In the past decade, sustainability has moved from the periphery to become central in the global efforts to promote economic development, foster trade, and lift people of all nations out of poverty. The UN has blazed a trail, as its Millennium Development Goals have given way to its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a broad set of development goals and targets to be achieved by the whole world by 2030. Various United Nations agencies, funds, and programs are contributing to the set of indicators to measure progress against these targets. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has been crucial in crafting a core set of indicators to be used by business entities to measure and report progress towards the SDGs. The International Standards of Accounting and Reporting (ISAR), for which UNCTAD is the Secretariat, provide governments with practical guidance on how to assess the business sector’s implementation progress.
Chantal Line Carpentier is the Chief of the New York Office of UNCTAD. In this exclusive interview with the editors of The CPA Journal, Carpentier explains the role of UNCTAD and ISAR and their contributions to the SDGs, and offers her perspective on the importance of global collaboration on sustainable development. Her comments are presented in an abridged and edited form below, as well as part of our Voices of the Profession video series on http://www.cpaj.com. They represent her personal views and not necessarily those of UNCTAD or the UN.
The CPA Journal:
Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you came to your position at the UN.
Chantal Line Carpentier:
I’m French Canadian. I come from way up north, and I was raised on a subsistence farm. I always had an affinity for agriculture and the environment and nature. When I went to McGill University [in Montreal], I fell in love with economics. I did a bachelor and masters in agricultural and environmental economics. I was working with my advisor, and we had a grant with Statistics Canada to disaggregate the input-output table’s agricultural sector from just animal and crop products into cattle, hogs, poultry, and wheat, corn, and soybeans. Then we collected environmental indicators associated with each sector so our decision-makers could measure the environmental impact of alternative agricultural policies.
After getting my PhD at Virginia Tech, I had the choice between a tenure track and an international career. And I chose the international career, because I figured I could always go back to academia. I went to work for the International Food Policy Research Institute in the Brazilian Amazon, and then I came back to the United States and worked for the Henry Wallace Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, a think tank that was instrumental in getting the organic label defined and adopted in the United States. Then I went back to Canada to work for NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, Commission for Environmental Cooperation] as the director of trade, economics, and environment.
In my next job, I wanted to work on social impacts, so I joined the UN in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, when the Commission on Sustainable Development was still operating. I joined when the agenda covered rural development and agriculture, a perfect match for my background.
A few years later, I was asked to support the negotiations of the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production. And then I was asked to support the participation of nonstate actors, called the “major groups” of stakeholders, in the UN Sustainable Development Commission. That was right before the start of the Rio+20 conference in 2012.
UNCTAD at a Glance
Please tell us about the history and mission of UNCTAD.
UNCTAD is the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and we were created out of a conference in 1964 that looked at trade and the impact of trade on developing countries. Basically, they were looking at the fact that these countries were exporting raw material and importing processed goods, and therefore would always have an imbalance in their trade. Developing nations called for a trade and development conference to address these issues. About the same time, the then-77 developing nations created the G77 to be in a better positions to negotiate against the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and other countries.
As they asked themselves, “What policy are we going to put forward?” they decided UNCTAD should be a standing conference to help developing countries come up with trade, investment, technology, and entrepreneurship policies to help them support trade and put forward policies that allow developing countries to catch up.
Since 1964, we’ve been headquartered in Geneva, and I run the small office we have here in New York.
Why do middle-income countries stay in that poverty trap? Why don’t they “graduate” into developed countries? We look at these things, and then we do technical cooperation. We come in at the request of a country and review investment policy, trade policy, competition, consumer protection, and science, technology, and innovation policies. With the fast growth of online commerce, we do an e-readiness assessment to see how ready developing countries are to take advantage of this new opportunity.
These feed into the research and back-and-forth. We have a Trade and Development Board (TDB), which has representatives from all of the member states of the United Nations, and it discusses findings on how we help developing countries actually eliminate poverty and inequality—basically, how to structurally transform their economies so they can develop.
The Sustainable Development Goals
Can you talk a little bit about how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals fit into the UNCTAD mission?
