Blockchain Will Provide ESG Transparency

Blockchain is an important component for inclusion within a company’s ESG implementation framework. 

Efficiency is no longer the only focus of a company’s supply chain. Operations that ran with little margin for error were completely disrupted by the global pandemic leading to shortages and rising prices. Now these systems are being rebuilt and, in response to consumer and investors‘ requests, their impact on ESG considerations are being addressed.

Precise and timely information is required to allow for periodic adjustments to assure the company’s ESG goals are being met.  Environmental pollution, shortages of raw material and natural resources, workforce health and safety incidents, labor disputes, corruption/bribery and geopolitical considerations are just some of the ESG factors that must be closely monitored. The verification of the accuracy of this information is crucial. And it is exceedingly complex when the supply chains cross multiple geopolitical boundaries. Blockchain, a relatively new technology known best for cryptocurrency, can play a key role. 

As recently noted, “Transparency and trust are the founding principles of blockchain…By using blockchain to verify transparency in a way that no other digital technology can, businesses will dramatically improve their sustainability credentials and reporting procedures.”

Some companies, such as BMW, have pioneered the use of blockchain, “…in purchasing to ensure the traceability of components and raw materials in multi-stage international supply chains.”

Launched in 2018, Topl, provides blockchain sustainability verification to companies that may not have the internal resources to implement this relatively complex technology. The CEO of Finboot, another company providing blockchain based supply chain verification said, “Using blockchain technology, companies are able to record the journeys of their products more accurately and more cheaply…every time a product changes hands within the supply chain, its precise location and time-stamp is documented…from its manufacture through to its sale.”

Blockchain has its own ESG issues to resolve. The process requires high energy consumption, especially “proof-of-work” cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, although other, less energy demanding alternatives (proof-of-stake) are becoming more popular. Blockchain can also play a role in promoting greater use of renewable energy and to enable carbon offset

The momentum for blockchain and ESG is growing. Forbes notes, “…the potential for this technology far eclipses the cryptoasset space. Alongside the growing expectation for more varied and continuous information, blockchain has the opportunity to assist ESG reporting become more consistent, standardized, and effective. Technology and sustainability do not always go hand-in-hand, but the simultaneous rise of blockchain and demand for ESG has the opportunity to change that for the better.”

Besides giving companies better control of their supply chains, blockchain based information allows stakeholders and rating services to identify potential greenwashing. Integrating blockchain technology into a company’s decision-making processes will greatly increase economic efficiency and promote a sustainable future.

ESG and SDGs. Two Complementary Frameworks

The origin of the ESG or Environmental, Social and Governance framework can be traced back to the 70s. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, set forth 17 critical areas to address economic, social, and environmental challenges by 2030.

Both frameworks operate under the same principle; the need to establish a sustainable and just global economy.

ESG provides a corporate perspective that encourages companies to highlight their efforts to be socially and environmentally responsible under effective governance. The compatibility with the 17 SDGs, on the left, can be seen in the diagram below.

The ESG framework encourages companies to adopt internal and external policies that change their operations and improve communication with stakeholders including investors, customers and governmental agencies.  The business sector accounts for 72 % of the GDP of the 38 member counties of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). With ESG goals, strategies and policies that are effective and timely, businesses can assure that we can all eventually live on a healthy planet within a safe and equitable society.

The alternative is undoubtedly the end of civilization as we know it, especially when considering the impact of SDG #6 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and #13 (Climate Action). Plastic waste in the environment is an example of a very significant issue not included in the United Nations’ SDGs which should also be part of any corporate ESG initiatives.

Competition among companies is the key to a well-functioning, non-monopolistic capitalist  economy. Awareness about ESG and SDG is significantly increasing everywhere and at all levels. Companies are now providing information about their ESG strategies and policies as a way to distinguish themselves from other companies in their industries.  Ultimately it will be up to external stakeholders to insure their implementation and their compatibility with SDG and other similar frameworks such as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and the 3 Ps (“people, planet and profit”).

