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  • Shreya Tiwari

ESG REGULATIONS: SHAPING THE FUTURE OF CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

Shreya Tiwari,

O. P. Jindal Global University

ESG REGULATIONS: SHAPING THE FUTURE OF CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

INTRODUCTION

Giant corporates and MNCs have mostly been concerned with profit maximization and optimum resource utilization.  However, unchecked growth and rapid industrialization have led to problems with sustainability and posed huge risks of environmental damage. The 21st century has ushered in an era where corporate culture has been forced to adopt long term sustainable practices by state pressure and stakeholder interference. The result has been the integration of Corporate Social Responsibility which is measured on the ESG- Environmental, Social and Governance aspects. The ESG framework provides an overview of how an organisation manages its own risk and opportunities concerning these factors. The thought behind this framework is that sustainability is not just about the environment but way beyond it. World’s largest asset managers like Vanguard and State Street have started implementing Sustainable Investing via exclusionary and best-in-class practices. The former practice eliminates companies which are deemed environmentally objectionable while the latter incentivise ESG compliant companies by prioritizing them.

EXPLORING THE PILLARS OF RESPONSIBLE FINANCE

ESG is not just a mere term or benchmark of sustainability for companies these days instead it has emerged as a carrier of diverse connotations of brand image and investment portfolios. The term “E” or “environment” majorly deals with a company’s policies in respect of the environmental harm and damage it contributes to in comparison to the steps it takes to mitigate the harm caused as well as adopt sustainable practices. This also stretches to the management’s approach towards utilisation of natural resources and the overall strategy it adopts to deal with the larger perils of global warming, flooding, and wildfires. Apple has emerged as a harbinger of hope with its commitment to 100% renewable energy usage for all its global operations.[i] 

The second pillar of “S” stands for the term “social” which functions as the bridge between the company and its stakeholders. It also concerns with issues of internal management like employee engagement, social benefits, and human capital management. Further, it also charts the company’s activities impact on the communities through and within which it operates. The main contextual point is to ensure that the company does not merely operate as a profit-making organization but also has a social standing that connects it to the society within which it functions. Starbuck made headlines for its employee welfare programs through support and skill training facilities.

The “G” might be last factor, but it is never the least important as it denotes “governance” and deals with the management and working of an organization. It deals with power and agency dynamics within the company as well as their impact on distribution of rights and responsibilities. The ways in which the Board of Directors take into account stakeholder expectations and the system of checks and balances for promoting leadership accountability and transparency in the decision-making process. The main focus is to ensure that business practices remain ethical and engage within the bounds of sound governance policies while maintaining financial profitability.

THE GOVERNANCE CATALYST

Corporate governance frameworks have effectively integrated ESG norms in order to mitigate risk and enhance long term sustainability. An effective regime incentivizes fulfilment of ESG goals while incorporating stakeholder solutions and ensuring community engagement. This ensures that financial growth of a company goes hand in hand with ethical responsibility and ultimately leads to the creation of purpose driven companies. For example, IKEA has chosen to incorporate driven individuals at the top-level management to ensure that the company aligns with ESG parameters.[ii] The board composition has been chosen on the basis of diversity and expertise in strategic approaches leading to social impact as well as sustainability. This has also led to the company’s association with ESG motivation at global levels as well thereby ensuring continuous financial investments. Several companies have opted for an incentive-based model and started providing executive compensation based on performance metrics. One of the most well acclaimed examples is of Johnson & Johnson which has integrated employee and management bonuses in relation to enhancement of product safety, garbage disposal, and ethical business practices. Several smaller companies have understood that alignment with ESG factors is a necessity for long term corporate success and the involvement of stakeholders is a key factor. Effective communication and involvement of stakeholders is not only imperative but also helps to address local community issues with broader lenses that involve ground level concerns as well. However, this needs to be coupled with shareholder activism in order to ensure that these suggestions turn into action initiatives that contribute positively to the society.

