A Single Measure, Unbiased Results: Ceres, Tellus Unveil Global Initiative for a Standardized, Comprehensive Corporate Sustainability Rating

Cacophony of Sustainability Ratings Feeds Corporate “Survey Fatigue,” Plus Cherry Picking, Conflicts of Interest; New Rating Will Drive Capital to Sustainability Leaders
Jun 9, 2011 11:30 AM ET

(3BL Media / theCSRfeed) June 9, 2011 - WASHINGTON, DC – Ceres and Tellus Institute, two leading organizations that work with companies, investors and nonprofit groups to embed sustainable practices in capital markets, today announced the launch of an initiative to create and bring to widespread adoption a single standard for rating the sustainability performance of companies.

Founding partners of the new coalition, the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings, include leading investors and businesses like TIAA-CREF, the Calvert Group and Bloomberg. The initiative will be modeled on a successful Ceres/Tellus-launched program, the Global Reporting Initiative, that has become the de facto global standard used by 2,000 companies worldwide for corporate reporting on environmental, social and economic performance.   Every day, ratings play a pivotal role in determining access to capital - and its cost - for everything from public company stocks to all types of bonds. More than a decade of sustainability ratings has provided a wealth of experience in measuring the long-term horizons, social equity, and environmental stewardship of companies and their major investors.   But the proliferation of scores of sustainability ratings providers has also spawned inconsistent and often opaque approaches and, in some instances, conflicts of interest among raters and rated companies, plus widespread “survey fatigue” among companies responding to information requests by multiple raters. These conditions have led some companies to “cherry pick” results that are most favorable while sidestepping less favorable ratings.   For all these reasons, the moment is right for creation of an independent, non-commercial framework that builds on the current system’s strengths and, corrects its shortcomings, thereby unleashing the full power of ratings to drive sustainability deep into capital, procurement and consumer markets   “We need a new powerful instrument to steer capital – financial, human, social and natural - toward sustainability leaders and away from the laggards,” said Ceres President Mindy Lubber, in announcing the new Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR) today. “With global sustainability crises from climate change to water shortages, resource pressures and population growth more evident every day, it’s time to build a ratings system that distinguishes between those companies that clearly see and act upon sustainability opportunities and risks and those that don’t.”   The recent financial-sector meltdown that spawned a deep global recession, plus disasters like the BP oil spill and the Massey Energy coal mine collapse, are sobering examples of the severe economic and human consequences of a failure to identify unsustainable corporate practices.   TIAA-CREF, a Fortune 100 financial services organization and leading provider of retirement benefits nationwide, has joined GISR as a founding partner.   “TIAA-CREF has a long-standing commitment to socially responsible investing that is consistent with our nonprofit heritage and critical to retaining the trust of our participants,” said Amy Muska O’Brien, Director of Global Social & Community Investing, TIAA-CREF. “We welcome the opportunity to be a part of the GISR coalition to help bring coherence, transparency and coordination to sustainability ratings.”   Currently proposed SEC rules to revamp financial ratings agencies – through stronger internal controls, elimination of conflicts between raters and rated entities and periodic tests of rater professional competencies – attest to the shortcomings in the current business model for financial raters.  GISR aims to create a benchmark standard rooted in technical excellence, impeccable integrity, and continuous improvement, via a process involving multiple stakeholders..   “The GISR initiative is about creating a world-class, transparent ratings system,” said Tellus Institute Senior Fellow Allen White. “GISR will help drive capital, procurement and consumer markets toward companies committed to continuously higher standards of sustainability excellence.   “Getting this right matters,” said White. “If we aren’t infusing sustainability into all ratings frameworks, both financial and non-financial, we are losing precious time in the race toward shifting markets to sustainable outcomes That’s why GISR is an idea whose time has come, ”   White and Lubber see a future where the GISR system is embedded in the listing requirements of stock markets, in disclosure requirements of securities regulation, in the contractual relationships between asset owners and managers, and in government procurement programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars.   “The simply-stated goal of this system is to avoid the next BP disaster,” Lubber said, That company is a case in point concerning the current system’s failings. Prior to last year’s Gulf oil spill – and well after BP’s fatal Texas oil refinery disaster and a slew of other major violations – there were no credible ratings that flagged BP as a material risk to investors. Even investor screens like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index held BP’s stock for a long time before divesting at a significant loss to shareholders.   GISR will achieve its mission over the coming year in two phases, each convening a broad group of stakeholders. The first will systematically evaluate the quality of existing ratings programs from both a process and content standpoint. Then the group will design a best-practice ratings framework as a benchmark for use by raters and ratings users. The two activities will be conducted through an independent and non-commercial process.   As the newly-developed ratings framework enters the market, a GISR Board of Directors will evolve with the expectation that GISR will gradually morph into a stand-alone, non-profit, global organization.   This framework is modeled on the highly successful Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) pioneered by Ceres and Tellus. Now a stand-alone organization based in Amsterdam, the GRI has become an internationally recognized and widely-adopted standard for corporations wishing to disclose their sustainability risks and practices as part of their normal public disclosures.   Ceres and Tellus have long maintained that sustainability risks are normal material risks in the business sense, and as such are a necessary part of disclosure if investors are to accurately assess a company’s long-term prospects and global impacts.                                                                                       About Ceres Ceres leads a national coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change and water scarcity.   About Tellus Institute The Tellus Institute is among the world’s leading sustainability research and policy organizations. Its work focuses on the creation of scenarios, frameworks, tools and networks designed to drive transformational change in business, civil society, global governance and, more broadly, public discourse surrounding global futures.