The “Positive Impact” thinking has been making the buzz for a while now, but the approach is often mixed up with the more restrictive notion of “Positive Social Impact”, or limited to the direct impact linked to a company “Business Model”, and, by doing so, it misses 90% of a company impact—and, incidentally, of a Positive Impact portfolio composed of “Positive Impact” companies.
The UNEP-FI Principles for Positive Impact Finance indeed define “Positive Impact Business & Finance as that which serves to deliver a positive contribution to one or more of the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, environmental and social), once any potential negative impacts to any of the pillars have been duly identified and mitigated.”
An Iceberg Model of Positive ESG Impact
The iceberg metaphor is well known, and self-explicit: 90% of the iceberg is not visible, being immersed below the waterline.
The same applies to the concept of Positive Impact. Most of the Positive Impact portfolios approaches or Positive Impact startups focus on the identification and quantification of the direct outcome of their business model impact: e.g. improving the health of the customer, reducing social inequalities, improving social inclusion or diversity, etc.
This kind outcome is of course very desirable and positive, and its more directly visible. But it’s the top of the iceberg, visible above the waterline.
Impact, below the waterline
By focusing on the direct business model outcome, the risk is to overlook the overall ESG impact (Environment, Social, Governance), linked to any company’s operations—let’s call it the Corporate Impact—, and particularly to the specific Key ESG Impact topics related to the sector of activity: the Sectoral Impact.
For instance, the Retail and Apparel industry is well known to have strong issues related to water pollution or child labor.
You might say that this is covered by the traditional CSR processes and reporting, by CSR certifications, or by the traditional SRI analysis. The problem with the SRI analysis approach is that it is well known by professional to be poorly relevant, subjective—an “aggregate confusion”, according to the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.
Regarding common (and sometimes trendy) CSR certifications (e.g. EcoVadis, B-Corp, etc.), they are usually based on self-assessment with a strong bias toward the checking of intentions, policies, and signature of initiatives (PRI, PSI, etc.) more than the real outcomes. Recently, a paper indeed questioned the link between a supposed intention, and the concrete ESG performance delivered. Focused on the PRI commitment of Asset Managers, the study concluded that “overall, only a small number of funds improve ESG while many others use the PRI status to attract capital without making notable changes to ESG”.
A good and transparent CSR disclosure process and reporting will provide us with the ESG data required, which is indeed available through different Data Brokers (with, unfortunately, heterogeneous coverages and qualities), after data entry. But to be able to leverage these ESG data, they need, according to us, to be handled appropriately:
- Quantitative ESG indicator selection: The relevant quantitative ESG indicators to assess need to be carefully selected, among the thousands ESG indicators more or less relevant available on the market. The objective is to be able to evaluate the quantitative outcome—i.e. impact—on the ESG topics. Among others, the coverage of each indicator needs to be taken into account as selection criteria, in order to allow ranking and comparison between peers.
- ESG Impact scoring: The ESG indicators need to be scored to evaluate the positiveness of the impact, based on quantitative metrics, and specific impact thresholds. As exemplified here above, we must now move beyond intention-checking (such as ESG initiative commitment, or existing corporate policies) to measure the sustainable and positive impact of a company, or investment portfolio, and “do not harm” is one of the guiding principles for the implementation of Impact Scoring.
Conclusion: don’t overlook impact below the waterline!
Positive impact is not restricted to the sole outcome of a company’s business model, and thus needs to be assessed at the global level of a company’s operations, i.e. on the three, and still relevant, dimensions of Environment, Social, and Governance—and, in case you didn’t notice, that’s precisely why we launched IMPACTIN: Sustainable impact, measured. That’s our motto.
- Berg, Florian and Kölbel, Julian and Rigobon, Roberto, Aggregate Confusion: The Divergence of ESG Ratings (May 17, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3438533 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3438533
- Kim, Soohun and Yoon, Aaron, Analyzing Active Managers’ Commitment to ESG: Evidence from United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (March 17, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3555984 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3555984