I always find it rewarding when a study comes out that underscores the business value of sustainability, especially when backed up with statistics and hard dollars. Such is the case with a 2008 study by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT). The research study, entitled An Empirical Investigation of Environmental Performance and the Market Value of the Firm, was authored by Brian W. Jacobs, Vinod R. Singhal, and Ravi Subramanian. The study analyzed the shareholder value effects of environmental performance by measuring the stock market reaction associated with announcements of environmental performance.
The study focused on how markets react to Corporate Environmental Initiatives (CEI) and Environmental Awards and Certifications (EAC). The results of the study provided compelling data that suggested that “announcements of philanthropic gifts to environmental causes are associated with significant positive market reaction, voluntary emission reductions are associated with significant negative market reaction, and ISO 14001 certifications are associated with significant positive market reaction”. For me this report validates my devotion over the past 15 years working with small to large manufacturers and public agencies in designing, implementing and maintaining ISO 14001 certifications and in making the argument that “proactive environmental management makes business sense”. I’m not some crazed environmentalist after all (although my passion occasionally borders on the “evangelical” side)!
The research study focused on reviewing the “market value impacts of specific events (such as use environmental announcements) as a “proxy for the difficult-to-measure construct of environmental performance”. The study found a statistically significant market reaction to the hundreds of environmental performance announcements evaluated, suggesting a causal link between environmental performance and financial performance. Specific to ISO 14001 announcements, the market was seen as reacting positively (on a statistical basis) to announcements of ISO 14001 certifications. Years of literature and case studies have offered volumes of data that support the positive impact of EMSs in general as well as direct evidence that ISO 14001 certification improves company performance over long periods of time. The authors of the GIT believe that they are the “first to provide empirical evidence of the impact of ISO 14001 certification on market value.
Body of Evidence
Forays into proactive environmental management and attainment of internationally recognized certifications like ISO 14001, RC 14001 or LEED are not always “window dressing’ to demonstrate commitment to sustainability, as some may believe. These efforts are more often than not the real deal when it comes to demonstrating value-added savings and long term return on investment and access to new market. While the skeptics continue to throw cold water on CEI’s and EAC’s the evidence continues to stack up in favor of long term benefits.
The results were based on analysis of 811 announcements (430 CEI announcements and 381 EAC announcements) that appeared in the daily business press during the period 2004-2006. Now, you may pause and say “well that was a long time ago…what about post recession?” A recent article by Phil Covington in Triple Pundit asked that same question. Covington cites a recent Fast Company’s recent article concerning Bloomberg’s business of measuring companies “Environmental, Social and Governance” (ESG) performance, which found that “the number of investors accessing ESG data is up by 29% comparing the first half of 2010 with the second. Investors use it to identify smart practices – for example, companies who operate in a socially responsible manner may be viewed as forward thinking and well managed.” While this report suggests that there is increased attention being paid to companies that “do good” or that implement proactive ESG practices, the results are still not statistically treated like the GIT study. But either way, as Covington concludes “This surely portends that markets will inevitably respond favorably to sustainability efforts, especially when the data shows improved governance and profits result directly, and in the long run, from sustainability”.
Since the 2006 study period cited in the GIT study, there have been more studies that provide compelling proof of the market value of environmental initiatives or certification. Here are a couple of stand-out examples. First, a study entitled Which Competitive Advantages can Firms Really Obtain from ISO14001 Certification? demonstrate statistically that there is a significant difference between firms with ISO14001 certification and firms without ISO14001 certification. Internal efficiency benefits are considered significantly higher for firms with ISO14001 certification. Therefore managers’ expectations of improving internal efficiency might be the real reason that encourages firms to make the voluntary decision of investing in ISO14001 certification.
Another study, by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies entitled Comparative Advantage: The Impact of ISO 14001 Environmental Certification on Exports, suggested that EMS certification appears to imply a supplier who is managing its business well and is showing ethical responsibility. The fact that a supplier was awarded the ISO 14001 or EMAS certification by an independent entity enhances perceived reliability. Importers evaluated felt more confident engaging a new supplier, saving time and effort associated with clarification and research prior to placing a purchase order. The survey results, as well as other available literature, corroborate the view that ISO 14001 accreditation confers economic benefits and greater “market value". These include a standard of worldwide recognition, organizational efficiency, better waste management resulting in costs reduction, marketing advantages, and competitiveness by reducing risk and exposure to costly litigation.
What Are You Waiting For?
As of 2008, when the GIT study was published, more than 188,000 organizations worldwide had become ISO 14001 certified in 155 countries and economies. Worldwide, ISO 14001 certifications grew by more than 77,000 from 2004 to 2008 - a 70% increase. These companies must be onto something. As I had written about previously, throughout a variety of industries, there are leaders and there are laggards. Innovators who lead and can establish “first mover” status have the most market share to gain from proactive environmental management and attaining certifications like ISO 14001.
The GIT studies and the many others that have been produced over the past five years or so are healthy indicators of how proactive approaches to sustainability can positively influence behavior up and down the supply chain, and can add total market value in a recovering economy.