There have historically been questions around whether or not treasuries can actively contribute towards their companies' sustainability objectives. However, in an age where sustainable financing has become more readily available, treasuries now have a seat at the table and are more engaged in helping to drive the sustainability agenda for their firms. As Lance Kawaguchi, Managing Director, Global Head – Corporates, Global Liquidity and Cash Management at HSBC explains, there are several other areas that corporate treasurers can focus on in today's environment to influence their sustainability goals positively.
In less than twenty years corporate ethics have risen dramatically from something that a handful of large corporates did under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) mantra in a relatively low key manner, to a more comprehensive sustainability approach that is a frequent discussion topic in numerous boardrooms globally. KPMG's most recent Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting1 underlines this point by revealing that formal reporting of CR performance among the G2502 has risen from 37 per cent of companies in 1999 to 93 per cent in 2017. In a survey commissioned by HSBC, East and Partners found that three quarters of European investors judge companies on their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials. This increased investor focus has led board members to identify the different types of sustainability measures the various parts of the business can take, and treasury is no exception.
So what can treasury do?
These and numerous other examples of the rise of an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) approach to capital management suggest that this is a trend that will persist and extend into smaller corporates as well (the KPMG report revealed a similar CR reporting growth trajectory among N100 companies to that of G250 corporates3.) In this sustainability-positive environment, every part of a corporation – including treasury – is expected to help advance the corporation's strategic sustainability aims. But what practical CSR steps can treasury actually take?
Aligned with the investor approach, the opportunities open to treasuries today can be divided into three broad categories:
The reasons why treasury can now play a more active role are varied, but include dynamics such as technological innovation, the rising importance of workplace wellbeing and an increasingly fluid regulatory environment.
Recent advances in technology mean that treasuries now have numerous opportunities for making a positive environmental contribution to their corporations' sustainability strategy. Digitisation is no longer blue-sky thinking, but a practical reality. By adopting electronic transaction processing, treasuries can drastically reduce the amount of paper used by both their own corporation, as well as their corporation's counterparties. In addition to a potential reduction in water pollution, this also has an environmental benefit in terms of emissions, both during paper production and in the greenhouse gases no longer emitted during paper document delivery. Treasury can also reduce greenhouse gases caused by armoured vehicle collections by reducing their corporation's usage of physical cash.
The international trade cycle is something that for many companies today is unnecessarily extended by a combination of the use of paper and the large number of parties involved. Adopting digital processes instead of paper (and in due course also distributed ledger technology) could appreciably shorten this cycle. Some or all of the time saved could then be used by shipping companies to reduce the speed of their cargo vessels, as these vessels will have less wasted 'dead' time due to physical paperwork delays in the departure and arrival ports. Speed reductions already made by some shippers highlight the possible benefits. For example, Maersk managed to cut its fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions 30 per cent by reducing the cruising speed of its cargo vessels4.
Elsewhere, treasury's adoption of cloud computing can also have a major impact on the environment. A recent report from WSP and Microsoft5 concluded that Microsoft Cloud was 79-93 per cent more efficient than a traditional in-house data centre and that Microsoft's Azure Compute had 92-98 per cent lower annual carbon emissions.
Treasuries have a responsibility to support the overall corporate sustainability strategy, but many may not realise that the organisations they deal with on a daily basis – their banks – can be a valuable source of information and assistance with this task
All these innovations can be facilitated with the assistance of a banking partner that has not only made its own sustainability commitment to digitisation and the environment6, but that also has extensive global in-house expertise in these various areas. An additional incentive is that other parties, such as tech vendors and clearing system providers, are also aligned and ready to facilitate this digital transition.
Treasury's influence on the corporate ecosystem can also be used to support the social element of sustainability goals. An important concept here is the social performance of members of the corporate supply chain. This has become increasingly relevant for business reasons too, as large corporations are now keenly aware of the potential knock-on reputational and commercial damage to themselves of a supplier or customer that has poor ecological or working practices. One approach adopted by some leading treasuries is to apply a minimum ESG requirement for customers/suppliers before onboarding a new relationship. While Know Your Customer (KYC) has traditionally been seen by many treasuries as an issue for banks, a growing number are beginning to see the value of using a KYC approach when applying ESG requirements to their own counterparties.
