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UN Sustainable Development Goals: How Companies Stack Up

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Sustainable Development Goals

The UN SDGs: How Companies Stack Up

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing witnessed a breakthrough year in 2020 with the most fund inflows on record.

Importantly, for companies that are judged according to ESG metrics, one way to track their progress is through their alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Established in 2012, the UN SDGs are a blueprint for creating a more sustainable future by 2030 that have been adopted by 193 countries worldwide.

As investors and stakeholders pay closer attention to sustainability concerns, this graphic from MSCI breaks down how companies stack up according to their alignment to the UN SDGs.

How Were Companies Measured?

To track companies net contribution to the UN SDGs, companies were scored by their positive or negative contribution to each of the 17 goals.

The 17 UN SDGs are designed to achieve three primary objectives by 2030:

  • Protect the planet
  • End poverty
  • Create prosperity and peace for all

Specifically, the framework centers on a discussion paper that was developed in partnership with the OECD in 2018. Company policies, operations, products and services, and practices are analyzed according to reported and publicly available information.

Tracking the Alignment of Companies

Across a universe of 8,550 companies in the MSCI All Country World Index, constituents were measured from strongly aligned to strongly misaligned to the UN SDGs.

Sustainable
Development Goal
Strongly
Aligned
AlignedMisalignedStrongly
Misaligned
1No Poverty089215532
2Zero Hunger24234300
3Good Health and Well-being031514129
4Quality Education831520
5Gender Equality0109290
6Clean Water and Sanitation173253610
7Affordable and Clean Energy43639109587
8Decent Work and Economic Growth2512695217
9Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure688441379
10Reduced Inequality082812731
11Sustainable Cities and Communities0016719
12Responsible Consumption and Production115855150598
13Climate Action2759495587
14Life Below Water03615192
15Life on Land0012817
16Peace and Justice Strong Institutions013524127
17Partnerships to Achieve the Goal040115222

Source: MSCI ESG Research LLC as of August 11, 2020

Broadly speaking, companies fell mostly in the middle—roughly 38% were aligned while almost 55% were misaligned or neutral. Meanwhile, just 0.2% of companies were strongly aligned to the UN SDGs.

Overall, one of the most strongly aligned goals was Responsible Production and Consumption, with 115 companies meeting this criteria. Specifically, these include companies that are building sustainable infrastructure, energy efficiency, or creating green jobs.

Interestingly, the worst performing goal was also Responsible Production and Consumption, with over five times as many companies (598) strongly misaligned. Along with this goal, both Climate Action and Affordable and Clean Energy each had over 500 companies strongly misaligned.

UN SDGs: A Sector Focus

Unsurprisingly, SDG-alignment varied widely according to company sectors.

Educational companies, for instance, represented the highest level of alignment to Gender Equality. Meanwhile, 18% of 425 utilities companies assessed ended up aligning with Clean and Affordable Energy goals.

As one would expect, the energy sector lagged behind. In 2020, fossil fuels were a key source of revenue for 91% of the companies in the energy business. In fact, just three companies derived over 50% of their revenues from green alternatives: REX American Resources, Renewable Energy Group, and Verbio.

A Call to Action?

Despite the growing wave of interest in ESG investing, the reality is that progress to meet the UN SDGs has been slower going than expected.

However, a greater number of individuals, stakeholders, and activists are sounding the alarm. Today, over 3,000 signatories representing trillions in assets under management have committed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, which has established six key actions for ESG investing. Now, many companies are required to report their ESG disclosures in Europe.

Along with these key markers of progress, investors can move the dial by tracking a company’s alignment to sustainable development goals.

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Agriculture

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.

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us drought 2021

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.

Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?

This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).

What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?

Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.

While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.

To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.

From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.

Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?

According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.

Most Drought-Prone States

California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.

As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.

Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:

West Percent Area in U.S. Drought

When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:

  • Water Scarcity
    Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
  • Crop losses
    Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
  • Wildfires
    Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.

Is This the New Norm?

This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.

The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.

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Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.

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Sustainable Investment

Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Sustainable investments are booming.

Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.

But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?

To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.

A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar

To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.

In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.

Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.

1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel

Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?

First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:

  • ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
  • ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas companyIndustry leader: U.S. utilities company
Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average
This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annuallyThis is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually
1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average
3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivityThis is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: AAA

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.

2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions

Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:

Industry laggard: South African mining companyIndustry leader: U.S. mining company
11 fatalities in 2019Zero fatalities in 2019
Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines
Settlement cost: $350 million
Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance
Lags behind peers in high incident ratesLeads peers in low incident rates
Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targetsLeads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.

3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust

Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:

Industry laggard: U.S. bankIndustry leader: Dutch bank
$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targetsSustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion
Drop in top-tier bank ratings13% annual increase in climate finance
Board effectiveness questionedIncludes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects
Resignation of board membersOver 55% of board is female
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.

Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act

Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.

Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.

Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.

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