I recently attempted to edit the English Wikipedia corporate sustainability page to say corporate sustainability does not have an established definition. An editor rejected this statement because, “We don’t begin articles by saying they don’t exist.”
The academic literature suggests corporate sustainability doesn’t exist. Montiel & Delgado found seventeen definitions of corporate sustainability in academic articles. Bansal & Song traced the concept’s shifting meaning over three decades, most recently converging with corporate social responsibility.
We remain in a situation where it seems sustainability means whatever the speaker wants it to mean. A more academic way to say this is that the definition remains “contested.”
The Unpacking Industry is Booming
There’s nothing new or wrong with contested definitions, except when a concept matters. A good deal of academic and other writing exists solely to promote a definition of a contested concept or to review multiple definitions. Let’s call this industry the “unpacking industry,” because writing and conversation in this industry sometimes motivates itself by a need to “let’s unpack that.”
The problem with packing and unpacking the corporate sustainability concept since its origins in the 1970s is that it matters whether companies are or are not sustainable. But matters to whom?
What Does Profit Mean?
Imagine if we treated corporate profitability the same way we treat sustainability. Imagine hundreds of academic articles, each advancing its own claim about what it means for a firm to be profitable. Or reports by nonprofit organizations and consulting firms debating major developments in profitability frameworks, commitments, and standards.
Profitability is not a contested concept because whether a company is profitable matters. It matters so much that we created a global regulatory apparatus called public accounting to independently verify corporate profitability claims. Consider if we had applied the popular self-governance framework: no accounting industry or regulations, just trusting firms to voluntarily disclose their profitability information.
We don’t rely on trust for profitability because we saw how badly investors could be deceived by companies without oversight on financial information. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States was created to protect investors from companies by requiring firms that accept capital from investors to also accept oversight to protect those investros from financial deceipt and fraud.
Yet corporate sustainability languishes without definition. Why?
Who Benefits from Sustainable Companies?
Corporate sustainability resists definition because we have not clarified the stakeholder who most benefits from companies being sustainable.
The definition of profitability protects investors. Clearly identifying the stakeholders harmed by financial deceipt and fraud clarified what needed to be included in the definition of corporate profit: return on capital. Investors give firms capital and expect a return. Profitability, then, must capture whether a firm provides investors a return on their capital. See Levy’s work on the historical development of the modern definition of profit.
The definition of corporate sustainability protects _____________. How you fill in that blank is probably related to who you think benefits from corporate sustainability. Until there’s agreement on that, on who benefits, corporate sustainability will remain a contested, and largely meaningless, concept.
And that’s great for generating content.
Bansal P, Song H-C. 2017. Similar But Not the Same: Differentiating Corporate Sustainability from Corporate Responsibility. Academy of Management Annals 11(1): 105–149.
Levy J. 2014. Accounting for Profit and the History of Capital. Critical Historical Studies 1(2): 171–214.
Montiel I, Delgado-Ceballos J. 2014. Defining and Measuring Corporate Sustainability: Are We There Yet? Organization & Environment 27(2): 113–139.
Bloomberg recently published “A Guide to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.” It begins by explaining why companies need to disclose climate-related financial information. I’m used to a rationale that climate change impacts will make some assets less valuable or will increase value volatility. For example, coastal real estate assets might be less valuable due to increased flooding, with higher volatility due to catastrophic events like hurricanes.
However, Bloomberg’s latest explainer provides a different rationale than mitigating risk from climate change happening. Instead, it points to the risk of us successfully mitigating climate change by decarbonizing the economy. Here, the risk to companies, investors, and capitalists comes not from the impacts of climate change, but from structural changes in the economy that will be required if we mitigate climate change, specificially changes related to decarbonization.
In December 2019, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney noted that “Changes in climate policies, new technologies and growing physical risks will prompt reassessments of the values of virtually every financial asset.” […] Organizations that invest in activities that may not be viable in the longer term will likely be less resilient to the transition to a lower-carbon economy — and their investors will likely experience lower returns. […] Investors, lenders and insurance underwriters need adequate information on how companies are preparing for a lower-carbon economy.
This argument means firms now face two general sets of climate risks. The first set comes from changes that occur due to worsening climate change impacts, such as fires, droughts and water scarcity, disruption from climate migration, inundated coastal assets, heat waves, and infrastructure problems like brown-outs and black-outs from growing air conditioning and heating demands in extreme weather events.
The second set of risks arises from mitigating or preventing the first set of risks. The current approach reflected in the Bloomberg report views these risks as primarily about asset value. A straightforward example is the value of a coal power plant. As policies change to limit emissions and technologies emerge that substitute for coal power generation, the value of coal plants begins to move toward zero. Companies, investors, and capitalists face the risk of these once-valuable assets becoming worthless, referred to as a “stranded asset.”
