Tag Archives: supply chain

Forthcoming Book on Sustainability/CSR Expected to be Controversial

Lawrence Heim, Managing Director of Elm Sustainability Partners, is finishing his book Killing Sustainability, expected to be published in February 2018.  Killing Sustainability is a painfully candid look at sustainability/CSR failures & obstacles and getting past them.

“The book is intentionally different.  It is written in an informal, concise and blunt style to make it an easy, quick read,” Heim said.  “Plenty has already been written about organizations with robust and successful programs.  The intended audience is sustainability/CSR professionals and executives in small/medium sized companies who need to completely change conversations internally and with customers.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book is the critical evaluation of sustainability/CSR professionals and their approaches to convincing others of their value.  “Painful introspection is necessary for sustainability/CSR practitioners at this moment in time. We need to understand our own shortcomings, how many executives truly perceive us and why that impacts their decisions.”

Killing Sustainability analyzes the starting point of executive mindsets and current research in behavioral economics and science to influence change.

The title reflects the ultimate end game – when “sustainability” is so fully integrated into a company’s operations and strategy that it can be killed off as a stand-alone concept.

For more information and updates or to join in the conversation, visit www.killingsustainability.com.

Why RSN’s Conflict Minerals Report Scores Went Down

Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) published their Mining the Disclosures 2017 report.  Although RSN states that the same KPIs from last year were used, there are some important changes.

First, 206 companies were assessed rather than 202 the prior year.  That is quite minor, but we point it out anyway.

Of far more importance is the change in RSN’s scoring approach.  The score for essentially every company went down, some significantly.  A few scores did increase.  RSN noted:

In the 2017 rating, 85% of the sample group is in the three lowest categories (Adequate, Minimal, and Weak), while in 2016, it was only 64% of the sample group… dramatic score changes occur regarding the capacity of companies to identify and manage their risks

What happened to drive scores down, when many companies used the same format and content as the previous year that provided higher scores?  The answer is somewhat buried in the report – indeed it is the final paragraph of the report (excluding the End Notes and advertisements).  So to help folks, here it is:

After four years of reporting, RSN is increasing its expectations of the quality of companies’ disclosures. Therefore for 2017, the document/ location expectation, where information for each indicator is to be found, is being strictly enforced. Similarly, some indicators like the response verification, the in-scope determination, and others, are being weighted with higher expectations. Last, RSN is being meticulous with KPI score determinations to stay aligned with the proactive and improvement-based due diligence process. This rigorous approach likely contributed to the general decrease in the majority of companies’ and industries’ 2017 scores.

In other words, although the indicators stayed the same year-over-year, the weightings did not.  As RSN’s expectations for improvements increase, scores for companies focused on compliance decrease.

On one hand, there is some logic in the idea of increasing performance over time.  However, it makes year-over-year apples-to-apples comparisons impossible, especially since RSN’s scoring methodology has changed each year of the report.  And it doesn’t take into account that many companies view SEC filings only as regulatory compliance documents and limit narrative to the compliance “script.”  As we have said for years, the CMR is not really the place to tell your story – save that for your website of CSR report.

Conflict Minerals 2017 Reality Check

As 2017 winds down, interest and activity related to the annual SEC conflict minerals filings is heating up. Here is a short reality check for what you should be thinking and doing.

To begin with, Dodd-Frank Section 1502 and the SEC rules requiring the Form SD/Conflict Minerals Report are still in place and remain in effect as of today. Although SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar issued a statement of non-enforcement earlier this year, that does not change the fact that the legal obligation to file remains intact. Legislation to eliminate Section 1502 was passed by Congress but has not yet been approved by the Senate or sent to the President for signature. Issuers should continue their conflict minerals RCOI, due diligence and Form SD filing preparation activities.

Issuers may still choose to use specific determination wording, or use none at all. However, should an issuer elect to use the words “DRC Conflict Free” to describe one or more product, an Independent Private Sector Audit (IPSA) must be performed by a qualified non-CPA or CPA audit firm. In researching the CY2016 SEC filings, Development International found nine issuers that classified at least one product as “DRC Conflict Free” in their Conflict Minerals Reports (CMR) but did not file an IPSA. We do not recommend that as a filing approach.

