Every year brings another wave of challenging climate news, but 2022 seems to be off to a particularly rocky start. From the IPCC Climate Reports to the crisis in Ukraine to the federal government’s struggles to pass any serious climate legislation, the news is filled with warning signs. Compounding these challenges is growing disillusionment with the private sector’s role from public skepticism of corporations’ sustainability claims to misplaced expectations around emerging Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) ratings.
It’s easy to get caught up in the bad news, but I choose to find optimism in companies who are actually doing the right thing. Investors who want to support these businesses—ones that operate with sound social and environmental policies and embrace positive innovation and disruption—just have to know where to look. That’s, of course, easier said than done, but a little extra effort can be worth a lot.
Here are three starting points to help others identify companies that go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility.
1. Seek out the organizations that don’t just report—but act
The number of companies filing corporate social responsibility reports has never been higher. But, as noted by impact investment experts, such as Ken Pucker, this rise in reporting has not correlated to a similar reduction in environmental impact by corporations. The takeaway: Reporting alone is clearly not the solution.
While it’s useful for companies to at least have a base-level awareness of their carbon footprints, this information is just data if the companies don’t learn from it. The companies that actually take the next step and integrate sustainability value drivers into their core business models are the ones to watch.
Think of a company, such as Case New Holland Industrial, an industry-leading manufacturer of agricultural and construction equipment. Case New Holland has developed a comprehensive global sustainability strategy, and is achieving ambitious goals regarding energy use, waste, and circular product lifecycles. It’s no surprise they have been the top scorer in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices 11 years in a row: Not only are they de-risking their own operations, they’re de-risking the whole system they rely on.
Companies such as these are using the immense global climate challenge to catalyze innovation and positive change, ensuring increased growth across all time horizons.
2. Find companies looking beyond scope 1 and 2 emissions
The vast majority of companies that report on their sustainability footprints only look at their own direct emissions and their indirect emissions from purchased energy. That’s understandable—quantifying a company’s downstream effects and the upstream emissions it doesn’t control is fundamentally complex. But it is also a concerning miss: Upward of 90% of a company’s emissions can fall outside scopes 1 and 2.
As a growing number of examples proves, though, the companies that are truly determined to understand their sustainability footprint don’t let this challenge stop them. Take Inari, a late-stage plant genetics startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inari is leveraging MIT’s Dynamic Systems Modeling to quantify the expected direct and downstream effects of their seed products. They use complex models to project the social and environmental footprint of their actions and also proactively calculate the best products and programs to reduce specific amounts of specific emissions. Considering that our planet is at a tipping point with climate change where time is running out to make suboptimal decisions, this level of analysis is invaluable.
3. Don’t rely on traditional ESG ratings
Despite their recent negative coverage, ESG ratings do serve a purpose. It’s just not usually what they’ve come to be associated with. Most rating systems are trying to assess the economic risks to the company based on ESG factors; they do not measure the E and S impacts a company is having externally in the world.
For prospective investors seeking to gut-check a system, simply look at the MSCI ratings of companies like Exxon or Philip Morris. When an oil and gas company—whose core business model is built on activities that damage a healthy future—has anything but a negative score, you know that the ESG rating is not measuring impact.
Instead of worrying whether a rating is misleading, conduct your own research. Look up annual reports. Download and read them. Gauge companies’ intentions by understanding their objectives, strategies, and real-world actions. Consume enough of this information, and it becomes clear fairly quickly which companies’ sustainability efforts end with a fancy report and which go much further.
The good news is that it should become increasingly easy to find the companies that are actively working to support a healthy future for our planet. Although imperfect, climate disclosure rules like those enacted by the EU and proposed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are positive signs. So is the explosion of new tools, sophisticated modeling, service providers, and growing interest in the impact investing space.
Of course, time is short—every day, climate challenges become more pronounced. But my optimism grows as more data and resources become available for people investing in a brighter future for our planet.
Howard W. Buffett is a professor at Columbia University, a bestselling author, and a member of several corporate boards where he focuses on ESG and sustainability strategies. He is also the President of Global Impact LLC, an advisory firm specializing in impact measurement and management. Previously, Howard ran a global foundation active in over 80 countries, and he worked in the U.S. government for the White House and for the U.S. Department of Defense in Afghanistan and Iraq.