The Financial Case for Nations and Corporations to Put People and the Planet First
We are in a period of increasing societal disruption. Pressure is mounting to ad- dress the climate crisis. Racial equity issues have moved to the forefront. And the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold suffering and death and upended economies around the globe. In the past, addressing such issues has been seen primarily as the responsibility of government. But increasingly, there are expectations that the private sector must play a leading role in driving progress on major societal challenges. I, along with my colleagues at Boston Consulting Group, have spent the last decade supporting nations and corporations in addressing social and environmental issues—and measuring how their efforts impact country GDP and company financial performance. My work in this area began with economic development, helping nations to advance in a way that improved the living standards of citizens. More recently I refocused on private sector work, helping companies and investors create strategies to deliver both business and societal value. The research and client work I’ve done in both areas reveal a powerful insight: whether one is talking about a country’s economic growth or a company’s prof- its or returns for shareholders, performance is not degraded by focusing on how decisions impact people and the planet. Rather, the evidence is mounting that integrating such factors into strategy enhances financial performance.
Putting Well-Being at the Heart of a Nation’s Strategy BCG’s insight on these dynamics started with our work in the area of economic development. As we supported presidents and prime ministers around the world in honing their development strategies, it became clear they were looking for a way to measure their progress beyond the purely financial benchmark of GDP. This reflected their acknowledgement that robust GDP per capita growth in the short term means little if living standards are undermined in the long term (by poor health, underinvestment in education, a degraded environment, and a widening gap between rich and poor). The Sustainable Development Goals had not yet been put in place at this time, meaning a globally-recognized holistic framework for measuring country progress did not exist. We set out to create one. This led to some deep conversations about what really matters for a society. As Robert F. Kennedy said, GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” We had to ask our- selves: What actually makes life worthwhile? We thought about general measures of happiness, for example, and whether levels of citizen happiness would be a good barometer for a nation’s performance. Ultimately, we decided that happiness would be too subjective for what we wanted to achieve. Instead we decided to focus on well-being, the conditions and quality of life people experience. We then asked ourselves: how do you measure well-being—and how can a government contribute to it? We spoke with numerous experts and dug into the re- search on well-being to determine what factors should comprise our measure. We eventually zeroed in on 10 dimensions: income, economic stability, employment, health, education, infrastructure, equality, civil society, governance, and environment. We identified a series of indicators for each—a total of 40 in all. The result was the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment, a diagnostic tool and measurement framework launched in 2012. SEDA allows us to track how a country’s well-being compares to that of other nations, determine the pace of progress over time, and identify areas in which countries are performing well or need to improve. SEDA revealed valuable insights. First, not surprisingly, countries with higher levels of wealth tended to have higher well-being. Norway, for example, has had the highest level of well-being relative to the rest of the world every year since we launched SEDA. Second, not all countries convert their wealth (GDP per capita) into well-being at equal rates. Some deliver well-being levels that are beyond what one would expect given the country’s wealth—and others deliver well-being far be- low what would be expected. In recent years Vietnam has been among the leading countries in terms of converting wealth into well-being—outpacing countries such as Germany, France, and the US on this metric. Third, inequality—and not just income inequality—has a major impact on well-being. Certainly, income inequality gets significant attention in political and media circles. But SEDA captures a broader view, assessing not only income inequality but also the lack of equity in access to health care and education as well. And our analysis last year found, somewhat surprisingly, that high levels of social inequality are a greater drag on well-being than high levels of income equality.
Over the years, as we continued to assess country levels of well-being, public sector clients, journalists, and others often raised a similar question. While it was clear that countries with higher levels of wealth or growth had more resources to advance well-being, we were frequently asked if the reverse was true. So, was there evidence that countries with a better record on well-being ultimately posted more robust GDP growth? In 2018 we decided to take a stab at answering that question. By then we could access ten years’ worth of SEDA data—enough time to give us confidence we could identify a long-term trend if it existed. Drawing on data for all 152 countries in our data set, we looked at a country’s initial well-being performance relative to its wealth in the period leading up to and including the financial crisis (from 2007 through 2009)—and its growth rate in the decade that followed. We found that on average, countries that produced better well-being for their population given their level of wealth did in fact have a higher GDP growth rate in the future. Our analysis also found that countries that had a better record at delivering well-being for citizens were more resilient during the financial crisis, taking fewer months to recover to pre-crisis GDP levels than countries with weaker records on well-being. It turns out that taking care of people and the planet is good economics.
