Back in 2019, as chairman of the Business Roundtable, Jamie Dimon mobilized the organization to change its definition of a corporation’s purpose to explicitly embrace ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles. As chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Dimon has steered his own company in a similar direction, most recently with the acquisition of an ESG-focused fintech startup. As a leading voice in global banking, meanwhile, he has consistently urged industry-wide engagement with the principles of ESG as not just a business imperative, but a social responsibility.
“We need good government and we need good business to solve these [ESG] issues,” Dimon said in an address at SIBOS 2020.
If he and other prominent voices in industries from banking to building materials to baby gear are correct, a company’s ESG profile — for banks, that’s expressed in their lending and investment decisions, as well as their actions with respect to climate change, sustainability, DEI and other issues — soon will carry as much weight in the eyes of investors, shareholders, regulators and the general public as the ratings they receive from credit agencies. Which means, to be sustainably profitable, banks have to figure out how to be profitably sustainable. With ESG scores inevitably moving from curiosity to core business concern, now is the time for banks to begin embedding ESG thinking and capabilities into their end-to-end processes.
Banks are in the business of managing risk. ESG confronts them with very real financial and reputational risks to manage. Lending to or investing in companies with a weak ESG profile, for example, increases a bank’s risk exposure on both fronts. What’s more, institutions can leverage a strong ESG performance as a differentiator in the eyes of the consumers, partners, investors, etc., who are inclined to weigh that performance in choosing a bank with which to align.
Already, we see banks putting the digital building blocks in place to fulfill these ESG-related responsibilities, and capitalize on opportunities to distinguish themselves from the competition, with an emphasis on these five areas:
1. Building robust and far-reaching capabilities to capture, process, analyze, and act upon huge amounts of data.
Just like manufacturers will be scored on the environmental impact of the products they make, from sourcing of materials right down to the carbon footprint of the end product when it’s in use, banks will be scored on the carbon footprint associated with the loans they make (and the borrowers they choose), the corporations whose bonds they buy, and, of course, their own corporate operations. All of which will require them to gather (within a single centralized data “warehouse”) and make sense of potentially expansive amounts of ESG data sourced internally as well as externally. Every dollar leaving and entering the company has an ESG impact attached to it, positive or negative. Armed with an enterprise-level digital platform with the power to handle huge volumes of data from disparate sources, plus analytics tools to accurately assess ESG impact based on that data, they can make decisions accordingly. Having seamless digital connectivity with external sources — clients, business partners and other parts of the value chain — will be critical to the process.
2. Establishing new KPIs across the business to reinforce ESG as a core risk-management priority.
As part of the process of integrating ESG at scale across their business and their value chain, banks need to establish KPIs to engage all the various segments and teams within their organization in ESG-related targets and risk thresholds, and to gauge where they stand relative to those targets and threshold. With a connected, network value chain, they also can measure their partners, vendors, etc., against the same standards.
3. Moving more of the business to the cloud.
Maintaining a physical, on-premises IT infrastructure, including data centers, servers, hardware, staffing, etc., consumes energy, which, unless that energy is wholly renewable, increases an organization’s carbon footprint. By moving more business processes to the cloud, banks can leverage the scaling effects of large cloud providers rather than taking on that risk themselves. Such a shift means they will need visibility into their cloud provider’s ESG scores.
4. Using analytic and modeling tools to illuminate the most efficient and impactful ESG pathways forward.
Machine learning- and artificial intelligence-driven simulation/modeling capabilities can help banks uncover the best approaches to strengthen their own ESG scores and reduce ESG-related risk in their investment and lending portfolios.
5. Developing and integrating ESG-specific disclosure and reporting capabilities.
As the regulatory and public scrutiny of banks’ ESG scores and sustainability-related activities grows, institutions must have the ability to standardize and tailor data to meet potentially widely varying disclosure and reporting requirements.
Ultimately, the more succinctly banks can measure and articulate a strong ESG performance using tools like these, the better positioned they will be to turn that performance into a risk-management advantage.