The Sustainable Development Goals are the new vision for development. We used to have the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) from 2000 to 2015. The SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, are the basis for what we do—every single UN agency’s funds and programs have to align to the SDG. Whatever we do, we have to document how we contribute to each of the goals. What’s interesting about the goals is they contain everything from poverty to zero hunger to health and wellness to education and gender equality. But there are economic goals, and there are environmental goals. Right now, the model of development is that you can achieve some of the economic goals, like poverty eradication and zero hunger—but only at a cost to the environment, like climate change and the deterioration of our oceans and our biodiversity. For example, if you’re trying to increase production of food, and you increase pesticide use, then you’ve just polluted the water. You’ve advanced one goal at the expense of the other.
How do we create a model that takes into account both the synergies and the trade-offs between the SDGs? What are the economic, financial, investment, and technology policies that will allow us to advance on all of them? This is where business can play a big role, because how you run your business, how you produce your goods, and how you deliver your services all have environmental, economic, and social impact. The whole issue of environmental sustainability and governance is becoming very, very big.
Developing Meaningful Metrics
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between UNCTAD, the IIRC [International Integrated Reporting Council], and the accounting profession here in the United States?
Under each goal we have several targets, such as further reporting from businesses on their contribution to the SDGs. For each of the targets, we have indicators. Typically, we have two indicators for a target, and for an accountant, that’s exciting, right? Now all of a sudden, you can put numbers on these things.
We have three tiers of indicator. Tier III is, basically we don’t know what we’re measuring, and so we don’t have the data to measure it. Tier II is, we know what we’re measuring, but we don’t have the data. And Tier I is, we know, and we have the data. [Editor’s Note: A comprehensive tier classification of the indicators can be found athttp://bit.ly/2QgYgUi.]
This is where business can play a big role, because how you run your business, how you produce your goods, and how you deliver your services all have environmental, economic, and social impact.
The first indicator for the business reporting target moved from Tier III to Tier II. The indicator used to be how many companies report on environmental, social, and governance [ESG] issues. That’s pretty basic, because there’s no mandatory reporting on anything, and therefore companies tend to report on the things that make them look good. For investors, and for governments that want to report to the UN on their advancement on the SDGs, there’s no way to actually compare and aggregate the impact of each of these private sector companies.
At UNCTAD, under the leadership of Tatiana Krylova, an accountant herself, we brought the accounting professionals, the investors, the governments, the nongovernmental organizations, the Global Reporting Initiative [GRI], and the UN Global Compact together to come up with some core indicators that all companies should be reporting against, so they can actually measure the impact on the SDGs. To do that, though, these indicators have to be aligned with the reporting indicators. We sifted through all of the existing frameworks and chose those that could be core indicators for companies to report against.
What’s interesting is that we’re going beyond materiality here, though that is important. We ask: What’s your impact on water use? What’s your impact on renewable energy? What about diversity? Do you have any women in your board? These are all issues covered by the SDGs.
The IIRC explicitly endorsed ISAR’s core indicators at that meeting and UN member states have agreed to them. Each one of us has to contribute to the SDGs if we want to get there.
So you’re trying to use these core indicators as a way of standardizing across the globe what businesses are actually reporting, and what countries or governments are actually doing to promote progress towards the SDGs?
Exactly. For instance, now we have a sustainable stock exchange initiative. As part of that, there’s a guide with all the stock exchanges. It’s provided to all listed companies, and it’s basically how and what you should report. We worked with the Federation of Stock Exchanges to do that.
But the question is, how do we agree on the core indicators? We test them. We had the private sectors in Guatemala, Colombia, Denmark, South Africa, and several other countries testing these 33 indicators.
The first phase was, “Oh, there’s several of them we don’t know how to measure.” We realized that there does need to be something to explain what that the indicators mean. Is it water use in liters, or is it in dollar value? Is renewable energy in dollar value, or in kilowatt-hours?
And where do we get the data? Because they have the data in house, most of them are reporting against that to the EPA or other bodies. It’s a matter of talking to the right people within the companies to get that information.
Next week in Geneva, we’re going to be looking at the result of these pilots. [Editor’s Note: The conference took place between October 30 and November 1, 2019.] What we found so far is that all companies could report against at least 27 of the 33 indicators after the initial training of where to get the data—after knowing where it is hidden in the company, and what format to use. Once we have those reports, for the first time ever we’ll be able to compare—across sectors, across countries—each of the companies on each of these relevant indicators.
In Geneva we’re also going to discuss the bottlenecks: Where did you have issues? What makes sense? For instance, all of the indicators are already existing indicators. It’s already something that companies have to report under the GRI or SASB [the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board]. All of them are something that companies already have, and they may be reporting them on the financial side, or on the ESG side, but they don’t usually come together.
