Chief financial officers navigating their firms through these uncertain and troubling economic times already have plenty to worry about. How these executives manage risk and enhance their corporate value through sustainability will play an increasingly larger role in how investors view their firms and their respective stocks going forward.

A new report released this week from Ernst & Young details some important steps CFOs and other C-level executives can and need to take to improve investor relations, risk management strategies and external reporting and operational controllership.

In the wake of numerous financial scandals that eroded investor portfolios, cost workers jobs and -- in some cases -- resulted in bankruptcies, institutional investors and equity analysts are placing an even greater premium on how CFOs understand, engage and articulate their various environmental, social and governance (ESG) plans.

The report found that more than 300,000 Bloomberg terminals around the world are providing corporate sustainability information such as emissions data, energy consumption metrics, corporate policies and board composition.

More telling, social and environmental resolutions represented 40% of all shareholder proposals so far this year, up from 30% in 2010. Average voting support for these proposals has more than doubled between 2005 and 2011, surging from 10% to 21% this year.

"Companies that conduct financial and sustainability practices in silos could miss out on business opportunities and proactive risk management," Steve Starbuck,  E&Y's Americas Leader of Climate Change and Sustainability Services, said in the report. "Increasingly, a company's sustainability story is being heard and read by the same stakeholders who read its annual report."

"Furthermore, the line between accounting records and sustainability records has begun to blur," he added. "These factors are creating a need for CFOs to incorporate sustainability thinking into their regular activities."

The report outlined the following five actions CFOs should take today to enhance their corporate value through sustainability:

1. Actively pursue sustainability and reporting program.

Increasingly, companies recognize that implementing procedures to measure, monitor and report on sustainability issues helps them create value, reduce uncertainty about future cash flows and profitability, and enhance their reputations.

2. Ensure those responsible for sustainability matters do not operate in isolation from the rest of the enterprise -- especially the finance function.

The financial organization, through its accounting system, must provide the sustainability function with timely, accurate and complete information.

3. Enhance dialogue with shareholders and improve disclosure in key areas, particularly those related to social and environmental issues.

Robust sustainability reporting can help with this.

4. Ensure that directors' skills are relevant to the chief areas of stakeholder concern, including risk management tied to social and environmental matters.

In particular, companies must communicate about these issues with shareholders.

5. Consider using nontraditional performance metrics, including those related to environmental/sustainability issues.

Doing so could help align compensation with risk. In addition to financial metrics, performance goals should align with an environmental strategy, including clearly defined metrics for energy efficiency, water usage and carbon emissions.


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