In general, issuers should be following the same path and procedures as last year – nothing has changed from a practical filing perspective, including the content requirements for the Form SD and CMR. By now, the following should be underway or completed at a minimum:

  • Previously identified program improvements
  • Overall program reviews, if desired. We continue to see interest in, and are conducting, program reviews
  • Product screening
  • Supplier screening/identification

There continue to be differing views on the timing for supplier outreach activities. Some issuers elect to request supplier CMRTs before the end of the calendar year; some wait until the calendar year is over. Suppliers may not necessarily have their own assessments, due diligence and CMRTs completed early, and delays are common.

There is also a lingering difference of opinion about including smelter/refiner lists in the CMR. We strongly believe it is a requirement to include the list in the filing.

Confusion remains about the Country of Origin as well. The countries listed in the CFSI audited smelter/refiner lists are the countries where the smelters are located. That is NOT the country where “the rocks come out of the ground”, which is what is meant by the country of origin. An often overlooked element of due diligence is ensuring that countries of origin provided by suppliers are plausible countries of origin, meaning they have known ore reserves or active mining. Several countries that are not plausible were listed in CY2016 CMRs.

Filers should also consider countries and entities that are sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) when reviewing countries of origin. Although this is not an issue related to conflict minerals, it is not a matter to be unresolved and reported in a legal filing.

When reviewing the smelter/refiner list from your suppliers, some form of due diligence is required for facilities that are not listed as a facility audited by CFSI or one of the programs with which CFSI has a mutual recognition agreement. Those facilities cannot be ignored simply because they are not on the list of audited smelters/refiners.

As in past years, we continue to support many companies with all aspects of their conflict minerals processes, filings and IPSAs. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.

Results from the Auditor QuickQuiz

Our auditor quiz is now closed after a month. The questions were based on existing international non-financial auditing standards, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) fraud identification/examination techniques and US Government Auditing Standards for non-financial audits. There were fewer respondents than we had hoped so we can’t extrapolate beyond our dataset. Even so, some notable trends did emerge.

Of those who responded, 47% were EHS auditors and 27% were CSR auditors. We had hoped more CSR auditors would have participated. Other information about the respondents’ backgrounds:

  • 60% had no certification or “other”
  • 50% have 10 years or less auditing experience
  • 50% have 50 or fewer audits
  • 13% have participated in more than 500 audits during their career
  • 63% spend at least 75% of their time conducting audits

There were only 2 “passing” scores – i.e., greater than 70%. The average score was 49% – far lower than was expected.

Knowledge of standard terminology seems to be lacking, further reflected in poor scores for questions that embedded the terminology within them. For instance, only 30% correctly defined “audit criteria” as meaning the audit protocol. This likely led to 53% of respondents incorrectly answering that QA/QC reviews should include assessing the correctness of the “audit criteria used by the auditor.” QA/QC reviews of auditor working papers should look at how an auditor applied the audit criteria, not the inherent accuracy of the criteria (or audit protocol) used by the auditor. Indeed, only 10% correctly identified that none of the answer options are appropriate for QA/QC reviews.

Only 3% considered interviews better than document reviews when asked directly what type of evidence is strongest. Yet when the question was placed in a practical setting, 73% indicated they would rely on interviews over documentation. Only 26% correctly identified the evidence hierarchy (from strongest to weakest).

On a more positive note, 83% answered that they would decline to develop a document that they audited, meaning 17% did not view this as a conflict of interest. Frankly, we were disappointed that there was not a perfect score in identifying this to be an independence issue.

In answering the question listing possible common evidence problems, just over half (53%) correctly indicated that all of the answer options are common evidence problems.

Finally, 2/3 incorrectly answered that initial determinations of significance/materiality should be made after assessing evidence. It is possible that respondents did not read the question carefully and pick up the word initial.

Certainly more responses would have provided a better representation, but we think there are some valuable take aways from our limited data.  Among them – the gap between EHS/CSR auditor knowledge and existing (and theoretically similar) non-financial audit standards may be larger than previously thought.  As the importance – and liabilities – of sustainability/CSR audits grow, increased auditor training and competence seems warranted.