How do the indicators compare with metrics like those put out by the EU in its Nonfinancial Reporting Directive?
Because our work is by consensus, we won’t be going forward unless we have every country on board. As mentioned above, we have a Statistical Commission, just like the ISAR [International Standards of Accounting and Reporting] group, that represents 30 to 40 member states. And they basically say, “Which indicator are we going to use for which targets?”
Then it’s our job to raise awareness. People like you and your readers can help us, because you can raise the issues with your members.
I’m a firm believer that in less than 10 years, these indicators are going to be mandatory. Not necessarily mandatory by law, like the EU’s Nonfinancial Reporting Directive, but mandatory in the sense that investors and consumers are going to want to see companies reporting against them.
The Role of Accountants and Auditors
Here in the United States, CPAs are key in auditing financial statements of public companies and making sure that investors are getting the information they need. In the developing countries that you work with, does the accounting profession play a similar role, or is it different?
It’s pretty similar. The strength of the institution may not be at the same level, but the principle is the same. For instance, is the stock exchange in Mauritius as developed as NASDAQ and as sophisticated as the New York Stock Exchange? Probably not, but they still have similar reporting requirements, and that means their numbers need to be audited. You’re an investor in the U.S. You want to invest in Mauritius. If you don’t have a certified accountant report, you’re not going to invest, right?
Tell us more about ISAR, its mission, its goals, and where it’s going.
ISAR, as I said, is a standing intergovernmental working group of experts on International Standards on Accounting and Reporting. It’s an official body of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, created to help advance and harmonize the accounting of companies and organizations. With the advent of the SDGs, how do we harmonize the measurement of the contribution of the business and the private sector in support of the SDGs? That’s why we’ve developed these core indicators, as now there’s a lot of work that’s been done by several groups on helping companies know how to report against the SDGs, but without common metrics. We help member states understand the SDGs and the core indicators and help their businesses report against them, especially for small and medium enterprises (SME) and developing countries that may have lesser capacity.
They are also, as I mentioned earlier, aggregatable. Because they are harmonized and aligned with the SDGs indicators at the national level, countries can actually aggregate the impact of their businesses, and then include that in their national reports.
Where is the intersection here between ISAR and SASB?
SASB is participating in that consultation for these core indicators. The difference is, this is an intergovern-mental body, so it has the aura of the UN, and it’s trying to distill and simplify. Because often small and medium-sized enterprises don’t report because they just don’t have the capacity. Many developing countries and small businesses have even less capacity to report.
The reporting needs to be simple, it needs to be comparable, and it needs to be aggregatable. And the UN is kind of the place where you can do that—the UN’s top comparative advantage is convening. We’re a great convener, because we’re neutral. We’re antipoverty, we’re pro–world peace, but we are neutral. We’re not trying to advance one country or one sector at the expense of the other.
The whole idea is, we have intergovernmental bodies to advance the consensus amongst the member states of the 193 nations with different levels of development, and also that are sometimes at war with one another. But when it comes to sitting and talking about indicators and how companies can contribute to the betterment of the world, then these people can sit face to face and discuss these issues. That’s part of diplomacy.
What is the role of CPAs and accountants in the assurance area? Where do you see the role of assurance in terms of meeting the goals?
Well, I think first will come raising awareness, as this is still to be rolled out. Second is raising the capacity of companies to do the reporting. I think there will be a great role for accountants, because many companies don’t have the capacity. They don’t know where to get the data in the right format.
Right now, sustainability reporting is not mandatory, but perhaps in the near future, investors are going to want to see that these data are reported and verified.
I remember being on the judging panel for Ceres on the sustainability (or ESG) reports. And we stopped, and Ceres stopped, because we could not see that the reporting on their corporate social responsibility actually trickled down to their operations.
We hope that by measuring these indicators—how much renewable energy they have, the percentage of renewable energy in their total energy, how much waste they can reduce—we can demonstrate the value of this and ensure that there’s no SDG-washing. Everybody’s doing exactly what they used to do, but they say, “Oh, it’s contributing to SDG 5 and 6 and 7.” Maybe it is, but is it in addition to what you were already doing?
This is where I think we can work together to ensure that we are all moving in the right direction, and the companies that are really committed don’t get penalized or disadvantaged by others that are just reporting what makes them look good.
