Amid the increased prominence of sustainability in policymaking and legislation, there is a huge opportunity for chief finance officers to take the lead in corporate accountability.
The common perspective that the CFO's responsibilities should not extend beyond the traditional parameters of corporate finance and risk management is increasingly being challenged by shifts in the business landscape. As 2021 research by Deloitte concluded, progressive CFOs are starting to realize that "sustainability is now within the finance domain, and that finance teams are in a unique position to not only translate and operationalize sustainability within their organizations — but also communicate outcomes to stakeholders."
Yet how should CFOs react to growing expectations to become more involved in sustainability issues, and in so doing ensure their business is strategically positioned to benefit in the sustainable corporate transformation?
To address crucial questions such as this, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) held an online session in March to make the case on why and how CFOs should take the lead in driving corporate sustainability. Part of the GRI ASEAN Expert Series on Sustainable Business Leadership, the event included contributions from leading CFOs and thought leaders in corporate finance and sustainability.
As Brian Ho, climate and sustainability assurance leader for Deloitte Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia, explained: "Simultaneously as most companies’ operations are negatively affected by climate change, a large number of CFOs have also been adversely impacted by its environmental threats, ranging from extreme heat, worsening storms, to wildfires. We now see CFOs are increasingly demanding and supporting immediate actions to limit the impact of climate change."
This picks up on a key theme in Deloitte’s 2022 CxO Sustainability Report, which surveyed over 2,000 executives across 21 countries.
We now see CFOs are increasingly demanding and supporting immediate actions to limit the impact of climate change.
The findings from the report suggest that despite increased awareness, CFOs continue to struggle in translating their corporate commitment to sustainability into tangible actions. On a positive note, this gap is precisely where the opportunity lies to create long-lasting changes, led by CFOs. With the emergence of sustainable finance, sustainability-related legislation, R&D advances and societal demands to address climate emergency, CFOs have many compelling reasons to "cross the Rubicon" and look beyond revenue generation and cost reduction.
Financial stakeholders are increasingly likely to press for companies to do more to be transparent, demonstrating how they are protecting their business against environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks. Without the ability to track and report sustainability performance and metrics, CFOs will be unable to meet demands from investors, management and other stakeholders, all of which underlines the growing relevance of robust sustainability reporting when setting financial KPIs and strategy.
Rewiring thinking for sustainability
CFOs continue to shatter the presumption that they are the stumbling block for sustainability. Kevin John Monteiro, CFO of the pan-Asian agri-food business Japfa, first became engaged with sustainability in 2017, through disclosure requirements set by the Singapore Stock Exchange. As he reflected: "Regulatory compliance, when executed in line with corporate values, can be the push CFOs need to integrate sustainability in operations. CFOs, with their close proximity to senior management, board members and investors, as well as enterprise-wide corporate knowledge, can take the lead as enablers for sustainability."
In other words, sustainability integration needs buy-in from and partnership with multiple stakeholders.
Yiong Yim Ming, CFO of the real estate multinational City Development Limited (CDL), emphasized that sustainability is a progressive evolution over time, and that a company can gradually expand and escalate the changes, both internally and externally. Looking back on almost two decades of CDL’s sustainability journey, she said: "The transformation of sustainability from ‘just a responsibility’ to being ‘part of the ethos’ take time. For CDL, this was made possible by the 'tone at the top,' with different departments then brought onboard to translate the senior leaders’ commitment into orchestrated actions."
With their enterprise-wide knowledge and information, Jessica Fries, executive chair of Accounting for Sustainability (A4S), believes that CFOs and finance professionals possess both the skill and impetus to advance sustainability from mere compliance to integration. As she put it, "As the financial vanguard of the company, CFOs' access to comprehensive organizational information can drive a timely transition, and more importantly, help to prioritize a specific ESG focus that adds value to the organization."
Sustainability reporting provides the tools for success
A commitment to reporting is crucial to determine how the company has integrated sustainability into various functions, supported by the leadership of the CFO and other C-suite executives. The GRI Standards — the world’s most widely used standards for sustainability reporting — enable this in three ways:
- Leadership commitment: set out the extent to which senior management has aligned corporate sustainability with long-term business strategies and policies
- Sustainability metrics integration: connect measurable ESG metrics with every business function performance
- Performance evaluation: increase the exposure of management to ESG issues and measure their performance in integrating sustainable practices throughout the organization
Now, more than ever, CFOs can dispel the myth that finance departments are a handicap for sustainability.
By setting an example from the top — translating the opportunities and benefits of sustainability into financial terms, and using financial and non-financial data in ESG strategy — CFOs have a leading role to play in unlocking the sustainability potential of the company in a way that is aligned with long-term value creation.