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Environmental, social and governance

Companies reap rewards of sustainable and ethical approach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 2:30pm

Businesses that have adopted environmental, social and governance factors to scrutinise sustainability and the ethical effects that they have on an economy are beginning to reap the rewards.

Diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of such ESG efforts a corporation can emphasise. They make business sense and seem to be a non-negotiable feature many shareholders expect to see in a firm’s mission.

“Investors these days don’t see any separation between the mission of a company with clients and the mission of a company in society,” says Cathy Bessant, the New York-based chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America. “Increasingly, they are demanding both, so investors are really making ESG a part of their dialogue with us, and I think they see it as part of what makes for a sustainable financial performance.”

Bessant, who has been at the bank for more than 35 years, has succeeded in a male-dominated industry. Today, women make up nearly 40 per cent of the bank’s executive management team. She leads the 100,000 employees and contractors in its global technology and operations, which delivers end-to-end technology and operating services across the company.

Her department requires an effective diversity and inclusion policy. A PwC diversity and inclusion report highlights that “financial services organisations aren’t just looking to attract seasoned professionals, but also the more diverse and hybrid types of talent demanded in a sector facing the disruptive impact of new technology, ever more complex regulation and increasing competition from new entrants”.

Bessant is active in propelling the bank’s diversity and inclusion policy with regards to community partnerships, advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and people with disabilities. Despite being recognised among the top three of American Banker’s “25 Most Powerful Women in Banking”, she doesn’t consider herself as a role model, although she concedes that everyone needs them.

Bessant says: “Sometimes, it’s a person we look up to and sometimes it’s a set of characteristics that we find across multiple people, but we have to have a vision of what success looks like.”

Her own experience of rising through the ranks does not stop her from conceding that there is more work to be done.

“From time to time, I scan the room when I walk in and note the number of women,” she says. “You can learn a lot about any organisation from these kind of scans.”

I think the clients that are most successful with ESG are those that recognise they have issues, are fine with highlighting and identifying them
Alessandro Bisagni, founder and managing director, BEE

Bank of America has been working for four years with Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit organisation founded in 1999, with support from former US first lady Hillary Clinton, on the Global Ambassadors Program. The initiative seeks the further economic empowerment of women through mentoring.

Bessant believes that employees today are more discerning when it comes to understanding the fabric of a firm’s culture, especially in making decisions about where to work and whether a company has the correct culture.

The financial industry, which has a mobile workforce across ethnic and cultural backgrounds, is at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, and many multinational banks and firms have staff members dedicated in these areas.

In the 2017 Hong Kong Top 12 Employers for LGBT+ Inclusion by Community Business, a not-for-profit organisation that advocates responsible and inclusive business practices in Asia through networking, research and events, all the companies recognised are international banks or investment firms.

BDO also reveals that compliance is increasing in Hong Kong. In its ESG reporting survey, the global network of accountancy firms reveals that 60 per cent of surveyed companies had exceeded the basic disclosure requirements as required by the Hong Kong stock exchange.

“This may reflect that companies have strived to demonstrate their strength in ESG practices and, in turn, enhance brand reputation,” says Ricky Chen, BDO’s director and head of risk advisory services.

Bisagni Environmental Enterprise (BEE) is an environmental consulting firm with a largely luxury retail clientele that includes the Kering Group, which owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta and Boucheron.

Alessandro Bisagni, founder and managing director of BEE, sees a rise in the focus on health and well-being in the built environment, and technology and design converging in assisting with ESG targets.

“Clients that are most successful with ESG are those that recognise they have issues, are fine with highlighting and identifying them, and then construct a reasonable plan for improvement,” Bisagni says.

The company has provided services to office furniture maker Haworth to ensure that its showrooms and offices meet environmental standards. The Haworth Organic Offices in Beijing and Shanghai have obtained a LEED GOLD Certification for Commercial Interiors under the new version 4 rating system.