  Alternatively, these buyers may wish to require their external HSE/CSR auditor to complete this training themselves.

A partial list of what is covered includes detailed review and practicum concerning:

  • auditor independence standards and managing impairment threats
  • audit criteria requirements
  • audit and evidence limitations
  • evidence hierarchy, weighting and corroboration
  • fraud, forgery and tampering – including new concerns brought about by technology
  • interviewing skills including fraud examination and FBI techniques
  • discussions of US Department of Justice Criminal Division Evaluation of Compliance Program criteria (2017), the June 1, 2017 US Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”) auditor reporting standard on Critical Audit Matters and EU Non-financial reporting rule
  • audit QA/QC considerations

Each participant will take a pre-test to establish a knowledge baseline and identify specific areas for improvements.  Exercises are administered throughout and a post-test will conclude the session demonstrating the advanced competencies gained.  HSE/CSR regulatory and other technical topics will not be covered as this is not a regulatory update session.

Elm Principals are BEAC Certified Professional Environmental/Health/Safety Auditors (CPEA), have served on the Board of Directors of The Auditing Roundtable (recently merged into the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA)) and BEAC, and have trained thousands of internal and external HSE auditors over the past three decades.

Contact us to learn how you and your team can take advantage of this unique program.

New Social Auditor Certification in the Works

We have been vocal in our concerns and criticisms concerning social/CSR auditing.  And we have ourselves been criticized for that. Fair enough.

The Association for Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA) has released for public comment its draft Code of Conduct and Auditor Competency Standards – available here.

We support APSCA and its work towards improving the entire “ecosystem” of CSR auditing.  Anyone with a dog in this hunt should click on the link above and submit comments.  APSCA is keen to obtain input from as wide a range of stakeholders as possible to help become as credible as possible.  Given the breath of subject matter that is being demanded of CSR auditors by buyers of their services, there is a great deal of overlap in APSCA’s draft into environmental health, safety, transportation and other technical areas.

Conflict Minerals is Dead! Long Live Conflict Minerals!

The deadline for filing the CY2016 SEC conflict minerals disclosure has now passed, although there are likely to be a few late filers. It is too early to glean anything from the filings and at least three analyses will be conducted, including the Development International study, which is the most comprehensive of them. We all anxiously await these reports.

The future of the SEC disclosure requirement is murky and there is a chance that this may be the last year of mandated filing in the US. Many clients and others are asking us questions about the future of conflict minerals, and what the past results have been. These are our thoughts.

Looking forward, we do not know what is in store for the SEC rule. There are many moving parts politically and publically. We will know what happens when it happens. I’d like to think there will be adequate advance notice to those impacted, but even that is not assured.

But the review mirror tells a story too. While aspects of the rule’s impact are hotly debated, one thing is indisputable – it resulted in much greater visibility into material sourcing and other companies deep in supply chains. This has allowed some companies to reduce business risk by optimizing their supply chains – concentrating spending power or diversifying their supply base to manage potential disruptions. Companies identified that, unbeknownst to them, entities sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) may have been present in their supply chains. Supplier audits/screening improved in many cases.  Appropriate auditor qualifications in light of global reliance on audit results has also become a major question in the scheme of things.

Of course, the rule brought human rights abuses in the DRC and other countries out of the shadows and into the light of the public. But has the population of the DRC benefitted? Experts continue to argue both sides of the question. Without taking sides, earlier this year we attempted to evaluate one major criticism of the SEC rule – that it directly resulted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs lost in the 3TG mining sector. The question we posed ourselves was what impact did the 2008 – 2010 global economic recession have on artisanal and small miner (ASM) job losses which are currently attributed only to Dodd-Frank Section 1502? Did the timing of 1502 coincidentally occur at a time when mining jobs were already in decline because of pre-existing macroeconomic conditions?

Our intent was to rely on existing literature rather than creating original research as this was an unfunded effort on our own part. After a few months, we ran into two insurmountable obstacles:

  • The existing DRC-specific literature we found does not acknowledge or give any consideration to potential impacts of the 2008 – 2010 global economic recession. Yet analyses from The World Bank, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) demonstrate that global economic downturns play a major role in commodity prices and mining jobs worldwide, including ASM.
  • The DRC has a uniquely major informal economy which some literature indicated accounts for up to 80% of the country’s total economic activity annually. There is a significant gap in available information on DRC’s informal economy and what is available was sometimes inconsistent with other data on the same matter or irrelevant to our study.

