Boards can increase shareholder value by helping to ensure their companies are fully engaged in finding solutions to global challenges.
By Alice Korngold
This is the first post in the A Better World, Inc. series.
I contend that fundamental to the role of the board in maximizing shareholder value is ensuring that the company is helping solve the world’s most challenging problems. Not because global problem solving is “nice,” but because it is the most profitable path forward for any multinational corporation competing in today’s global marketplace.
Business Risks and Opportunities
The greatest business risks in the 21st century are wealth inequality, which is shown to cause dislocation and violence; growing scarcity of natural resources; high costs of fossil fuels; labor conflicts; community resistance resulting from human rights abuses; and the lack of a qualified workforce for high technology jobs. In researching my new book, A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot, I found that some leading companies are beginning to recognize growth opportunities by finding solutions to these global challenges.
These companies are pursuing unique approaches to move entire communities out of poverty; finding and developing new energy sources and building “smart” cities; promoting the development of sustainable materials for the manufacture of apparel and other consumer products; finding effective ways to engage community stakeholders as partners in production, educate children in developing countries and poor communities for jobs requiring STEM+ skills, and provide healthcare to ensure productive workforces and consumers.
Here are a few examples of ways that companies are benefiting by solving global problems:
- Johnson Controls is working with the Clinton Climate Initiative to retrofit old buildings for energy-efficiency. Examples include the Empire State Building in New York City and the Inorbit Mall in Mumbai. This is a profitable enterprise for Johnson Controls that provides tenants with cost-savings, while reducing carbon emissions. This is particularly significant since 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, and the building sector is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Nike is working in partnership with NASA, the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development and others to challenge materials manufacturers to transform the system of producing fabrics to reduce their environmental footprint. Nike is motivated by its foresight and self-interest that the materials the company has been using for its apparel and footwear will become less available as we deplete nature’s reserves. The team at Nike also understands now is the time to make the transformation, before it’s business is in jeopardy. Its sustainable materials initiative is good for the world, but it’s also smart business.
- Through “local content development,” (sometimes called “national content development”) some extractive companies are working in partnership with NGOs like PYXERA Global to develop local supply chains and educate and train regional workforces in emerging markets. Sure, companies do so in return for the license to operate and goodwill; this is essential for their businesses to be profitable. But at the same time, these companies are also lifting entire communities from poverty, which is good for the world.
- GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is partnering with Vodafone to increase the uptake of DPT vaccines in Mozambique. If successful, the pilot will be taken to scale in many African countries, where it has the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies. If expanded, the initiative could also become highly profitable for GSK and Vodafone. Good for business, and good for the world.
Now that we have a few examples to examine, let's return to the premise I started with: how can boards of directors most fully achieve their responsibilities to increase shareholder value by encouraging companies to find solutions to the world’s challenges?
Investors as Drivers
Companies that can show their commitment to sustainability can attract investment dollars. According to the Impact of Sustainable and Responsible Investment, published by the US SIF Foundation in 2013, “testaments to the growing impact of SRI [socially responsible investment] on the investment marketplace can be found in the creation of SRI indices and in the development of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) whose signatories—with assets over $30 trillion—are now estimated to represent 20 percent of the estimated total value of global capital markets.”
Additionally, Ceres reported recently that “a growing number of institutional investors, many of them members of the Ceres-coordinated Investor Network on Climate Risk (NCR), have publicly signaled that they view information about climate risks as material to their investment and proxy voting decisions, and have updated their proxy voting guidelines and voting practices accordingly.” These companies include Goldman Sachs Asset Management and JPMorgan Asset Management.
Given such urgent risks to business, and the scope of global opportunities, it is important for boards of directors to understand the imperative of including highly qualified members with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and expertise. A board with a narrow view of what’s possible will be limited in imagining the company’s greater potential in the global marketplace.
A board comprised of people with similar backgrounds will fail to recognize or comprehend the range of barriers or accelerators to maximize success. Yet, a board rich with women and men from a variety of regions, experiences, training, education and cultures can become a fine orchestra with the ideas, intellect, resources and networks to imagine and achieve what’s possible to increase shareholder value.
Sustainability matters—including economic, social and environmental challenges—are integral to a successful corporate vision and strategy, making it important for a board to have a committee focused on sustainability. The role of the board sustainability committee is to provide focus, attention and expertise to consider sustainability threats and opportunities that are material to the company and its future.
Boards can increase shareholder value by helping to ensure their companies are fully engaged in finding solutions to global challenges. This is good for business and good for the world.
Next week: The nuts and bolts of Sustainability Advisory Councils.