Most Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) disclosures from public companies often aren’t clear or useful to investors, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today in a study.
It was hard to compare climate or resource-related information when companies used different calculation methods or reported results in different units of measurement, the investigative arm of Congress said in the ESG disclosures which appeared in the annual reports, 10-K filings, proxy statements, and voluntary sustainability reports of 32 companies it reviewed.
Board accountability and workforce diversity were addressed the most frequently and human rights the least.
“Specifically, we found instances where companies defined terms differently or calculated similar
information in different ways. We most frequently identified these inconsistencies in quantitative topics associated with climate change, personnel management, resource management, and workforce diversity,” the authors said.
Investors GAO spoke to complained about challenges in understanding and interpreting both quantitative and narrative ESG disclosures.
ESG has become top of mind for institutional investors the authors noted, pointing out 12 of the 14 they surveyed said they seek information on the issues to better understand risks that could affect company financial performance over time.
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The institutional investors also told GAO they monitor ESG disclosures to inform their vote at shareholder meetings or make stock purchasing decisions.
A GAO review of a sample of companies from the S&P 1500 found last year estimated 10 percent received one or more shareholder proposals and an estimated 5 percent of companies received one or more shareholder proposals related to increasing ESG disclosures.
However, all of the private asset management firms and representatives from three of seven pension funds surveyed told GAO said they don’t use shareholder proposals to influence companies’ ESG disclosures.
The authors said while some have advocated mandating comparable ESG disclosures, voluntary disclosures have the benefits of letting firms reveal only ESG information that is relevant for their specific businesses and reducing costs for them.
While executives regularly complain about the financial burdens of ESG disclosures, none of the representatives 18 companies the investigators spoke said their businesses had quantified the costs.
In a response to a draft of the report, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton said the SEC’s approach to putting ESG disclosures in the general “materiality” basket has served investors and capital markets well for decades and should for decades to come.
GAO was asked to make the study on ESG by Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner.
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