Ethical/SRI  

How can investors test firms' CSR policies?

This article is part of
How to benefit from CSR

 How can investors test firms' CSR policies?

Companies are quick to herald their good deeds to the public, whether it is a carefully crafted PR exercise showing support for local schools, ways they have reduced their carbon footprint, or implementing measures to improve diversity at all levels of the organisation.

But there seems to be a mismatch between what a company may say it does in terms of CSR, and what it actually does, meaning investors are right to want to interrogate further.

John Ditchfield, co-owner of Castlefield Advisory Partners, comments: "There is a good amount of cynicism around CSR given many companies with very harmful activities and practices also invest significant sums in social welfare projects.

"This then raises the question of what the 'net' public good or end result of these activities is; some have come to see CSR as little more than part of a company's marketing and public relations spend."

Mr Ditchfield says this is leading to CSR being replaced with an emphasis on ESG analysis, which he describes as "analysing companies to assess their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance".

Building on this, Anna Sofat, founder and managing director of Addidi Wealth, gives examples of how companies might be considered 'bad' by one CSR measure but 'good' by another.

She explains: "For instance, tobacco firms can score very well because of their community and sustainability work, but ethically minded investors would still want to reject them for the negative impact tobacco has on society.

"ESG performance is increasingly being used and this is harder to score well on. For instance, ESG will rate tobacco companies poorly as creating social harm.

"There are efforts to standardise these CSR reporting criteria which would, in turn, help investors make informed decisions."

What to look for

The sort of areas that should be scrutinised, according to Sandra Crowl, member of the investment committee for Carmignac, are corporate management and a company's social activities.

She states: "Corporate management is tested for environmental issues the firm considers, such as treatment of carbon emissions, pollution, waste, and water usage.

"On the social side, all types of employment abuses, staff turnover metrics, diversity, workplace health and safety, income distribution, and product safety are checked."

Jennifer Walmsley, partner for consultancy Arkadiko Partners, says the ways in which investors can find such information is by looking at company reporting to see whether they talk about their management of social and environmental impact in a "meaningful - ie, integrated - way".

She also advises investors and their advisers to: "Ask company management and non-executive board members relevant questions about how they manage these risks."

Key signs the company is on the right track is "evidence of sound risk management structures as well as clear lines of accountability", she adds.