Thursday, December 19, 2013

Changing Corporate Law to Make Companies More Sustainable- Perspectives from governments, academics and practitioners

On December 5th and 6th I attended and presented at the third annual Sustainable Companies Project Conference at the University of Oslo.  The project, led by Beate Sjafjell began in 2010 and attempts to seek concrete solutions to the following problem:

Taking companies’ substantial contributions to climate change as a given fact, companies have to be addressed more effectively when designing strategies to mitigate climate change. A fundamental assumption is that traditional external regulation of companies, e.g. through environmental law, is not sufficient. Our hypothesis is that environmental sustainability in the operation of companies cannot be effectively achieved unless the objective is properly integrated into company law and thereby into the internal workings of the company.  

Members of the Norwegian government, the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (“OECD”), and the United Nations Environmental Programme  (UNEP) Finance Initiative also presented with academics and practitioners from the US, Europe, Asia and Africa.

I did not participate in the first two conferences, but was privileged this year to present my paper entitled “Climate Change and Company Law in the United States: Using Procurement, Pay and Policy Changes to Influence Corporate Behavior.” The program and videos of the entire conference (click on the link of the panel discussions) are here. I presented last and my paper, with the others, will appear in a special edition of the Journal of European Company Law in 2014.

Professors David Millon and Celia Taylor rounded out the US delegation. Millon, who I learned first coined the phrase “shareholder primacy,” proposed a constituency statute for Delaware, but acknowledged that his proposal (even if it were passed) might not have much impact because of the twin influence of inventive-based compensation for executives and the role of institutional investors, who also seek short-term profit maximization. Taylor discussed the SEC Guidance on climate change disclosures recommending that they be made mandatory, but cautioned against disclosure overload and potential greenwashing.

Others provided insight on shareholder primacy and board duties from the UK, Norway, and Indonesia, and Tineke Lambooy presented the results of a meta study regarding boards and sustainability.  Gail Henderson, from Canada, used the concept of "undue hardship" in human rights law to propose a new burden to reduce environmental impacts. Mark Taylor, who was one of the many attendees who like me came straight from the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, explained due diligence provisions in EU member state laws and argued that due diligence is emerging as a standard for compliant businesses.  Carol Liao discussed "catalytic innovation" and hybrid entities. Her blog about the conference is here.

A number of presenters focused on: auditing; integrated reporting; insurance, bankruptcy, contract, and insolvency law; and the role of sustainable investors (there are 50 sustainable stock indices), particularly large sovereign pension funds.  One of the more interesting proposals came from Ivo Mulder of UNEP, who is conducting a study on a sovereign credit risk model.  Sovereign bond markets represent 40% of global bond markets but there is no integration of environmental, social or governance factors even though risk mitigation is a key factor in fixed-income investing. He called for a new way of thinking about how bond securities are valued in primary and secondary markets.

Perhaps one of the most innovative proposals came from Endre Stavang, who suggested an “environmental option.” Specifically he and his co-author recommend enacting legislation that will empower certain green companies to transfer a call option to buy a block of its shares to an established company of their choice. He stressed that the option is free and that the exercise price would be the price of the green company’s share at the time of the transfer. The non-green receiving company would have a period of five years to exercise.

The abstracts from all of the presenters are available here. It was an intense two days of creative presentations, but hopefully these kinds of substantive public policy discussions, which include government, intergovernmental organizations, stakeholders and academics will have an impact. It’s the reason I joined academia.

Happy Holidays to all, and to my new Norweigian colleagues, Gledelig høytid.

 

 

 

 

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