One impact of this second set of risks is that capitalists have an incentive to prevent mitigation of climate change, which would preserve the emissions-based value of high pollution assets like fossil fuel infrastructure, airlines, airports, shipping, agriculture, and construction assets.
The logic behind the call for companies to disclose more information about both sets of climate risks seems to be that doing so will give firms a “competitive advantage” over rivals that do not disclose.
A company that communicates its climate resiliency to its investors will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.
Mary Schapiro, Head of the TCFD Secretariat and Vice Chair for Global Public Policy at Bloomberg L.P
But why? Why would disclosing climate resiliency create a competitive advantage? And an advantage for what?
What about disclosure creates competitive advantage?
The Financial Stability Board established the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure or TCFD in 2015, with the mission to develop voluntary disclosures that “could promote more informed investment, credit [or lending] and insurance underwriting decisions” and, in turn, “would enable stakeholders to understand better the concentrations of carbon-related assets in the financial sector and the financial system’s exposures to climate-related risks.”
Which stakeholders are privileged? The answer seems to be capitalists seeking to invest capital in ways that generate positive returns, though this is framed in terms of an abstract concept of “efficient” capital allocation.
The recommendations emphasized the importance of transparency in pricing risk — including risk related to climate change — to support informed, efficient capital-allocation decisions.
Just as the development of public company transparency regulations like those enforced by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, the logic underlying the TCFD seems to be that investors need protection from deception by companies seeking capital. And the broader economy needs protection from an inefficient capital allocation outcome–though what efficiency means in this context is left unsaid.
Easier or better access to capital by increasing investors’ and lenders’ confidence that the company’s climate-related risks are appropriately assessed and managed
More effectively meeting existing disclosure requirements to report material information in financial filings
Increased awareness and understanding of climate-related risks and opportunities within the company, resulting in better risk management and more informed strategic planning
Proactively addressing investors’ demand for climate-related information in a framework that investors are increasingly asking for, which could ultimately reduce the number of climate-related information requests received
Three of four benefits go to investors. One benefit–better risk management and more informed strategic planning–goes to the company.
Together these benefits begin to suggest that disclosure could create a competitive advantage by increasing the firm’s attractiveness to investors, which lowers the firm’s cost of capital compared to non-disclosing rivals, and improving the firm’s internal processes, which could lower costs compared to rivals.
But what should companies disclose to attain these benefits?
What should companies disclose?
What does the TCFD recommend companies do to protect capitalists and economies from poor capital allocation decisions? The recommendations address four areas of corporate management:
Governance: The organization’s governance and climate-related risks and opportunities.
Strategy: The actual and potential impacts of climate-related risks and opportunities on the organization’s businesses, strategy and financial planning.
Risk Management: The processes used by the organization to identify, assess and manage climate-related risks.
Metrics and Targets: The metrics and targets used to assess and manage relevant climate-related risks and opportunities.
Here there is a bit of a contradiction between disclosure and competitive advantage. Competitive advantage arises from a strategy and execution of that strategy that captures more value for the firm than rivals can. But that advantage is short-lived if the firm discloses the strategy and how it executes the strategy (recommendations 2, 3, and 4).
Disclosing this information will likely erode any advantage the firm gains from improved internal processes, as rivals could adopt those practices and achieve similar cost savings. (However, it is possible that some firms might be unable to execute disclosed strategies and operations due to capability constraints, which would limit the erosion of advantage of disclosed strategies.)
Yet even if the operational benefits are eroded by disclosure, the cost of capital benefits from disclosure could remain. However, this competitive advantage would also soon disappear if rivals are able to adopt the operational benefits, as investors would no longer see a large difference in climate risks between the companies.
Ultimately, then, it seems the argument that disclosure benefits investors holds true more than the argument that disclosure benefits companies through competitive advantage. This presents a problem for the voluntary nature of disclosure: why would firms voluntarily adopt a practice that protects investor interests but does not benefit the firm?
The answer to that question might be that firms won’t adopt the practice.
Bloomberg’s guide includes an interview with Ashley Alder, Chief Executive Officer of the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) of Hong Kong and Chair of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). Alder alludes to the need for mandatory disclosure, rather than volutnary disclosure, implicitly recognizing that firms might not voluntarily adopt disclosure.
Here in Hong Kong, the size of our capital markets means that what we do has global significance. We want to take a leadership role in this effort. Working through a cross-agency steering group, the Hong Kong government and all the local financial regulators have committed to mandatory TCFD-aligned disclosures by 2025. New Zealand has also committed to this, and we hope other countries in Asia-Pacific will follow suit.
This is unsurprising given Alder heads a regulatory body charged with protecting investors. And it further undermines the concept that voluntary disclosure benefits companies. If it did, companies would presumably do it.
Further, a good deal of the guide is focused on convincing the reader that support for the TCFD guidelines is growing around the world, suggesting a self-consciousness about a lack of enthusiasm from companies.
