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Forward: Angelique Laskewitz, Executive Director, VBDO:

Engagement is one of the strongest tools for investors to impact their investees. It provides a momentum that allows one to express and discuss its concerns and priorities, and in which trends and best practices can be shared, making it a key form of active ownership. Such constructive partnerships are valued highly by the corporations since they challenge their actions, behaviour and accountability. They stimulate them to act responsibly and with integrity. Yet it is important to initiate a dialogue that is relevant, context specific, fact-based and focused on long-term value creation. The VBDO strives to operate within these requirements. We have engaged for over 20 years and feedback shows our engagement is appreciated, because it brings long-term value and commitment.

This report contains the results of our engagement with 37 Dutch stock listed companies around their Annual General Meeting. Our focused approach enabled us to deepen our research and use even more in-depth criteria for the three priority themes we examine: natural capital,social themes including inclusion, paying a living wage and social value chain management, and – prolonged for the fourth year – responsible tax. The incredible progress on responsible tax shows the impact our engagement has had addressing this topic year after year, starting as one of the first organizations actively questioning responsible tax four years ago. This is a promising outlook for the results companies can achieve on the environmental and social themes.

This report shows the impact investors can have on listed companies. I therefore call upon all institutional investors to step up their engagement efforts, thus encouraging and rewarding those companies that combine working towards a better world with increased returns.

Conclusions:

An increasing number of companies envision and grasp sustainable business opportunities. The average score on natural capital of all analysed companies is 57%; most of the companies have some environmental policy in place that addresses one or more natural capital topics (e.g. policies on water use) and have taken some action on these policies (e.g. by reducing their dependency on fresh water resources or by improving water treatment before releasing it back into the environment). However, an integral and focused approach towards natural capital is missing. An assessment of key risks and impacts both for the own operations and in the supply chain should be the starting point for this.

With regard to the assessed social criteria, there is significant room for improvement. Less than half of the companies have a policy on hiring people with a distance to the labour market and just four out of 37 companies have set targets on this topic. Only two out of 29 companies have made a commitment to paying a living wage. This is a concept with which companies need to become more familiar. Many companies conduct human rights due diligence and are aware of the social risks in their supply chain. Yet few companies have created a buyer code of conduct and no company has mapped their second tier suppliers.

We applaud the increase in companies with a responsible tax strategy which we address for the fourth year this year. The score has increased from 13% in 2013 to 90% in 2016. We do however encourage firms to start reporting their taxes on a country-by-country basis (showing which tax payments are made in which countries, related to the income generated in each specific country). The significant progress regarding responsible tax is encouraging for the further integration of the addressed environmental and social sustainability themes into the Dutch corporate sector.

Recommendations:

Natural capital: Conduct a risk and impact assessment to investigate natural capital related risks for your own operations and the supply chain; Set measurable KPIs and targets to improve the performance on natural capital conservation; Start to assess the externalities of your operations by creating a environmental profit and loss account (product or project related).

Key findings on natural capital:

The industry sector increasingly reports on concepts of natural capital and how these are applied in running studies or projects. Identifying key risks and impacts on natural capital requires further attention, since six out of 11 analysed companies have done this for their own operations and seven out of 11 for their supply chain. Only four out of 11 studied companies have set KPIs and targets regarding natural capital.

This sector includes companies which are just starting to initiate KPIs, as well as companies which actively monitor energy efficiency across the entire supply chain e.g. AkzoNobel. Some progress can be seen in the (ambitions on) use of non-financial key performance indicators (KPIs) to support performance monitoring, remuneration and reporting. The comparability of reported data remains an issue also brought up by the industries, where agreed units of measurement and definitions for sustainability context could provide valuable solutions to promote moving forward (e.g. using the Natural Capital Protocol Project).

Topics often addressed related to natural capital are greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change. The 2015 Paris agreement to limit the average global temperature rise is widely applauded as a major breakthrough. One of the key issues mentioned with regard to climate change and CO2 emission is the absence of a workable system on carbon pricing.

Coming up with integral Social and Environmental Profit and Loss statements is still far away, but some companies assert to be willing to experiment and to demonstrate to be at the forefront of developments. 10 Therefore, six out of 11 analysed companies scores on these efforts. Notably we see interesting developments in this regard at chemical companies AkzoNobel and DSM, and in building and construction BAM and Heijmans.

Download the report here