A Tale Of Two Stories: Sustainability And The Quarterly Earnings Call

One of the challenges companies claim to face in making sustainability a core part of their strategy and operations is that the market does not care about sustainability, either in general or because the time frames in which it matters are too long.

The response of investors who say they care about sustainability—and their numbers are large and growing—is that companies do a poor job in providing them with the information they need to take sustainability into account in their investment decisions. Whatever the merits of each view, the fact remains that an effective conversation about sustainability requires the participation of both sides of the market.

There are two main mechanisms for companies to communicate to the market as a way of starting this conversation: mandated reporting and quarterly conference calls. In this paper, the authors argue that neither companies nor investors can be seen as taking sustainability seriously unless it is integrated into the quarterly earnings call. Until that happens, the core business and sustainability are two separate worlds, each of which has its own narrator telling a different story to a different audience.

The authors illustrate their argument using the case of SAP, the German software company. SAP was the first company to host an “ESG Investor Briefing,” a conference call for analysts and investors held on July 30, 2013 in which the company discussed both its sustainability performance and its contribution to the firm’s financial performance. The narrative of this call was very similar to the narrative of the company’s first “integrated report,” which was issued in 2012 and presented the company’s sustainability initiatives in the context of its operating and financial performance. Nevertheless, the content and main focus of the “ESG Briefing” were very different from that of most quarterly earnings conferences, and so were the audiences. Whereas the quarterly call was attended mainly by sell side analysts—and the words “sustainability” or “sustainable” failed to receive a single mention—the ESG briefing was delivered to an investor audience made up almost entirely of the “buy side.”

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