What about the risks of mitigating climate change?
By the end of the guide, the risks associated with mitigating climate change–risks driven by transitioning the economy off carbon pollution–seem forgotten. Instead, the emphasis is on protecting investments from climate risks in an abstract sense, which likely includes investing in projects that become stranded assets. However, more attention could be paid to how capital allocation continues to support strategies and corporate operations dependent on carbon pollution, and how that allocation itself is a form of undermining progress to stop catastrophic climate change.
This post notes some highlights from the new Resources for the Future and Environmental Defense Fund report reviewing policy options for a just transition off fossil fuels in the United States.
A just transition is “fairness for workers and communities in a transition to a low–greenhouse gas emissions economy,” with a focus on workers and communities reliant on the production and consumption of coal, oil, and fossil gas.
There’s no single policy solution. Multiple and customizable policies are needed (see next section).
Policy must be coordinated or “harmonized” across jurisdictions.
Planning must start now. Policies must address both short- and long-term outcomes.
Policymaking processes must be equitable and inclusive.
Policy must address revenue government revenue losses.
Just transition policies considered in the report
Job training and career services for transition workers
Minimum standards for employment benefits, job safety, and worker rights
Engaging and supporting employers
Supporting skills development and technology investment in public and private organizations
Investment in community public services to increase business development
Support for entrepreneurs like low-interest loans
Support for financial institutions that service entrepreneurial ventures
Funding to clean up industrial pollution
Investment in public infrastructure, especially water services and broadband internet
Direct cash payments or tax credits to low-income households
Should academic articles be retracted because they make controversial claims? This question drives debate within academia, journalism, and politics, often centered on the question of academic freedom. Academic freedom gives scholars the ability to pursue research that might not have a clear immediate “payoff” or that might be socially controversial. Articles sometimes gain much more attention than the average publication when they come to be seen as making controversial claims. For example, a recent controversy erupted over a paper arguing Korean women voluntarily entered into contracts with Japanese soldiers for sex work [New York Times coverage]. When such articles are retracted, some claim academic freedom has been undermined.
Conventional wisdom states articles should only be retracted when their claims are unsupported by the data and analysis reported in the paper, such as coding errors that lead to substantive changes in results, such as happened with a famous paper in economics. The worst-case scenario involves outright fraud, such as scholars making up their data to achieve publications needed for promotion. Recent examples of fraud happened in political science and management research.
However, there is no reason to believe that controversy and methods errors are independent. Here I argue that the debate about “silencing academic freedom” by retracting controversial articles tends to ignore the baseline methods quality in academic fields. The main argument is that, if a field has a low baseline of methods quality, any paper that attracts considerable controversy will also be found lacking in methods rigor, leading most controversial papers to be retracted. This lends the appearance that “controversial” papers are almost always retracted and ignores that the papers are retracted because they are found to have serious methods errors that make their claims unsupported by the data and analysis.
The following table shows how this works:
Those who claim controversial article retraction undermines academic freedom generally assume all articles are methodologically sound (Box 1). Such papers should not be retracted if retraction is based on methods problems.
However, what if fields of study vary in the baseline rate of methods quality of published papers?
Begin with the extreme case where 100% of published articles have unsound methods. This is, we would hope, unrealistic. In that case, any paper that attracts consideration for retraction should be retracted, and the only thing keeping papers from being retracted is a lack of attention to whether they should be retracted. If controversy inspires consideration for retraction, all controversial papers in this field would end up being retracted, and it would appear that controversy always leads to retraction. Arguments that there is no academic freedom in that field would likely arise.
Now consider the alternative extreme case where 100% of published articles have sound methods. Here, any controversial paper getting retracted would be a legitimate undermining of academic freedom. This is the situation generally assumed by critics of retraction that appears to be driven by controversy, not methods quality.
Now imagine a more realistic case where 70% of published papers have sound methods and 30% have methods that should have led to rejection and would lead to retraction if the paper were ever considered for retraction based on methods. In this field, some papers that attract controversy will have sound methods, and some will not. Some controversial papers should be retracted based on methods, and some should not.
This is a more realistic assumption about the baseline rate of methods quality in a field, though I’m sure it varies greatly across academic fields. What if some fields have 70% unsound methods? Such fields will appear to retract most controversial articles, which would make the field appear unwilling to defend academic freedom by assessing papers on methods, not how controversial claims are from the methods.
Debates about the relationship between academic freedom, controversy, methods, and retraction would be more productive if they incorporated thought about the baseline rate of methods quality in a field before passing judgment on whether any consideration of retraction after controversy constitutes an attack on academic freedom. This has the potential to reduce dogmatism in retraction arguments. It can also improve the baseline methods quality in a field through increased attention to methods and the research produced in that field, which would be a better outcome for scholars and others interested in the research.