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Putting the "G" in ESG: The importance of governance in your ESG journey


When we talk about ESG, we tend to focus on the "E" (environmental) and "S" (social) aspects, while the "G" (governance) often gets overlooked. But this is a mistake. Governance is a critical aspect of ESG, even if it’s not always discussed. Strong governance and controls can help organizations improve performance, mitigate risk, and meet critical reporting and regulatory requirements.

With emerging ESG reporting standards, government regulations and sustainability commitments, and shifting social attitude towards corporate responsibility—organizations both big and small are recognizing that they need to tell their story more effectively about how they balance their economic performance with other metrics. Read more about why mid-market businesses should care about ESG.

What is governance?

Governance refers to how a company is run—its internal system of practices, controls, and procedures to govern itself and comply with laws and regulations. Good corporate governance will often include policies and procedures around:

  • An independent board of directors
  • Anti-corruption and bribery policies
  • Lobbying rules
  • A whistleblower policy and hotline
  • Financial (and ESG) reporting
  • Independent auditing and audit committees
  • Risk management policies
  • Data protection

"When we talk to organizations about their ESG strategy the first thing we do is look into what they are already doing," says Pierre Taillefer, National Sustainability and ESG Leader at BDO Canada. "The good news is that most, if not all, have already implemented some form of governance policy or program and can start reporting on these immediately," he added.

Why are governance policies important?

Failure of corporate governance can negatively affect an entity’s brand and impact everything from its bottom line to recruitment costs. Furthermore, when an entity’s suppliers face significant governance and ESG-related risks, the entity could be exposed to those consequences as well.

Unfortunately, there are many well-known examples of poor corporate governance. A car manufacturer cheating on emissions tests or bank employees opening fake bank accounts in an attempt to make sales goals are two examples. In such cases, there are often ineffective rules, practices, and processes in place—and a lack of qualifications or independence on the board. Poor corporate governance can lead to a variety of issues including financial penalties, employee layoffs, devaluation, and even bankruptcy.

"It just makes sense to integrate governance and ESG strategies into the management and operations of your business," said Pierre. "The people you want to attract and retain want to work for an ethical, socially responsible organization. And we've seen how proper governance can help a company become more profitable or increase its impact as a not-for-profit."

Important ESG reporting standards to note

Measuring impact and progress is an important aspect of a company's ESG journey. The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) standards took effect Jan. 1, 2024, but no regulatory body in Canada has yet indicated if or when they will be legally required. However, companies can use this as a framework for their own ESG standards. Compliance isn't the main reason businesses should invest in strong governance policies, or ESG in general—it makes business sense and offers many benefits. 

Given its experience creating accounting standards, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation is aiming to bring a much needed, globally comparable standard for reporting on ESG matters to the financial markets. At the very least, the finalization of these standards gives regulators and capital providers a baseline to require companies to make these disclosures.

Why both public and private organizations should report on ESG?

The ISSB standards will likely only apply to publicly traded companies at first. However, as part of Scope 3 disclosures, organizations will need to disclose the impact of their entire value chain. Which means ESG reporting is going to affect all businesses, whether public and private entities, as part of the broader supply chain of publicly traded companies. Not only will public companies require information on greenhouse gas emissions and climate impact, but information and data on governance and equity, inclusion, and diversity are likely to be part of their supplier-auditing processes.

Companies that fail to implement ESG reporting practices may be at a competitive disadvantage compared to companies that have strong ESG performance and reporting practices. This—along with expectations from other stakeholders like investors, employees, and customers—means organizations need to proactively report on governance whether regulatory frameworks apply to them or not. It's not just a matter of compliance but also a strategic business decision that can affect a company's long-term success.

Additionally, the governance and ESG-related decisions a company makes have an impact on financial statements. Companies need to think about financial reporting and ESG reporting as a package. Read more about why CFOs should make sustainability a part of their financial reporting.

What steps can public and private entities take to implement ESG reporting?

  1. Understand where the entity sits in the value chain of publicly traded companies
  2. Talk to their stakeholders and partners to understand what kind of information they want and when
  3. Evaluate what their key competitors are doing in the ESG space
  4. Conduct a proper risk assessment to better understand the impact of ESG reporting standards and build a plan to comply
  5. Put systems in place to track ESG data, report on the data, and implement proper processes and controls around those systems

The key takeaway

The biggest takeaway from this should be the importance of governance in your ESG journey. Corporate governance is about ensuring that an organization behaves responsibly towards all its stakeholders. And it's no longer just a concern for large, publicly held corporations. Governance and other ESG initiatives have become increasingly important to organizations as governments regulate more heavily and stakeholders demand greater transparency.

We have a podcast for you

To learn more on this topic, check out our podcast, “Accounting for the Future”. Our series explores the world of accounting and finance, digging deep into the topics financial leaders may not be thinking about today, but need to consider for the future.

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