We found only two sources referencing global 3TG price influence on prices paid to DRC ASMs.  Other data supported the position that a very large number of ASM miners in DRC move between multiple jobs based on income potential, so when ore prices were low in the past, miners moved to agriculture or other income sources. There was a meaningful amount of anecdotal information supporting the hypothesis that several factors other than Section 1502 (such as the DRC’s own taxation and mining policies) had a direct effect on DRC ASM job losses within the timeframe of interest, but we were not willing to rely on non-empirical information. We put down our pen (or mouse) and moved on to other things.

So the debate will continue.

There have been developments beyond just the SEC rule. The European Union adopted their own version of a conflict minerals due diligence rule that impacts a different class of companies and goes into effect in 2021. And the application of the OECD Due Diligence Framework is expanding into other materials (such as cobalt) and other geographies. At the moment, that appears to be just the beginning of that trend and that future is unknown as well.

In the end, what can be said about Section 1502 in consideration of it’s possible end? It all depends on your perspective, but it ain’t over till it’s over.  And it ain’t over.

You Are What Your Suppliers Do: Supplier Actions Make Headlines, Break Business

With companies facing increasing pressure for the actions of every part of their supply chain, demand for – and reliance on – supplier/corporate social responsibility (CSR) audits conducted by third parties has grown rapidly.

Shirts, Phones, Rocks and Shrimp

But there is concern about the quality, reliability and credibility of these audits.

CSR Auditing and Toilet Paper

Is Social Auditing Really Auditing?

Harvard Professor Identifies Factors for Meaningful CSR and Supply Chain Audits

You Don’t Know What Your Suppliers Are Hiding

Companies rely on their CSR audit firm to utilize qualified auditors, employ adequate QA/QC processes and expend adequate time to conduct a reasonable audit. Yet there are no generally-accepted professional CSR audit practitioner standards. Moreover, due to cost pressures, lowest cost audit providers are frequently selected that may not have appropriate auditing skills or training – the largest CSR audit firms conduct tens of thousands of these audits each year. Increasing audit time and costs to improve quality or credibility is typically not realistic – the business model is inherently high-volume, low margin.

Are these audits effective at findings supplier actions that create risks for you? Can a company gain confidence in their CSR audits without adding costs? Is a change in auditors necessary?

Improve Credibility for Disclosures, Media and Customers

Changing audit firms is not necessary, nor is another layer of auditing. Instead, a formalized auditor training program can be a low cost yet effective solution.

The Elm Consulting Group International is expanding our well-proven auditor training program to companies who use CSR/supply chain auditors. The intent of this program is for brands to provide detailed communication and training to their current CSR/supply chain auditors about the company’s requirements for auditor competence, audit quality and processes in order to enhance the credibility of audit information.

Our formalized training for existing CSR auditors builds their client’s confidence in the quality of the work provided. The program is not intended to provide training on specific audit topics such as child labor or worker rights. Instead, the focus is on proven audit techniques such as:

  • Understanding and applying professional skepticism
  • Interviewing and active listening
  • Identifying and responding to non-verbal cues within multi-cultural contexts
  • Evidence sampling methodologies
  • Using information from different sources
  • Verification and recomputation techniques
  • Judging audit evidence quality and limitations
  • Fraud detection
  • Using working papers and audit protocols
  • Writing effective and complete audit findings
  • Audit quality expectations, requirements and processes
  • Maintaining auditor independence, including auditor rotation

Our Qualifications as The Leader in Auditor Training

Our HSE auditor training experience began in the 1980s and we have successfully trained hundreds of external and internal auditors. Elm Principals hold auditor certifications from the US Board of Environmental, Health and Safety Auditor Certification (BEAC, now wholly merged into the Institute of Internal Auditors) and UK Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment, are approved trainers for the IIA EHS auditor certification program and are subject to annual continuing education requirements ourselves. Further, Elm Principals have served in various Board positions in The Auditing Roundtable (merged into the IIA in 2016) and BEAC, including the current BEAC Chair.  More information about our internal audit quality and auditor competence standards is available here.

Give us a call at 678-200-3424 or contact us via email to discuss how we can help you increase confidence in your CSR audits.

