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The intersection of Supply Chain Finance and ESG

Aug 19, 2021 | Blog, Working Capital

Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in corporate, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. A broader cultural shift toward a more socially and environmentally conscious society is motivating shareholders to view the business through an ESG lens and assess the impact of their investments beyond just returns.

For some businesses, ESG is now a matter of compliance. Higher expectations from electorates and international agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord are propelling bold regulation to meet ESG commitments, particularly relating to emissions. The EU has put a spotlight on unfair trading practices, forcing companies to rethink how they pay vendors for goods and services. In other cases, most notably in the U.S., social pressure is driving significant momentum. In 2020, we saw US companies prioritise workplace diversity and inclusion to enact measures for meaningful change, and a recent report by the Governance and Accountability Institute found that 90 per cent of S&P 500 companies publish sustainability reports.

In the wake of the “Green Finance Revolution,” the financial services industry is building a marketplace for investors to put green money to work in a material way. The Green Bond market has gone through USD$1 trillion issuance since its launch in 2007, with USD$305 billion in 2020 alone. As expected, there was a slight slowdown for the first three quarters of 2020 compared to the previous year; however, Bloomberg reported a dramatic surge in green bonds during the month of September that maintained momentum through Q4.

By the year 2030, it’s expected that ESG factors will be incorporated into 95 per cent of all assets. With the world’s biggest asset managers already on board and millions of dollars in green funding ready to be deployed, there’s pressure for businesses to buckle down on ESG in the coming years. It is not far off to imagine a world where businesses will have difficulty raising capital at all without meeting a certain ESG threshold.

Establishing an ESG Framework in the Context of Supply Chain Finance

Currently, there is no industry standard around ESG and supply chain finance, also known as supplier finance or reverse factoring. Different ESG rating agencies and governmental bodies have outlines for the scope of ESG, but the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol) uses an emissions scope framework that can most closely be translated to ESG in the context of supply chain finance. Using this framework, we can segment ESG into three scopes: direct impact, upstream indirect impact, and downstream indirect impact.

  1. Direct impact relates to a company’s own ESG impact. What policies and initiatives are being implemented to drive social and sustainability objectives directly within the business?

  2. Upstream indirect impact focuses on the supply chain and how businesses can influence their suppliers’ behaviour related to ESG. How can they encourage and support suppliers to adopt socially and environmentally friendly business practices? And how can they help suppliers take corrective action when needed? This presents an opportunity for businesses to utilise sustainability-linked funding within their suppliers, which is the relevant investment class for this type of initiative.
  3. Downstream indirect impact explores how a business can encourage and influence customers to improve their ESG impact.

Expanding the scope of supplier finance beyond DPO

As companies think about sustainability and social responsibility more holistically, they are reframing how they think about supply chain finance. Organisations have traditionally viewed supply chain finance primarily as a tool to improve days payable outstanding (DPO) while simultaneously helping suppliers adjust to longer standard payment terms. Other considerations, such as the very real benefits of a more robust supply chain or more liquid suppliers, have traditionally come second. The global pandemic has changed that thinking. There is definitely a desire to bolster supply chain liquidity, and buyers are beginning to understand the opportunities ESG provides to expand the driver of supply chain finance beyond working capital.

The expansion of green financing is raising the bar for companies’ participation in ESG initiatives. Now is a good time to evaluate where your business is on this journey and if your organisation is ready for the expectations that shareholders will have with regard to the ethics of your supply chain operations.

A supply chain finance programme is also a powerful way for businesses to have an upstream influence on suppliers of all sizes. By providing flexibility to get paid early, buyers can encourage their suppliers to adopt better business practices or take corrective action. The most intuitive opportunity is access to early payment, which unlocks cash that can be used to invest in ESG-related activities to improve the supplier’s rating. Alternatively, buyers can offer suppliers perks for meeting ESG criteria. Examples include promoting fair work and labour practices, better working conditions and fair wages at clothing manufacturers by offering better supply chain finance terms to suppliers.

A question we get asked by many companies is where to begin. We have conversations with many partners, clients and ESG ratings agencies about how supply chain finance can have a positive impact on a company’s ESG objectives. Do you have established ESG criteria for your supply chain and are you meeting it? Do you meet the requirements for green funding? Is there an opportunity to build collaboration across your business? If the answer is yes, deploying a scalable financial supply chain solution that drives positive action within workable timelines is a great place to start. Contact us to learn more.

*This article was originally published on PrimeRevenue.com and adapted for Addendum.co.za

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