UNCTAD and Other Standards Setters
To talk about comparability: there is this confusion about SASB versus GRI versus IIRC, what to follow and what’s best. Where do you see UNCTAD’s role in terms of comparability across the different sets of standards and across different reporting frameworks?
We help member states understand the SDGs and the core indicators and help their businesses report against them, especially for small and medium enterprises and developing countries.
UNCTAD’s Guidance on Core Indicators for entity reporting on contribution towards the implementation of the SDGs (GCI) contains 33 indicators on companies’ economic, environmental, social, and governance performance and impacts in alignment with relevant SDG monitoring indicators at the national level. The GCI is an entry point, or a set of baseline indicators (minimum requirements), to be reported by all type of companies regardless of size and sector. It supports consistency and comparability of the information, because for each indicator it provides a definition, measurement methodology, and explains how the underlying accounting data and sources of information could be identified. It is also aligned with the SDG macro indicators and thus allows to aggregate the information at national level.
There’s nothing that you can’t find in GRI or SASB or the IIRC. They’re all there, but not all companies report on all of them. We wanted to pick a few that are key in terms of what is aligned with the SDGs—not wasting water, not wasting energy, trying to use renewable energy, treating employees right. How much money is spent on employee training in a year, and what percentage of that compared to revenues. So that companies can demonstrate that they are good citizens, which is not necessarily the case with GRI.
There have been several phases in the ESG movement. It started with negative screening, trying to eliminate companies that were doing active harm, like tobacco and weapons. Then came positive screening, where we said, “We’re going to take the top 20% in each industry, and these are the ones that we’re going to support as ESG leaders.” Then it became normative. Who is aligned with UN standards, like labor standards and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s guidance and principles? And now I think we’re moving to another level, which is measuring the impact. It’s not your footprint, it’s your handprint. How much positive impact do you have on society?
I think that the indicators are complementary in that sense, because SASB will always be there, because investors will want to know about materiality. And they are becoming intertwined; the World Economic Forum last year produced a report that said the environment and climate are becoming key uncertainties and risks for businesses. How do companies integrate that?
We’re also working with the Carbon Disclosure Project and others to make it easier for companies and governments to ensure that they have the right indicators and they can aggregate them.
The Secretary-General is basically reforming the UN, but also putting a lot of pressure on member states, companies, and stakeholders to accelerate the changes that we need—he called 2020–2030 the decade of actions.
Business Schools and the SDGs
Are there any schools in London, Paris, or the United States that are starting to teach the SDGs and communicate with the next generation?
Not enough. UNCTAD has a business impact program, where we work with the business schools, the Global Compact and others are also working on that. We need to change the curriculum of business schools. ISAR is not in there. Ethics education is very weak. And only 14% of the case studies in business schools are from developing countries, and less than 1% are from the least developed countries. But, if you look at demographics and economics, where’s the growth? It’s in those countries. Are we really doing our business school graduates a favor if we’re not exposing them to this? Sustainability is here to stay, and we need to expose them to that as well.
We have a higher education sustainability initiative (HESI) as well, not only in the business schools, but in all higher education institutions that teach the SDGs. And not just in accounting classes, but also economic classes, history classes—it’s not a silo. It’s across the entire curriculum.
Are you going to create a curriculum for business schools that would integrate your mission with the business school mission?
Well, that’s a bit of what is going on with UNCTAD, the Global Compact, UNEP, and several others. We have, as you know, the 10 Principles of the Global Compact, the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). We have the initiative on insurers and investors. What we need is to integrate them into the curriculum. It’s very hard, as you know, to change business schools. But the UN is a convening body, so we convene the business schools, the accountants, the CEOs and CFOs that graduated from the school, and try to nudge them in that direction.
How long is it going to take? God knows. We have a lot of millennials coming through, and they’re purpose-driven, unlike us. So it may come from them. We’re seeing a huge rise in transformative social entrepreneurship; it’s exponential. I’m expecting the same will happen with business schools. It’s just a bit slower.
You have the statement by the 181 CEOs [issued by the Business Roundtable in August 2019] that says business is not only about shareholder value. I think these are the type of signals that the market needs and the schools need. We’re in a very shifting environment.
Looking to the Future
In five or ten years, where do you see UNCTAD? Where do you see progress towards the SDGs or sustainability reporting in general?
