Controlling Your Risks with ESG: How Industrial Stocks Can Build Investor Confidence

Written By Victoria Sivrais, Partner

September 13, 2018

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) communications are no longer about fulfilling the requirements of some fringe, but loud, activist investor group. ESG investing is becoming increasingly mainstream as investors of all types realize that high ESG scores translate into less risk and greater stock return potential. For industrials, where the “controllable risks” particularly related to manufacturing and materials procurement and handling, are perceived to be much higher than in other sectors, this makes a good ESG strategy particularly advantageous.

With industrials, the sheer number of “inputs” —such as wide-ranging workforces, use of commodities and raw materials, and manufacturing facilities, to name a few—means more risk. On the flip side, these inputs also give manufacturers a lot of fodder for crafting a compelling ESG narrative. And that narrative can be used to increase positions from current holders who integrate ESG into their portfolios as well as to attract new ESG investors to the stock.

The question then becomes this: Where do you start? With so many issues at play, how do you focus the conversation to best articulate and capitalize on the full value of your positive environmental, social, and governance practices? This post outlines best practices to help you tell your story for the greatest impact.

Start with the 30,000-foot view.

Focus first on a high-level discussion of strategy around ESG. You’ll need broad, big-picture statements from both the board and the executive and management teams on the importance of ESG to your overall operating model. Sharing your company’s vision around ESG issues shows that you’re in tune with your investors’ concerns. In other words, you’re not living under a rock when it comes to these increasingly important topics.

Make an effort to link your vision statement to the current driving forces in your industry. Issues around raw material procurement and handling and the global trade environment are hot topics with clear ESG implications. It’s important for investors to know that you are considering the environmental, social, and governance aspects related to these industry issues.

Next, if you think your story is too complicated, think again.

Yes, there are clearly a lot of inputs in the industrial segment. But you can’t afford to say nothing simply because there’s so much to discuss. If you fall on the sword of believing there is so much complexity in your business and that you can’t possibly explain all the risks (and how you’re addressing them), then investors may end up perceiving an even higher level of risk than actually exists.

To narrow things down, think in threes: Your three biggest accomplishments within the ESG arena, and your three biggest areas of focus. Show how your specific actions, both current and planned, in each area support your bigger picture vision. Again, it’s a good idea to incorporate driving industry issues, if possible, and to keep in mind what investors most want to hear.

Consider these environmental issues.

On that note, ESG investors clearly know that industrial companies have much greater potential to negatively impact the environment then, say, a financial services business. Beyond the issue of raw materials (how clean or unclean they are); investors are particularly interested in waste, water, and energy management and how corporate practices around these resources contribute to, or hinder, long-term sustainability. Investors want assurance that your business practices are environmentally responsible. What’s more, they want to know that your suppliers are equally environmentally disciplined.

If your big three accomplishments and focus areas hit on these environmental topics, fantastic. If they don’t, your leaders at least need to be able to articulate why they are not top priorities for your business. They must have talking points and be prepared if and when investors ask the question.

Don’t forget social.

It’s not enough for raw materials to be clean. They must also be ethically sourced. In fact, many ESG investors are willing to give a little in terms of margin to ensure ethical business practices all along your supply chain. This is not merely a matter of scruples. Ethical business practices are more sustainable long-term.

Other social topics investors want to hear about include local community engagement, customer safety, employee well-being, and labor relations. Companies with a culture that respects and protects the people they work with and for will reap the rewards of a more productive workforce and a more loyal customer base, both of which go directly to the bottom line.

Investors assume governance is in good shape.

In a global industry, diversity is the number one governance issue. ESG investors have high expectations that your board and executive team reflect the diversity of the people who work for you and the customers you serve. If this is currently not the case in your business, it’s important to talk about any steps you are taking to slowly change the mix.

Finally, don’t be afraid to direct the conversation.

While it’s important to acknowledge major industry issues and ESG investors’ primary concerns, it’s just as (if not more) important to take ownership of the ESG issues you discuss. Remember that you are the expert in your business and you know where the risks really lie. Investors may have questions around specific ESG topics. But if, in fact, the biggest risks are in other areas, the onus is on you to educate the investment community. If you can clearly define the risks, why they matter to your specific business, and your strategy for addressing them, you’ll have investors’ ears.

Of course, the ability to do this well hinges on a solid ESG communications strategy. Even if your business is streets ahead of its peers in environmental, social, and governance practices, you only get credit for your efforts if they are well understood by your current and potential investors as well as the ESG rating agencies. Sharing your story on your website, on quarterly calls, and in your annual report are all critical steps. To learn more about ESG communication strategy best practices, see this post on 5 Ways to Jumpstart your ESG Communications Strategy.

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