The path towards a sustainable and just economy exists. Currently needed is the means to encourage corporations to proceed forward.

Advance ESG is the only non-profit organization that empowers public stakeholders to effectively influence companies to improve their ESG policies and strategies.  Call it “ESG checks and balances,” the “wisdom of the crowd,” or even “grassroots for sustainability.” It is an approach to ESG advocacy whose time has come.

photo of mother working at home

What is impact Investing?

Values-based investors are those that align their financial decisions with their personal ethical principles. Also called “socially conscious investing,” it is a remarkably vibrant trend that continues to grow. In 2020 the total U.S.-domiciled assets under management using sustainable investing strategies grew 42% in 2 years with assets increasing from $12 trillion in 2018 to $17.1 trillion in 2020. This means that nearly 1 out of every 3 dollars under professional management are in values-based funds. This includes retail and high-net worth individuals who have increased their values-based investments by 50% since 2018. Financial industry research further indicates that 85% of the general population and 95% of the millennial population are interested in sustainable investing.

There are 3 general categories of values-based investing:

Socially responsible investing (SRI) can trace its roots to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who instructed his flock to not invest companies that engaged in “sin” such as alcohol, weapons, tobacco and gambling. This approach involves actively screening potential investments to exclude financial activities that conflict with the investor’s values such as firearms and fossil fuel. This is an inexpensive method since the screening can be performed easily.

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) investing actively seeks out companies that prioritize positive ESG goals and work to limit their negative ESG impact. These companies have decided that the long-term implications of their business decisions as they relate to the society and the environment are as (or more) important than the need to generate short-term profits. A number of large investment funds are now requiring companies in their portfolio to address ESG considerations because of the potential impact of such issues on the company’s long-term outlook.

Impact investing is usually limited to private funds that can provide more transparency on the impact of the investments on a specific cause and more flexibility in provision of those monies. These funds have a direct connection to the investor’s values-based priorities and the utilization of the provided capital. They typically can quantify the positive impact of the investment with such data as the number of meals provided, measures of economic activity in depressed regions,  and carbon output reduction.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business practice framework that prioritizes positive social  impacts of the company’s policies and practices in addition to generating profit. The basic goal is to improve communities, both local and throughout the world, by including social, environmental and business governance (ESG) considerations within all strategic decisions. By being “socially accountable” businesses generate considerable consumer good-will that ultimately be reflected in a better bottom line.

Katie Schmidt, the founder and lead designer of Passion Lilie, said that companies that implement CSR stand to benefit in multiple ways. “What the public thinks of your company is critical to its success,” Schmidt told Business News Daily. “By building a positive image that you believe in, you can make a name for your company as being socially conscious.”

Businesses ignore CSR at their peril. Recent research that 60% of Americans want companies to be at the forefront of social and environmental changes and nearly 90% would purchase products from companies that supports issues that were important to them as well. Perhaps more significant was that 75% said they wouldn’t buy from a company whose support of an issue differed from their own.

CSR also improves employee recruitment and retainment. Susan Cooney, head of global diversity, equity and inclusion at Symantec, said that a company’s sustainability strategy is a big factor in where today’s top talent chooses to work.  “The next generation of employees is seeking out employers that are focused on the triple bottom line: people, planet and revenue,” said Cooney. “Coming out of the recession, corporate revenue has been getting stronger. Companies are encouraged to put that increased profit into programs that give back.” 

Companies’ CSR efforts usually fall within a few general areas including environmental programs that reduce their carbon footprint, improve energy efficiency and promote recycling. Besides being easy to initiate, philanthropy such as donations of goods, services and money to non-profits generate considerable good-will. Encouraging and supporting employees’ involvement in charitable organizations is also a common theme for socially responsible companies.  Treating employees fairly and ethically is one of the most important characteristics of a socially responsible company, especially for those that operate internationally where the labor rules many be different than in the US.