We’re completing five years of the SDGs. We’re seeing a lot of progress, but not nearly fast enough to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
So we need acceleration. The Secretary-General and deputy Secretary-General are basically reforming the UN, but also putting a lot of pressure on member states, companies, and stake-holders to accelerate the changes that we need—they called 2020–2030 the decade of actions. It needs to have longer-term thinking, more patient capital, and better technology. We have a lot of exponential technology coming out, and it could really be an enabler for providing access to water, energy, sanitation, education, health to hundreds of millions right now that do not have access. But it also could be a major disruptor and create inequality if it’s not addressed properly.
We need solidarity amongst all of our countries now if we want to achieve the SDGs. We’ve seen the report of the IPCC on the 1.5 degrees [the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on how the global temperature rise can be limited to 1.5°C per the 2016 Paris Agreement]. We’ve seen the reports on biodiversity lost [see, for example, https://ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services].
We have 10 years to get there. We expect to see acceleration in that. And in terms of UNCTAD, we will have quadrennial conferences. Our conference will be in Barbados in 2020. Why Barbados? Because the Caribbean nations—all small island states—are the first ones being hit by climate change. What do we do to ensure that those countries are able to rebuild without getting wiped out the next day?
They’re just the first ones to feel it, but we’re all going to feel it. How do we all work together? My Secretary-General created the Panel of Eminent People to actually look at the state of trade, investment, entrepreneurship, technology, and sovereign debt, systemic issues for which UNCTAD is the focal point within the UN. You can do a lot of work at the country level, but many of these issues—like climate change, and sovereign debt, and illicit financial flows—require us all to work together if we want to solve them.
We’re looking toward 2020 and preparing. We are going to have a Secretary-General’s report coming out in February that will list these issues and what we want to address in Barbados.
We’re also going to increase our work on trade and climate change, Right now, 80% of trade is through maritime shipping. A more-than-two-degree Celsius temperature rise changes the maritime routes. What does that mean for our already changing geopolitics and the trade of developing countries? That’s another area.
I think with AI and machine learning, we’re already seeing that investors are changing. They’re demanding more. Businesses don’t own the narrative that much anymore. Even if you just report the things that make you look good, there are already several companies that can estimate the value of your stock based on what’s been reported on Twitter and in the news.
It’s going to be interesting to see how, on the one hand, transparency is increasing, and on the other hand, false information and misrepresentation is also increasing. How can we work with accountants to ensure that whatever is in front of us is actually real, and that when we say that we’re going in this direction, we’re actually going in the right direction?
The reason the ISAR core indicators are so important is that right now, you can’t actually see, worldwide, whether SDG 3 [“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”] is going up, staying flat, or going down. We have no harmonized, aggregatable indicators to do that for the public, for businesses, and for governments. That’s what we need, because then it becomes easier for pressure groups and the citizens of those countries or the customers of those companies to ensure we go in the right direction. The only reason why some companies and some countries can get away with not reporting this is that we can’t measure it in a way that is harmonized.
I have a personal goal, which is an equality moonshot. I want women to capture 30% of the wealth that will be created between now and 2030 in achieving the SDGs.
Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to tell us about UNCTAD or your goals here?
When we talk to investors, we find that they’re creating a lot of financial instruments that are aligned with the SDGs. While green bonds took 10 years to pick up; now the SDG bonds and the social bonds are growing really fast.
But the major constraint that we hear from the investors is, “How do we measure impact?” Morgan Stanley just issued an SDG bond related to renewable energy. Why? Because it’s easy to measure. You can measure how many kilowatts of renewable energy you have, and then you can report that. It’s important to have numbers to measure impact in achieving the goals.
I have a personal goal, which is an equality moonshot. I want women to capture 30% of the wealth that will be created between now and 2030 in achieving the SDGs, because women own less than 10% of the world’s wealth right now. If they were to own some more of the wealth, they wouldn’t have to fight for their political rights. If you are a woman business owner in the United States, you receive less than 2% of venture capital money. If you are a black woman, you’re not receiving even close to 1%.
How do we ensure that we have a true diversity in ownership of wealth so that these voices get represented in the decision making? We all know it’s been proven that more diverse decision making is better decision making. How do we work to develop those metrics?
When it comes to diversity, when it comes to economic empowerment of women, how do we measure that? How do we measure how much IBM is contributing to economic power of women? It’s a tough one. These are the types of things that we actually need to work together on. Because that’s what is needed to ensure we have more financial instruments related to those issues.