Beyond the buzzwords
As investor interest in responsible investment and ESG integration gains momentum, the related lexicon continues to evolve. Terms are often used interchangeably but can mean very different things in practice, for example ‘net-zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’. Equally, with new words popping up on a seemingly weekly basis, using them purposefully and precisely can help understanding across the responsible investment landscape.
Against this backdrop, one of the themes that RBC’s European Equity team believes is likely to have an impact in 2022 and beyond is ‘zero-washing’. As highlighted in our recent ESG report, the term, much like its ‘greenwashing’ counterpart, can be seen as businesses claiming to set net-zero targets, often dated many decades into the future, but with little demonstration or strategy set out as to how these will be achieved.
Sustainability or spin?
While the setting of targets is inevitably a necessary starting point, some corporates, rightly under pressure from investors to do so, may be setting them safe in the knowledge that the time horizon allows them to avoid long-term scrutiny of their success.
However, it must be recognised that net-zero is not an easy thing to achieve, or for that matter, define. A relatively new phenomenon – the first net-zero target was legislated in 2017 by Sweden – much of the business and investing community operates within a data and knowledge void when it comes to the makeup of genuine net-zero targets.
Businesses can also, with relative ease, hide behind jargon and vague language when attempting to portray themselves as sustainable. With the understandable lack of uniformity in this area – due to the subjective nature of some aspects and the nascence of others – broad language is understandable but sometimes abused. An example might be a company nodding to the UN SDGs, or incorporating them into their reporting, but failing to set targets or action based on these goals and simply burnishing an ‘apparent’ credential.
The bottom line is a company not doing what it says it is doing – a form of corporate hypocrisy which increasingly will not be tolerated if exposed.
A shifting landscape
With an expectation that net-zero targets are part of a business’s strategy, the onus is shifting on to investors and consumers to ensure that management is accompanying them with clear and implementable strategies, and that they are scrutinised regularly and at a granular level. Evidence-based targets and metrics are the next key items on the net-zero agenda.
There is an obligation not just on companies, but on asset managers to ensure the veracity of their claims. Therefore, there is as much pressure on companies to ensure they are strategically planning and implementing their net-zero targets as there is on asset managers to ensure they are not taking a company’s claims at face value.
A large part of this for active managers is engagement with management teams, to ask the hard questions, as well as offer support where suitable. However, it should be noted that like corporates, there are complications for asset owners as well, with varying methodologies to calculate net-zero targets. For example, Science Based Targets (SBT) or the Net Zero’s Asset Owners Alliance approach often produce different numbers when implemented at a portfolio level. Even if companies are not including scope 3 emissions in their planning (which in and of itself is problematic) should investors be looking to do so themselves and engage with companies on the issue?
Drilling into the detail
An example of one of our portfolio investee companies with credible net-zero targets is an energy management company that leads the industry by revenue contribution from clean energy. It has shaped its business strategy and aligned operations with its carbon pledge, using the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) sustainable development scenario. It focuses research and development on environmental impact technologies, and leads the industry with 5% of its annual revenue invested in R&D. It has set out a clear long roadmap to achieve net-zero: scope 1&2 neutrality with carbon offset by 2025, without offset by 2030, end-to-end carbon neutral value chain (scope 1, 2 & 3) with carbon offset by 2040, without carbon offset by 2050.
To keep track of progress and its commitment, shorter-term sustainability goals and initiatives are also set and reviewed periodically. For example, under its zero-carbon project, it will partner with its top 1000 suppliers – which represent 70% of its total carbon emissions – to halve their operations’ carbon emissions by 2025. The company has already been actively reducing the carbon footprint of its supply chain. It managed to reduce energy consumption in its plants and distribution centres by 10% every three years for the last 12 years. It currently operates 30 zero-emission sites, and more than 150 will be added to the list in the next five years.
We believe the company has a robust framework to achieve net-zero targets for its customers, own operations, and value chain. On a broader level, we have been encouraged to see our investee companies continue with their ESG activities. Many are accelerating existing policies and continue to be ahead of the curve in proactively going above and beyond regulatory expectations, and those of consumers.
We seek to invest in the best companies within our investment universe, in order to provide robust returns for investors. Using a company-by-company approach, we look on a fundamental, bottom-up basis at those factors which, based on our proprietary material issue analysis and scoring, matter most to a business and its stakeholders. We seek to address issues so that companies are aware of our views and concerns, which has the added advantage of creating a feedback loop so that we, as investors, can help to facilitate the necessary move towards a more sustainable corporate environment.
We continue to pay attention to key ESG trends to ensure that we can be as far ahead of the curve as possible on behalf of our clients. As always, our job is to comprehend these nuances, support those we deem important, and position our portfolios accordingly.