Dr. Seuss Essay on Auditing Updated

In the early 1970s, buried in one of his books, Dr Seuss penned a little known essay on auditing. For those not familiar with it, the full text follows:

Oh, the jobs people work at!


Out west near Hawtch-Hawtch
 there’s a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher. His job is to watch…
is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee. A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.

Well… he watched and he watched. But, in spite of his watch, 
that bee didn’t work any harder. Not mawtch.

So then somebody said,
“Our old bee-watching man
just isn’t bee-watching as hard as he can. 
He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
 The thing that we need
is a Bee-Watcher-Watcher!”

 The Bee-Watcher-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
 He didn’t watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
had to come in as a Watch-Watcher-Watcher!


And today all the Hawtchers who live in Hawtch-Hawtch are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch,
Watch-Watching the Watcher who’s watching that bee.


You’re not a Hawtch-Watcher. You’re lucky, you see!”

Words of wisdom from an unlikely source.  And for a little amusement, Elm takes Seuss a little further.

We decided to try our own hand at rhyme
And update the story to these current times.

Auditors watch the things clients do
And also suppliers when they’re in scope too.
They see if the list of everything bought
Was made in conditions just like it was thought
Or from those hoping they’re not getting caught.

The Hawtch-Hawtch bee watcher failed as you know
Since audits alone don’t work, we shall show.
What can we learn from those watching the bee?
I see two things – well, actually three.

The bee – when watched – was supposed to work more
But that’s not what bee itself had in store.
Instead what it did was kept right on doing
Not a thing – the watcher was just cud-chewing.
The town of Hawtch-Hawtch thought things would be fine
As long as an auditor watched all the time.

That, my dear friends, is flaw number 1 –
Audits alone are but one part of the fun,
After the watching, there’s more to be done.

The next wrong expectation in this story I find
Is the scope of the watching is not well defined.
What does it mean to “Watch as hard as you can?”
The watchers weren’t sure – down to the last man.
Had they been told, they could do the job well
And not let past problems fester and swell.

Today, what of CSR, governance and sustainability?
The words are unclear – I think they’re meant to be.
No clarity was given those Hawtch Hawtch bee watchers
So they all failed, got sore feet and bad postures.

And now, my beloved, we’re at flaw number three
Which is simply bad audit and auditor quality.
Bad bee watching – at least supposedly so –
Made the line of watch-watchers grow – grow – grow
That perpetuated the flaws that all went before
Meaning Hawtch-Hawtch kept getting more, more and MORE
Of the same watch watchers already there
Who did nothing more than stare, stare and stare
At the same old thing day after day,
Focused on billable hours, bonus and pay.

Most of them ranked low and were unqualified
To be a watch watcher – they weren’t certified.
Maybe because that would cost a bit more
Than the ineffective work that had been done before.
But Hawtch-Hawtch didn’t care to look into this
Not concerned with things that were possibly missed.

Now Hawtch-Hatwch is not a maker of stuff
That uses slave labor and treats their folks rough
And whose business will shrink when good auditors see
What unscrupulous companies do with glee.

In sum, Seuss told us of things one through three
These things – for auditing – are important and key.
But, I say friend, don’t take it from me
Go back and look that old Hawtch-Hawtch bee.

What Does Trump and GOP Control Mean for Conflict Minerals, Sustainability?

UPDATE:  Acting SEC Chairman Piwowar issued a statement on January 31, 2017 opening the rule and the 2014 Guidance to public comment.

It has been an unusual campaign and election for the US presidency.  Donald Trump will take office in January and the Republicans will control of both houses of the legislature.

So is the fate of the US conflict minerals disclosure mandate in jeopardy?  Perhaps, but in our opinion the Trump administration will not change anything before the May 31, 2017 filing deadline for the CY2016 disclosure.  We recommend that all companies subject to the conflict minerals filing  continue to move forward as planned.  Looking even further out, we expect that the administration will face other dragons to slay through 2018 as well.  This is expected to be a topic of many conversations at the CFSI workshop we are attending this week.

Trump has made clear his disapproval of the Dodd-Frank Act in toto, so there is a general expectation that change will come, yet he faces other higher priority matters such as healthcare and the Federal budget.  But with the Senate and House now controlled by the Republicans, there likely will not be much opposition to a repeal of, or amendments to, Dodd-Frank.