New tools to facilitate this due diligence process are already becoming available. The US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and China's Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) have launched an IPE Green Supply Chain Map, which links leading multinational corporations to their suppliers' environmental performance. Using publicly available data from the Chinese government, the database and map offer real-time data and historical trends in air pollution emissions and wastewater discharge for almost 15,000 major industrial facilities in China, as well as access to environmental supervision records for over half a million more.7
Another way in which treasury can send the right social message is in deploying funding initiatives for smaller suppliers. These could range from providing supply chain finance, to offering early settlement terms to suppliers below a certain size and even perhaps to prepayments for raw materials. While DSO/DPO remain core treasury targets, settlement initiatives for this supplier demographic can deliver an appreciable CSR benefit for a modest working capital cost.
Digitisation and automation in treasury can also provide a social gain for treasury employees. Manual cash management and investment processes result in a heavy workload and unsocial working hours, which ultimately degrade employee well being and performance. However, if improvements such as automated cash reconciliation and investment have been implemented, treasury employees will be more productive and under less stress.
Treasury obviously plays a key corporate role in risk management – one element of this lies in ensuring compliance with regulation and corporate policies. Apart from safeguarding the company's financial assets, this also helps to fulfil the governance part of ESG.
This risk management can take many forms, from complying with anti-money laundering legislation, to following country-specific rules, such as only invoicing in local currency. Banks continue to be an important channel through which treasury can gather information on changing regulations.
Corruption is another major governance issue that treasury needs to be involved in preventing. In certain countries, corruption is still prevalent, so treasuries need to be especially sensitive to any new countries into which their corporation may be expanding. Treasury's core control and governance role means that it has a major responsibility to block any dubious activities or transactions.
Historically this has sometimes been extremely difficult for treasury to accomplish, but fortunately the new boardroom emphasis on all elements of ESG makes it far more likely that treasurers will have high-level support when they try to stamp out illicit payments, such as kickbacks disguised as commission payments.
Additionally, cybersecurity is now increasingly being regarded as a part of ESG governance. This is because it is seen as part of the need for corporate decisions to reflect obligations to society at large, as well as to shareholders, suppliers, customers and employees. Corporations and treasuries that implement robust cybersecurity measures are implicitly impeding the propagation of cyberthreats such as malware. Some academics see the concept of corporations implementing stronger cybersecurity as part of their CSR as being akin to vaccinating against disease. If sufficient numbers are protected, others also benefit through 'herd immunity'8.
While treasury's responsibilities in relation to sustainability may feel like a further burden on what is usually one of the most lightly-resourced corporate functions, there are various factors and entities that will help to facilitate their implementation. An important point is that several of the actions that support sustainability goals are also those that treasury is likely to be undertaking anyway for other reasons, such as introducing automation to improve efficiency and reduce costs. In many cases these are also actions that certain banks are well-positioned and willing to assist with as part of their existing relationship commitments.
Board-level support has already been mentioned as a facilitating factor that is also likely to persist or increase as more senior managers appreciate the importance of ESG to the corporation. In addition, a comprehensive sustainability approach is also likely to be supported more generally by newcomers to the workforce, both in treasury and the corporate. Millennials continue to increase as a proportion of the total workforce and are expected to represent 35 per cent of the total globally by 20209. As a group, they place a strong emphasis on the importance and value of sustainability, with one survey stating that 92.1 per cent of millennials believe that working for an environmentally and socially responsible company is important10. They are therefore likely to be as supportive of any ESG activities as the boardroom.
Treasuries have a responsibility to support the overall corporate sustainability strategy, but many may not realise that the organisations they deal with on a daily basis – their banks – can be a valuable source of information and assistance with this task. Digitisation, automation, accelerating the trade cycle and cloud treasury systems are just some of the areas that banks can help with.
Elsewhere, treasuries may find they are pushing a sustainability door that is more open than they realised, with other groups such as technology providers, senior management and employees also being supportive. All of this leads to the conclusion that treasury can make a real difference to sustainability goals and can start working on implementing changes.
2 The G250 are the world's 250 largest companies by revenue based on the Fortune 500 ranking of 2016.
3 The N100 is defined in the KPMG Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting as: "...a worldwide sample of 4,900 companies comprising the top 100 companies by revenue in each of the 49 countries researched in the study."
5 "The Carbon Benefits of Cloud Computing: A Study on the Microsoft Cloud"
6 In addition to major investments in digital technology and automation, HSBC has also recently launched a new energy policy that aims to reduce environmental damage by no longer providing financial services to five categories of potentially damaging energy related activity.
7 https://www.nrdc.org/media/2018/180103 and http://wwwen.ipe.org.cn/MapBrand/Brand.aspx?q=6
Published: July 2018
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