How to change corporate ESG behavior

The growth of socially responsible investing (SRI) has skyrocketed over the past several years. There is now over $17 trillion, or nearly 1/3rd of all capital under management, within funds that include progressive environmental, social and business governance (ESG) and similar criteria within their investment decision making process. Many large investment firms, including BlackRock and Vanguard, are calling upon companies within their portfolios to prioritize long-term ESG considerations over short-term profit generation. With that kind of financial leverage, positive ESG changes in corporate behavior should be easy and straightforward to accomplish.

It’s not that simple.

Corporations and investment managers have a long history of verbal support for progressive ESG policies followed by either inactivity or actual efforts to oppose those principles. Although asset managers put, “significant effort into meeting institutional pressures to demonstrate transparency and responsible behavior,” their actual investment behaviors were inconsistent with responsible ownership. In 2019, a New York Times commissioned review of the proxy votes cast by BlackRock and Vanguard found that these two biggest fund managers, “tended to side with management and vote against shareholder-sponsored resolutions more frequently than other big fund companies,” including ESG focused efforts. SEC regulators reported this April that several investment firms that market themselves as investors in companies that that pursue ESG strategies were making potentially misleading statements about their ESG investment processes as well as their adherence to global ESG frameworks. More recently, five of the nation’s largest banks recommended to their shareholders that they reject racial equity resolution audits after previously expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Despite these roadblocks, creating positive changes in corporate ESG policies is still possible. Boycotts, like the ones that targeted companies doing business with the former apartheid South African government, can succeed, but they are difficult to coordinate and maintain. A better technique is through investor advocacy whereby shareholders, because of their ownership position, can influence corporate policies. Just one recent example is the success of the environmentally focused investment firm, Engine No. 1, in their efforts to place independent Board Directors at Exxon.

Although often effective, this type of advocacy it is only available to mutual funds and other entities that own sufficient shares in the corporation. It is essentially impossible for an individual to afford enough shares to be able to positively influence the hundreds of corporations whose ESG policies need to be addressed. While there are several ESG focused advocacy organizations that coordinate such activities for both individual and institutional investors, they do not provide a mechanism for non-investors to influence corporate ESG strategies.

Another approach is required for the general public and other stakeholders to have an impact on corporate ESG policies. Most corporations are extremely sensitive to public opinion and expend extraordinary amounts of effort and expense to protect their reputation. This makes public pressure a very effective means to compel changes in corporate behaviors. Witness Delta Airline’s CEO’s rapid reversal of his support of the new restrictive Georgia voting laws in response to public outcry. And since shareholder resolutions submitted to a vote at corporate annual meetings are often non-binding, they can be ignored by corporate management unless supported by a significant amount of popular demand.

Integrating public pressure with shareholder engagement is the most effective way to compel positive changes in corporate ESG policies. By coordinating shareholder advocacy with social pressure, Advance ESG provides the public a voice in corporate decision-making. This allows individual investors and non-investors alike to help make corporations more environmentally and socially responsible.

Not a fire, but an opportunity

The annual meetings of Exxon and Chevron, two of the world’s largest oil companies, are seldom controversial. Most agenda items, like director re-appointments and reviews of the financial statements, are routinely rubber-stamped by the participants. Management can customarily count on the support of the shareholders to out-vote any objections to their performance and plans.

Not this year.

At Exxon’s annual meeting, climate change activists led by Engine No. 1, a sustainability-focused hedge fund, successfully replaced 2 of the sitting Board Directors with 2 of their own independent candidates over the objections of Darren Woods, the company’s CEO. And at Chevron’s annual meeting, 61% of the shareholders voted in favor of a proposal that compels the company to cut their carbon emissions.

These events are a culmination of years of dedication and hard work by organizations such as Proxy Impact, ICCR, As You Sow and several others that utilize the access provided by owing shares in corporations. Many more ESG focused resolutions are on other corporate annual meeting agendas and with the recent support of funds such as Engine No. 1, BlackRock and Vanguard, they also stand a good chance of passing.