Emerging regulatory initiatives such as expanding SEC reporting to include sustainability matters is also likely to face far more opposition during the Trump administration.

We occasionally are asked what we would do if the conflict minerals mandate was eliminated.  We would see some business loss, but Elm Sustainability Partners and The Elm Consulting Group International do much more than conflict minerals advisory.

Elm Sustainability provides a range of sustainability, corporate responsibility and supplier auditing services.  We review existing social auditor results and qualifications and are known for calculating economic value of sustainability programs using methods that withstand tough management scrutiny.

The Elm Consulting Group International has been in business for 15 years providing clients with the highest quality environmental, health and safety auditing available and that business continues to grow.

Through our six years in the conflict minerals space, we have made many friends and new clients we hope to continue to serve, whether related to conflict minerals or otherwise.  If you are looking for sustainability, social auditing or EHS auditing support, please give us a call.

The Best Sustainability Seminar in 20 Years – National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Leading Edge Executive Forum

Yesterday I attended one of NAM’s new Leading Edge series of forums. The session was held in Chicago on the topic of generating real economic value from sustainability.  In 20 years of working in the sustainability space, this was by far the best meeting on the topic I have attended. There have been good ones in the past, certainly. But those typically include folks (ahem, usually consultants) trying to sell the idea of artificially bulking up financial benefits of sustainability initiatives by using soft numbers and intangibles in the ROI.

That is exactly the kind of fluff that destroys the business credibility of sustainability – which we have written about and commented on to the SEC as well. In stark contrast to fluff, BS and soft value, the NAM panelists spoke to how they quantify the real dollars from their various sustainability initiatives.  And I do mean real.  No attempts at assigning a value to reputational damage or brand image, no estiamated avoided contingent risks.  These were business initiatives that, oh by the way, also happen to fall within the scope of sustainability.

Yesterday’s gathering was set up in conversation style rather than a typical presentation, which allowed each speaker to discuss their approach to, or obstacles encountered in, a moderated topic. Speaking were representatives from Ecolab, Microsoft, Pfizer, BASF, Smithfield Foods, ArcelorMittal and Alcoa, with a wrap up from Subaru of Indiana.

One point that stood out came from Subaru, who showed the sustainability timeline for their manufacturing plant in Indiana, which began in 1994.   Back then, they developed a business case for a particular project based on real dollars that was successful.  By doing so, they set the foundation for future sustainability initiatives that probably would not have seen the light of day if the business foundation set in 1994 was unsound.

I’m not sure if NAM will repeat the session, but if they do we highly recommend attending.  If you would like to convince them to hold it again, please send us a note and we will forward it to the NAM program manager.

Shirts, Phones, Rocks and Shrimp

You are most likely asking yourself what the nonsensical title means. It probably won’t seem nonsensical after you read this article.

New and emerging legal requirements, customer/consumer demands and media attention are pushing product compliance and procurement staff in unprecedented directions. Suppler responsibility is now a critical component of their functions and is no longer limited to just certain products or industries.

Arguably, the emphasis on supplier responsibility has it roots in the garment manufacturing sector and specifically, the offshore subcontractors in areas such as Bangladesh and Viet Nam. Working conditions and human rights violations were brought to light and brands initiated supplier screening and audit programs. There we have Shirts.

The electronics industry was next but things went further as a new US law (Dodd-Frank Section 1502) required publically traded companies to disclose origins of the ore used to produce tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold in their products. The sale of some of these ores soured from certain African countries was thought to fund violence and human rights abuses by informal militias.   Now automakers are being pilloried for the mica in their paint.  Phones and Rocks now join Shirts.

New laws in the US and UK require companies to continue their supply chain assessment and screening to include whether suppliers are supporting (or actively engaged in) human trafficking and slavery. A high profile lawsuit against a major US retailer alleged that the retailer’s sub-sub-contractor used slave labor as part of the supply chain for commercial shrimp production. Although the suit was dismissed, the issue in the public eye remains. So there you have it – connective tissue between Shirts, Phones, Rocks and Shrimp.

If your company hasn’t begun evaluating your supply chain beyond your direct supplier, there is a risk that that your product could be the next addition to our article’s title. We are happy to discuss this with you, so feel free to call.