Private equity giant KKR is accelerating its ESG push with some outside help

Turns out KKR has a soft spot—for sustainability.

KKR, the New York–based buyout firm founded 45 years ago by Henry Kravis, George Roberts, and Jerome Kohlberg, has launched what it is calling the Sustainability Expert Advisory Council, or SEAC, according to a press release to be issued Wednesday. 

Led by University of Oxford Saïd Business School professor Robert Eccles, founding chairman of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, the so-called SEAC marks a new effort from KKR to bring external voices into the firm’s fold to provide guidance on how it should be approaching environmental, social, and governance issues that may effect its business, investment theses, and portfolio companies. 

“Proactively, intentionally, and authentically approaching ESG is more important than ever before,” KKR partner and co-head of global impact Ken Mehlman tells Fortune. “Based on our experience of emphasizing ESG since 2008, we’ve learned that having the advice of independent outside experts and advisers makes us smarter and helps us anticipate important ESG trends. We think the SEAC will help us continue to emphasize and expand our focus on ESG.”

The SEAC’s formation comes at what is a pivotal juncture for the ESG movement in the U.S.

For years, corporate America largely cast aside concerns about matters such as how fossil fuels harm the environment or the downsides of having a board exclusively made up of white men. The tone has shifted considerably in recent years, though, as investors across Wall Street—including at private equity firms—place more importance on sustainability and diversity.

A record 132 impact funds have already been launched in 2021, Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported, citing Preqin data. Many firms have started to view sustainable investing through a different lens than they have previously, too. A recent survey from PwC of general partners and limited partners at global private equity firms found that 66% of respondents named value creation as a leading driver behind their ESG efforts. Two years ago, it was risk management that was the largest. And while it was the first year that PwC made value creation an option for answering the question, PwC wrote in its report that “the fact that respondents picked it as their top driver of ESG activity shows that [private equity] firms are embracing a far more proactive ESG mindset.”

KKR began thinking about ESG years ago in the run up to 2008, when it formalized its push into the space around the same time that Mehlman, who is also the firm’s global head of public affairs, joined the firm.

Since then, KKR has signed on to a flurry of different sustainability-minded organizations and affiliations, while working ESG principles into its investment strategies. The firm now employs 12 dedicated ESG staffers, though that doesn’t include the “larger galaxy of people who spend a significant portion of their time on ESG,” Mehlman says. And in early 2020, it closed on a $1.3 billion global impact fund. Along the way, KKR has leaned on a mix of outside experts like Eccles for advice on how to think about different sustainability matters.

“When I watch what’s happened in private equity, it’s been interesting. KKR was early into this, to their credit. For most of the industry 10 years ago, if you said ESG, people would be like, ‘What is that?’” Eccles tells Fortune. “If the private equity industry as a whole were to really take this stuff seriously, it could be a major force for change.”

Joining Eccles on the SEAC are Alexandra Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology; Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and a onetime adviser to President Barack Obama; Andrew Stern, a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project and president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union; Roy Swan, head of mission investments at the Ford Foundation and a former co-head of Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable finance team; and Claudia Zeisberger, a senior affiliate professor at INSEAD.  

And while it is only an advisory committee, a title that Eccles acknowledges has been used by other companies primarily as a marketing tool, the ESG pioneer says Mehlman has expressed an interest in having people on the SEAC who will push KKR—a point Eccles raises in expressing his optimism about what the council will be able to bring to KKR, and hopefully the broader private equity industry as well.

“It’s an experiment,” Eccles says. “Nobody’s done this before in private equity.”

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