While some have characterized this as a “bad day” for the oil and gas industry, these events actually bode well for these companies. Despite the public rhetoric, a large number of corporate CEOs support the Business Roundtable assertion that companies have to focus on the social and environmental impacts of their business decisions in order to create long-term value. Because management is beholden to shareholders who are often more concerned about short-term capital gains, CEOs have been reluctant to risk their jobs by supporting ESG considerations that could negatively impact the quarterly financial statements. The successes at Exxon and Chevron, combined with the recent Hague court ruling that requires Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45% in 10 years, can provide both the impetus and political cover for corporate management to prioritize ESG within their corporate policies.

But much like trying to turn an aircraft carrier, progress will be slow. And there will undoubtedly be many forces aligned against these changes, both within and outside of these corporations. Shareholder advocacy definitely works, but its overall effectiveness depends upon the sustained support of other stakeholders, including the general public, who will provide the pressure required to compel corporations to become more socially and environmentally responsible.

What is shareholder activism?

Shareholder activism is a method to influence corporate policies and practices. As partial owners of a corporation, shareholders, also known as stockholders, have certain specific rights including the ability to vote at the annual meetings on such matters as approval of the membership of the Board of Directors, executive renumerations, dividend distributions and mergers. Shareholders with a sufficient amount of ownership (or equity) in the corporation can also submit resolutions for a vote at the annual meeting.

Until recently, shareholder activism was utilized mostly by those who wanted to have more control of a corporation they believed was being poorly run financially. They would purchase a minority position and then utilize a number of methods, including threats of litigation and public relations pressure to compel changes in board composition and corporate policies. Carl Icahn and Bill Ackerman are two of the best known of this type of activists but these methods have had numerous other adherents.

With the increasing public awareness of the role of corporations in the critical environmental and social issues affecting today’s society, shareholder activism has evolved to include those who want to see changes in corporate ESG strategies and activities. The majority of corporations base their business decisions on the short-term impacts on their quarterly financial reports. ESG shareholder activists, including some of the largest investment funds and other organizations, utilize their ownership positions to shift the corporation’s focus toward the long-term implications of their policies and procedures. They also apply a variety of methods, including shareholder resolutions and direct negotiations with management, to achieve these aims. Shareholder activism plays a vital role in well‐functioning capital markets by holding companies more accountable to shareholders, especially those who seek a more ESG values-driven approach to corporate behaviors.

What does “ESG” Mean?

The Environmental, Social and Business Governance (ESG) aspects of a company’s activities are the three main evaluation standards utilized to measure a company’s societal and sustainability policies and practices. ESG criteria are applied most frequently by investment firms and individuals who want to direct their money toward companies that are socially responsible. ESG standards are also used to create the “best” and “most progressive” companies lists published by various rating services that impact consumers purchasing patterns.

Each aspect of ESG embraces a broad range of factors and benchmarks. Environmental considerations include sustainability, renewables, pollution mitigation, waste management, climate change, conservation of natural resources, biodiversity, energy efficiency, regulation compliance and recycling.

Social aspects of business policies comprise the company’s working conditions (including child labor and slavery), employee health and safety, human rights, interaction with local communities (including indigenous communities), diversity in supply chains, human capital development, doing business with despots, engagement with third-party activists, product safety and employee benefits.

Business governance implications include equal opportunity, diversity, structure and independence of directors, executive renumeration, donations and political lobbying, tax strategy, shareholder rights, anti-corruption, risk management, stakeholder engagement, conflicts of interest, accident and safety management, supply chain management, and transparent ESG reporting.

ESG considerations provide a framework for responsible investing that incorporate a values-driven approach that balances financial returns with social outcomes. ESG focused investments include environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities into traditional financial analysis based on a systematic approach and appropriate research sources.

Is ESG a good investment?

There are now over 830 registered ESG investment firms. These values-driven funds seek to balance financial returns with the longer term implications of a company’s environmental, social and business governance policies. The desire for these types of investments is steadily increasing. In 2020, the assets managed by these firms was $3.10 trillion, up 19 percent from 2018. And the number of individual investors that employed ESG-based strategies in at least a quarter of their portfolio decisions increased from 48% in 2017 to 75% in 2019.