ESG DYNAMICS: INTEGRATION'S VARIED REALM

While the integration of ESG practices have ushered in positive changes however problems with this framework have slowly started to emerge. The pivotal point of concern is that ESG standards do not have any uniformity leading to multiplicity interpretations with varying standards. Elucidating this through an example- the industrial units engaged in manufacturing would target the reduction of emissions while companies like Google and Microsoft would prioritize efforts to protect data privacy and enhance cybersecurity. The consequence of this divergent approach is that there are no set industry standards for measuring ESG and the valuation of a company will always be incomparable and inaccurate. This leads us to the larger picture where every industry has specified its own ESG focus areas as per its operations. While the heavy machinery industry focuses on worker safety and recycling of input materials the fashion industry is bent towards promotion of sustainability and transparency in supply chain models. These diverse goals emerge as a result of industry-specific repercussions and stakeholder expectations, making a one-size-fits-all strategy untenable. Tailored solutions that account for these distinctions are essential for effective ESG integration.

Greenwashing is another tactic that companies have resorted to for attracting customers who are environmentally conscious by presenting false claims on their products. More often than not organizations exhibit themselves as being ESG compliant through marketing gimmicks or furnishing inaccurate claims. One of the world's largest fashion brands- H&M was in fire for making false claims of environmental sustainability in its Conscious Collection despite the collection using more water than others.[iii] These instances have eroded public trust to some extent in ESG efforts taken by companies and have highlighted the need for stronger rules.

The way ahead would require across industry collaboration with the establishment of uniform guidelines for sector specific organizations while ensuring that these rules eventually align with long term sustainability goals. Transparent and stringent reporting measures should also be formulated to overcome the challenge of greenwashing or fraudulent reporting by organizations.

IMPACT ON CORPORATE PERFORMANCE AND VALUATION

ESG is not merely a component of Corporate Governance but also a measure of corporate performance and valuation on the financial end. Unilever has benefited from sustainable initiatives- its Sustainable Living Plan has not only fostered brand loyalty from customers but also enhanced long-term shareholder value as well as resilience. Several brands have shifted from traditional practices of corporate governance towards strategic corporate governance that helps in striking the right balance between stakeholder involvement and shareholder profit maximization. Sustainable methods have also significantly reduced both operational risks and costs as well as drawn conscious consumers as well as attracted sustainable investing. This trend is also showcased in Tesla’s strong market growth which has its roots in long term sustainable commitment and ESG driven innovation as in its electric vehicles that resonate with societal as well as current demands. The example highlights how sustainable investing is the new norm and companies must adapt to these market shifts in order to gain an edge in market valuation and investments. However, this is riddled with problems as organizations working in immediate environmental impact setting can have higher ESG valuation changes as compared to others who would take more time. The solution lies in presenting and specifying industry specific problems that affect compliances as well as costs. Integration of ESG compliant practices would need companies to look beyond financial implications and understand how sustainability is the route to financial stability. Organizations would also need to map reshaping consumer behaviour and target unexplored marketing opportunities as well as increase good governance to establish a direct connect with their customer base.

CONCLUSION

Guidelines and rules surrounding the realm of ESG might not be stringent and well laid for now but jurisdictions across the world are moving towards strict implementation of these norms to tackle globally prevailing problems. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive proposed by the European Union is reflective of the fact that standardized disclosures with enhanced transparency would soon be put in place. Further, global chain companies like Walmart have committed to net zero emissions by 2040 which signifies the shift that other organizations would also have to make in response to regulatory measures and consumer preferences. ESG and its impact on corporate valuation is an intersectional topic that must be moulded through stakeholder preferences, investor perceptions, and evolving market dynamics. Sustainable value creation should be the end goal by integration of diverse practices driven by ESG innovation which would then lead to shareholder profitability and long-term financial success.

REFERENCES

[iii] Ecowiser, https://wiser.eco/how-conscious-is-hm-conscious/ (last visited December 21, 2023).

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