Fraud in Sustainability/CSR

Fraud is increasingly a topic in our conversations. We have had direct experience with EHS fraud in the past. The most recent occurrence was helping a client unravel an embezzlement scheme using waste disposal as the fraud mechanism. It played out a bit like a made-for-TV movie – not the kind of thing I ever expected to see personally, nor in the 21st century.

New pressures and risks are developing around sustainability/CSR reporting. Although still largely voluntary (certain aspects are mandated in the US, UK and Australia for instance), its business importance has grown dramatically in the past 5 years.

Customers demand more transparency and reporting in their supply chains, and many make procurement decisions based on this information. Many institutional and activist investors carefully review sustainability/CSR disclosures and make decisions using that information. It is now common for shareholder resolutions to be filed related to the disclosures, or lack thereof. Major media outlets have sustainability/CSR desks specifically focused on these matters and who pore over the filings and report on them.

We are finding that there is very little consideration given to fraud assessment or monitoring in this context – so is it even meaningful? We think so, and well known fraud and compliance expert Hui Chen agrees. Let’s apply the Fraud Triangle to supplier CSR performance.

  • Motivation. There is much on the line for businesses and their suppliers in terms of CSR results. As pointed out above, sustainability/CSR disclosures and performance may directly impact revenues, reputation and investor activity. No one wants to be on the wrong end of that. Motivation? Check.
  • Rationalization. It isn’t much of a stretch to see how an individual can rationalize using alternative facts due to the business pressures. In some cases, suppliers in developing countries may rationalize their actions further due to their own cultural setting. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the US is immune itself.
  • Opportunity. There is ample opportunity for motivated suppliers to commit fraud. In some instances, CSR auditors are used to review suppliers. But those hiring audit firms many times severely limit the auditors by imposing minimal scope/effort driven primarily by cost. Suppliers know their customers’ auditors are not enabled to conduct a thorough review, and with pre-scheduled site visits, they have plenty of notice to dress the place up for the auditors.

This is only one example of how fraud can enter into the sustainability/CSR picture. If this isn’t included in your company risk assessments, or considered in the context of CSR/sustainability reporting, it should be.

Auditor QuickQuiz Update

Our short auditor skills QuickQuiz has only been live for a few days and we have logged responses.  The number of respondents is smaller than anticipated but trends are appearing.

The Good:  Respondents understand follow through with sampling plans, are aware of the Fraud Triangle and know the role body language plays in interviews.

The Bad:  Most importantly, respondents have been unable to identify specific threats to auditor independence and they have demonstrated a lower-than-expected understanding evidence corroboration and hierarchy.  Other areas where knowledge improvements seem necessary are materiality determinations, awareness of basic audit terminology and the scope of a QA/QC review.

Keep those responses coming in, and thank you for taking a few minutes to complete it.

RY2016 Conflict Minerals Disclosure Analysis Now Available From Development International

Dr. Chris Bayer, PhD of Development International has released the latest comprehensive analysis of the SEC conflict minerals disclosures for the 2016 reporting year.  Elm Sustainability Partners is pleased to be one of the report’s sponsors this year.

The report is available to download for free.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Make it Difficult or Make it Easy

Sustainability and CSR can be difficult concepts to grasp, especially when trying to make a business case for them. We ran across two contrasting philosophies in this regard recently.

The first is this Sustainability ROI notebook – an excel spreadsheet that one could call extremely thorough, if not overly complicated. We haven’t used it in practice, but we read through it thinking about our past experiences in quantifying actual economic value of sustainability/CSR initiatives. The spreadsheet is more likely to be helpful to the inexperienced than sustainability veterans. And while it could be useful in organizing one’s thoughts and numbers, it is not something we would recommend presenting to management. Which takes us to…

This article, while not specifically about sustainability/CSR, is wholly on-point. Simplicity, brevity and conciseness wins points. We have written many times about presenting sustainability in a way that is meaningful to the audience (e.g., management) rather than to a sustainability practitioner. It may be helpful to have details such as those in the Sustainability ROI notebook available to you, but your audience is unlikely to ask in such depth.

Einstein is credited with saying “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” That’s pretty smart.

 

 

 

 

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…