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At COP26, CEOs and investors must unite behind common standards for sustainability

November 1, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC
A street banner promoting COP26 in Glasgow. “I call on my colleagues, private sector leaders, and allied coalitions to be bold and step up—and proactively support the emergence of common, robust sustainability reporting standards,” writes Emmanuel Faber.
Hasan Esen—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As the COP26 climate summit kicks off in Glasgow, the role that companies and investors can play in tackling climate change is rightly in sharp focus.

During my tenure as CEO of Danone, we championed the company’s “One Planet. One Health” vision as a source of competitive advantage, rooted in a belief that the health of people and planet are interconnected. In 2017, Danone secured a €2 billion syndicated loan from 12 of the world’s largest banks, with an interest rate determined by our environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. The interest rate would drop as the company moved toward B Corp certification and maintained our A rating with the Carbon Disclosure Project.

We met those goals, and as we did so, improved ESG performance reduced our capital costs—a clear indication that the financial sector increasingly views sustainable companies as worthy of a better credit rating. A number of listed companies replicated our efforts.

Danone also pioneered voluntary reporting of “carbon adjusted” earnings per share (EPS), demonstrating to shareholders that our carbon-adjusted EPS would grow faster than expected since peak emissions were already behind us—and faster than our EPS would have grown without carbon adjustment. This added to our dividend capability without jeopardizing the company’s long-term investment in regenerative agriculture. Yet three years down the road, this effort remains a relative anomaly across the business landscape. The reason why: a lack of standardized, audited carbon emissions data for corporations and investors.

For ESG-powered financing to become mainstream, we need a common, globally accepted, auditable standard for corporate ESG reporting. I would loudly echo the sentiments of my B Team colleagues Oliver Bäte and Hiro Mizuno, who recently wrote in Fortune that investors “need reliable data and tools to differentiate between virtue signaling and real impact.”

I am encouraged by movement in this direction. Sustainable finance will rightly be a focus at COP26—so, too, must be the imperative that investors can access robust, consistent data on corporate sustainability performance. The summit will be a unique opportunity to synchronize global capital markets and their asset allocations with the urgent corporate need to manage an ambitious climate and social transition, which is undoubtedly the next frontier for humankind.

Common reporting standards will enable investors to shape their portfolios toward climate and social imperatives. They are also the missing link between economics and the evaluation of public policies: Governments will be held accountable by their citizens and civil society, yet much of their success in delivering on national decarbonization commitments will be determined by the private sector’s actions.

Common sustainability reporting standards will establish a shared narrative and language for all stakeholders: companies, investors, civil society organizations, philanthropists, and many more, including governments and central banks. For this reason as well, I agree with my B Team colleagues that “reporting standards should be interoperable with wider reporting expectations across jurisdictions, to customers, employees, and civil society.”

I am grateful for the ongoing efforts of the sovereign, multilateral, and independent standard setters preparing these sustainability frameworks. But the business and finance communities can do more to support and encourage this progress. Since much sustainability reporting needs to be industry-specific, global industry associations are natural stakeholders. This is a major opportunity for business and finance leaders to collectively accelerate the adoption of common metrics.

More and more companies are moving in the right direction, led by members of growing private sector coalitions that are making ambitious climate and social commitments. No doubt there is genuine commitment from investors as well, as demonstrated by the Climate Action 100+ coalition’s most recent net-zero company benchmark—an ambitious and comprehensive framework to assess corporate pathways to a just transition, supported by a coalition of investors with more than $50 trillion of assets under management.

We must build on this momentum and significantly enhance the adoption of common sustainability reporting standards by a critical mass of companies. Once adopted by the 10,000 largest companies in the world, together with the top 500 investors, we will have built a type of collective immunity against harmful and unsustainable business activities.

We have no time to lose to move from the “Net Zero by 2050” narrative to a 2030 action plan. I call on my colleagues, private sector leaders, and allied coalitions to be bold and step up—much as they did during and after the 2015 Paris climate agreement—and proactively support the emergence of common, robust sustainability reporting standards. Glasgow is a critical moment—and not one we can afford to miss.

Emmanuel Faber is the former CEO and chair of Danone and a member of the B Team.

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