In 2005, the UN Environmental Program commissioned a report that looked at the “prudent investor” laws of seven developed world markets, including the US, to determine if the incorporation of ESG strategies was prohibited by the management’s fiduciary responsibilities. They concluded that in the US, incorporating ESG values into a fund’s investment strategies consistent with fiduciary duty, and that ignoring these long-term risks might in fact be a breach of fiduciary duty.

Regardless of the demand and the legality of ESG focused investments, the question remains, “how do ESG funds perform in the marketplace?” Are ESG based investment strategies merely a feel-good proposition or do they have real financial value as well?

As noted by Morningstar, for 2020 overall, 11 of 12 sustainable equity funds beat the S&P 500 index fund, led by IQ Candriam ESG US Equity ETF (IQSU) and Calvert US Large-Cap Core Responsible Index (CISIX), both of which are based on proprietary ESG indexes. The 22.4% average sustainable index fund return easily beat iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) 18.4% return for the year. [1]

JUST Capital ranks companies based on factors such as whether they pay fair wages or take steps to protect the environment. It created the JUST U.S. Large Cap Diversified Index (JULCD), which includes the top 50% of companies in the Russell 1000 (a large-cap stock index) based on those rankings. Since its inception, the index has returned 15.94% on an annualized basis compared with the Russell 1000’s 14.76% return.

These, and several other studies, document that ESG focused investments easily match or exceed the financial returns of more traditional investment funds. There is no demonstrable performance penalty associated with an investment strategy that includes ESG considerations. It is possible to do be both a responsible investor and to invest responsibly.


How did ESG start?

The origins of modern ESG investing can be directly traced to the 1970s. Its roots were established much earlier when faith-based organizations began to shun commodities and industries that conflicted  with their value systems. In the 18th century the Methodists, a Protestant denomination, eschewed investments in the production of tobacco and liquor and the slave trade. The Quakers soon followed by prohibiting investing in any war related activities as well. The Pioneer Fund was created in 1928, the first socially responsible investing (SRI) fund offered to the US public.

During the Vietnam War era, many US investors followed the SRI paradigm by adjusting their portfolios to eliminate “war profiteering.”  Created in 1971, the Pax World Balanced Fund restricted investments based upon an industry’s negative social impact. It did not invest in any company that produced, or was a part of the supply chain for Agent Orange, a dangerous herbicide used during the war.

Growing public engagement in civil-rights, antiapartheid, environmental and many other policy issues expanded into investment strategies. Despite Milton Freidman’s declaration that, “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” other SRI based funds were quickly established.  The First Spectrum Fund (1971) assured that they would base their investment decisions upon a company’s performance in “the environment, civil rights, and the protection of consumers.” The Dreyfus Third Century Fund (1972)  investment focus was on companies that contributed, “to the enhancement of quality of life in America.”

In 1972 journalist Milton Moskowitz published a list of “socially responsible stocks” that included SRI based mutual funds. Moskowitz’s criteria has been subsequently incorporated and adapted to serve as the basis for a host of other SRI based funds. Many of the earlier funds were based upon an “avoidance” screening strategy that sought returns similar to the general market without investments in alcohol, tobacco, weapons, gambling, pornography, and nuclear energy. Other funds with a broader ESG focus employed a “best in class” approach that invested in companies that did not have any deleterious workplace, governance, environment, social justice or other similar practices.

There are now over 800 registered investment companies with ESG assets. Many of these firms have embraced a combination of values-based investing with shareholder engagement that leverages an ownership position with a company to promote changes in their ESG policies and performance. While this type of stakeholder activism has always been a part of socially responsible investing, the growing public concerns over ESG issues has increased its reach and impact. Shareholder resolutions and the access to management that such ownership positions provide remain powerful agents for positive changes in corporate ESG strategies.