Focusing on Total Societal Impact As we worked with nations on development strategies, we urged them to think strategically about integrating the private sector into those efforts. This included understanding where the country’s most pressing needs existed and identifying the industries and companies that could play a role in addressing those needs. Banks, for example, can be key partners in expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs. Food manufacturers that expand their supply chain to include small-holder farmers can help raise incomes for those individuals and reduce poverty rates overall. And biopharmaceutical companies that move to expand access to medicine can play a vital role in improving health outcomes. Time and time again my economic development work in the public sector rein- forced the importance of the private sector in advancing important societal issues. In 2016, I started focusing more on working directly with large multinational corporations to find ways to improve both business returns and their positive impact on society. At that time, academic research had shown that integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance into investment decisions led to better returns from a portfolio perspective. What that meant for individual businesses was not quite as clear. Most of our clients are large corporations—and they had a lot of questions. First, CEOs and CFOs were grappling with whether they should think of good ESG performance as a cost or an opportunity. They also wanted to understand what specific ESG topics were most important for their industry. So, we set out to prove that in fact ESG is an opportunity—not a cost—and to identify those topics that matter for specific industries. In 2017, I joined a group of colleagues in the Social Impact practice to conduct a detailed study of ESG performance in four industries: biopharmaceuticals, oil and gas, consumer packaged goods, and retail and business banking. We assessed company performance in dozens of ESG topics, such as ensuring a responsible environmental footprint or promoting equal opportunity. We looked for any correlation with market valuation multiples and margins. Our goal was to determine whether companies that excelled in those areas, enhancing what we call Total Societal Impact (TSI), saw a difference in financial performance versus companies that lagged in those ESG areas. Now, as members of the Social Impact practice, we were of course hoping we’d find a link. In fact, the results exceeded our expectations. Nonfinancial performance (as captured by the ESG metrics) has a statistically significant positive correlation with the valuation multiples of companies in all the industries we analyzed. In each industry, investors rewarded the top performers in specific ESG topics with valuation multiples 3% to 19% higher, all else being equal, than those of the median performers in those topics. And top performers in certain ESG topics had margins that were up to 12.4 percentage points higher, all else being equal, than those of the median performers in those topics. The bottom line: not only was there no penalty for focusing on ESG, but companies that performed well in critical ESG areas were rewarded in the market.
The Moment of Truth Our work in SEDA and TSI were completely different—looking at different players, using different methodologies, and conducted at different times. Yet the results yielded strikingly parallel insights: putting people and the planet at the center of strategy improves financial performance. Those insights have major implications for nations and companies as they navigate the current period of turbulence and disruption. Certainly, it is too early to know which countries around the world will prove more resilient in the face of the pandemic. However, our research does support the view that those nations that design recovery strategies that support citizen well-being are likely to fare best. In particular, governments should design economic re- vitalization programs that don’t just position their nation for economic success in the future, but also ensure the benefits of any gains are equally shared among citizens. And those that created massive stimulus programs must leverage them as an opportunity to accelerate progress in fighting climate change. For companies, the imperative to transform in ways that create positive societal impact is equally strong. Companies should protect employees by ensuring work- place safety, while also reskilling workers and accelerating hiring where feasible. And as they transform their business in the face of the pandemic, they should integrate a societal impact lens into the effort. They can, for example, improve the resiliency of supply chains while also reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact. They can look for new product opportunities that yield real societal benefits. And they can partner with other companies or organizations to maximize impact. There are early indications that companies with a strong focus on their impact on society are faring better right now. Some key MSCI ESG indices, for example, have outperformed non-ESG benchmarks since the start of COVID-19. The challenges facing society today are grave—and daunting. But nations and corporations have massive leverage to move the needle against climate threat, racial inequity, and the devastating pandemic. Without their leadership, it is hard to see how we can make progress in any of these areas. Lucky for us, the evidence shows it is in their economic interest to do so.