UN SDGs Making Fund Managers Feel Like Muppets

I am sure you have come across the now ubiquitous UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their colourful logos, fondly referred to as the UN SDG Rainbow. As someone who looks through company reports and disclosures, they cannot be avoided and often make me sing one of my favourite childhood songs.

“Why are there so many Songs about rainbows And what's on the other side Rainbows are visions They're only illusions And rainbows have nothing to hide So we've been told and some chose to Believe it But I know they're wrong wait and see Someday we'll find it The Rainbow Connection The lovers, the dreamers and me” Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (1979)

Today, I hope to share how companies are connecting with UN SDGs through various frameworks and methodologies and how investors need to be patient yet inquisitive and engaged about what’s at the end of this rainbow.


The UN SDGs (17 in total) were adopted by all UN members in 2015 with the aim to combat obvious global challenges: end poverty, protect the planet, ensure peace and prosperity, and many more by 2030. Even though only 5 years old, these Global Goals have been adopted at various levels and by many players, even our portfolio companies.


Rainbow-Washing

Companies across the globe have the ability to select one or many of the 17 UN SDGs, for example SDG 4 Quality Education or SDG 13 Climate Action. These SDGs have 169 prescribed targets and 232 unique indicators to monitor progress towards those targets. It’s exactly this vast array of options that while well intended has also allowed for what has become the practice of “rainbow-washing.” First coined in 2018 by Professor Dr. Wayne Visser, “rainbow-washing” refers to the over-eager use of the colourful SDGs mosaic or rainbow wheel by companies to enhance their brands and overemphasise their impact. It may also involve cherry-picking of selective SDGs, which are easier to accomplish but far from relevant to the company. Sadly, rainbow-washing is not limited to companies but also done by Governments, Institutions, NGOs and surprise surprise, even Fund Managers. Below is our SDG rainbow wheel just in case you are interested.

Source: Panarchy Partners and Company Disclosures

 * As of 13th July, 2020



The Rainbow Connection


At Panarchy Partners, we use engagement with our portfolio companies to ensure that any SDG claims by them and our portfolio are investigated and appropriately monitored thus hopefully preventing lazy rainbow-washing on our part. Our research has made it clear that there is NO one universally accepted method of SDG impact verification and we have to consider a whole series of frameworks and methodologies used by companies in relation to SDGs. How should we review companies when it comes to UN SDGs? At Panarchy Partners when we engage with companies, we cover three distinct stages of integration of SDGs:   

  1. Alignment

  2. Action  

  3. Reporting  


1. Alignment

This is when companies start to map out the links between the SDGs and their existing strategy, or even better have gone on to integrate the SDGs into their strategic thinking. This is a prioritisation of SDGs and sets the stage for future contributions by the company. As an example, from our Sustainable Universe of 249 companies, we found that most companies in the ‘Industrial’ sector align themselves with SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13 Climate Action.    For companies starting the process of SDG integration, the first stage of alignment can be a daunting task and there are many tools and methods available to them, such as:

  • SDG Compass (2015) + Principled Prioritisation (2018)

  • Materiality Assessment + Stakeholder Engagement

  • SDG Action Manager (2020)

  • SDG Ambition (2020)

  • Proprietary Tools, e.g. Trucost SDG Evaluation Tool, Ramboll's SDG impact assessment tool, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) SDG Selector

There is no one correct method or framework for companies to align themselves to SDGs. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses and companies need to appreciate that before adopting it. What is needed is a well thought out reason for the method adopted followed by consistency into the next stage of integration. Through engagement with Telenor, we found that in 2017 they aligned themselves to SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities. Stakeholder engagement and a materiality assessment of their business activities played an important role in identifying SDG 10. This SDG also aligns nicely with Telenor’s purpose of Empowering Societies as mobile internet can be just one of the ways through which communities can come out of poverty, it can be a means to better education, health, economic development and security.  

2. Action

This second step of SDG integration is where the rubber meets the road. The process of action is made up of two components, Target-Setting and Tracking. These two components have been seen in various shapes and forms over a variety of frameworks and tools identified, with varying degrees of emphasis depending on the purpose of the tool or framework used. Through our company engagement meetings, we try to ascertain an important part of both Target-Setting and Tracking which is the selection of metrics or indicators to measure progress towards the SDGs. These indicators are needed in order to set S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) targets, as well as to track consistent progress towards these targets. We find that various tools and methods are used by companies to help them with their target setting and tracking, such as:

  • SDG Compass – Step 3

  • Action Platform – GRI and UNGC

  • SDG Action Manager

  • SDG Ambition

  • SBTi (Science-Based Targets Initiative)

Acting on the SDGs is the most important step of the entire process. The tools and frameworks discussed above are what they are; tools and frameworks. A company has the ability to decide how they can best target and track their contribution to the SDGs they are aligned to by using anyone of these tools. Through engagement with SAP, we found that they adopted SDG 13 Climate action right after its introduction in 2015. SAP used their materiality assessment and the SBTi framework to help them with target-setting. They established a 2025 carbon neutrality target in 2017, making them the first Germany company to have an SBTi-approved climate target. As far as tracking this carbon neutrality target for SDG13, they have disclosed a net GHG emission of 300Kton in 2019 vs a target of 285Kton, which will need to be 0 by 2025.   


3. Reporting

Reporting on the alignments, targets and commitments set, and progress made is the last and final step in integrating the SDGs into a company’s business. Grand and often public announcements are seen as a declaration of a company’s intent to contribute to the SDGs, which allows stakeholders and shareholders to hold them accountable. Not surprising, there are multiple reporting frameworks available. Once again it is important that companies make the right decision as to which framework would best suit their SDG reporting needs. Often times, SDG reporting is integrated within a larger Sustainability Report or Integrated Annual Report. Following are some internationally recognised standards for sustainability reporting:

  • GRI Reporting (Action Platform)

  • Integrated Reporting SDG Framework

  • Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB)

  • UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework37

  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) – aligned to the Task Force on Climate related Financial Disclosures

  • The Corporate Reporting Dialogue (CRD).

Through engagement with Danone, we found that they deploy a unique method to report on their SDG contribution through their ‘company dashboard’. Along with their annual report which details their sustainability efforts and practices, Danone also publishes a company dashboard which highlights the company’s 2030 S.M.A.R.T targets, the relevant SDGs their targets impact, and the company’s overall performance and progress towards those targets.

Conclusion

As I conclude, a special thanks to David Mah, one of our bright summer interns whose diligent work on the SDGs helped with this update. A few conclusions of note. First, hopefully this analysis shows the fast pace at which tools and frameworks are being created around the UN SDGs and that there is no one single approach to confirm the validity of a company's claims of impact on the UN SDGs. Secondly, Companies will determine themselves how they Align to an SDG, what S.M.A.R.T. targets they will ACT on and commit to, and finally how they can best Report the output and outcome. Last but not least, what this analysis also confirms, is the need for thoughtful engagement by fund managers with portfolio companies around their UN SDG strategies so as to make that Rainbow Connection.  Happy Panvesting! Munib Madni,  Founding Panvestor 

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