Forever is a long time, except in corporate timelines. I remember visiting the Hoover Dam in the early 1990s and marveling at a plaque listing the construction contractors. Although construction was completed in 1936, a handful of the companies listed were still operating at the time I was there. But the world has changed in the past century. Companies aren’t really built to last.
Credit Suisse noted in 2017 that “the average lifespan of a S&P500 company is now less than 20 years, from 60 years in the 1950s.” Management is not necessarily stable over the long term. A Harvard Law study showed that CEO tenure has been on a downward trend and, for large cap companies, “the plurality of large-cap CEOs have been in the corner office between one and five years.”
These trends matter for a few reasons, but nothing may be as obvious as corporate climate commitments, especially the oh-so-popular Net-Zero pledge. This article from Canary Media does a fine job of summarizing last month’s analysis by Climate Action 100+ that benchmarked current corporate climate commitments against company actions and schedules (spoiler alert: there are substantial gaps between commitments made public, what those commitments should address and plans for execution).
Yet what I found most compelling is this perspective related to the current trends on company and CEO lifespan:
This shifts the critical question from whether we believe today’s corporate giants genuinely want to make good on these commitments to whether we think they, or their leadership, will even be around at all. Rather than congratulating companies that promise to clean up their act for a tomorrow they may never see, we need to be holding them to account for what they’re doing today.
Given the unprecedented complexity of the climate issue, uncertainty is to be expected. I hope that companies making long term climate pledges will last longer than most celebrity marriages – and it’s heartening to see companies making commitments, while recognizing this is a long term play. But will investors – many of whom already have short-term horizons – see corporate climate action from this perspective and push for nearer term goals/solutions? For companies making climate pledges that face the risk of no longer being a going concern – how will they manage or disclose the risk of failing to meet climate commitments?
This is one reason why it’s probably inappropriate to “shame” companies for favoring annual incentive programs as the vehicle for ESG metrics – it may be an annual program, but if you incentivize the correct year-over-year building blocks, it can lead to lasting change. In the fervor of this push for big change, it is worth considering the risk that a corporate climate pledge may outlive the company itself. Short-term stepping stones are a valuable part of the bridge to the future.