Investors are increasingly incorporating assessments of companies’ performance on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) dimensions in their portfolio decisions. The global assets under management of the signatories of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) has grown from about US$20 trillion in 2010 to about US$121 trillion in 2021.
Similar to traditional investors’ reliance on sell-side analysts and credit rating agencies as information intermediaries, socially responsible investors rely on ESG rating agencies as information intermediaries that gather and summarize information about a firm’s ESG performance. Some of the more prominent ESG rating agencies include: MSCI (KLD), Refinitiv, Sustainalytics, RepRisk, S&P Global, Bloomberg, FTSE Russell, ISS Global. The number and influence of ESG rating agencies have grown significantly in recent years, reflecting the rise of socially responsible investment. However, there is widespread disagreement in ESG ratings due to a variety of reasons such as methodological differences and the lack of unified standards. Investors cite inconsistency among ESG ratings as one of the top barriers for making ESG investment decisions. In addition, in our new study “Does Voluntary ESG Reporting Resolve Disagreement Among ESG Rating Agencies?”  recently published in the European Accounting Review, we find that ESG disagreement is positively associated with disagreement and uncertainty in the capital market. Thus, managers have strong incentives to take actions to reduce ESG disagreement.
Just as management forecasts and conference calls have arisen to provide greater transparency about a firm’s fundamentals, voluntary ESG reports have emerged to provide greater transparency about a firm’s ESG performance. The number of ESG reports issued by U.S. public companies increased from about less than 500 in 2010 to more than 2,100 in 2021, according to Corporate Register. Investors cite these reports as the top source of ESG information. Our study examines whether the effectiveness of voluntary disclosure in resolving disagreement among capital market information intermediaries extends to the ESG context.
Consistent with this possibility, we provide the first evidence that management–provided ESG disclosure is associated with lower disagreement among ESG raters in the U.S., where ESG reporting is voluntary. We find that disagreement among ESG rating agencies is lower for firms that voluntarily issue ESG reports. Our evidence demonstrates the beneficial role of these voluntary disclosures for the intended audience of these reports—those that care about and monitor firms’ ESG performance. Using textual analysis, we find that longer reports are associated with reduced disagreement among ESG raters while reports with more positive tones or that use a greater number of sticky words are associated with heightened disagreement. These findings highlight the importance of managers’ linguistic choices in mitigating disagreement among ESG raters, which responds to the general call for research that uses textual analysis to measure the information content of ESG reports (Ballou, Casey, Genier, and Heitger, 2012) and contributes to the literature on the qualitative and textual features of firm disclosures (e.g., Dyer, Lang, and Stice-Lawrence, 2017). Moreover, the association between ESG disclosure and ESG disagreement is more pronounced when firms obtain third-party attestations on their ESG reports, especially from accounting firms. This finding resolves the mixed evidence from prior research on the value of external assurance in the ESG context (e.g., Michelon, Pilonato, and Ricceri, 2015) and answers the calls for research on the benefits of obtaining assurance from accounting firms in the ESG context (Ballou et al., 2012; Pflugrath, Roebuck, and Simnett, 2011). Taken collectively, our in-depth content analysis of ESG reports provides actionable insights and practical implications to managers about specific ESG disclosure choices they can make to reduce ESG disagreement among rating agencies.
In addition, we find that the adoption of advanced levels of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting standards promotes greater consensus among ESG raters, which should be of interest to standard setters who wish to promote best practices in ESG reporting in the U.S. Specifically, the finding highlights the benefit of a reporting framework that organizes and contextualizes ESG information, contributing to the debate on whether the U.S. should adopt mandatory rules for ESG reporting (Christensen, Hail, and Leuz, 2021).
Furthermore, we document that the negative association between ESG disclosure and disagreement is more pronounced for firms in environmentally sensitive industries, demonstrating the role of external pressure in eliciting high quality ESG disclosures and answering Rupley, Brown, and Marshall (2012)’s call for papers that investigate environmental matters. Moreover, utilizing textual analysis, we further document that disclosures about the environmental and social dimensions help reduce disagreement about the company’s performance on those dimensions. However, disclosures about corporate governance in an ESG report do not reduce disagreement about a company’s governance performance, likely because the SEC requires the U.S. companies to disclose extensive governance information in their filings (e.g., proxy statements), which substitutes for governance disclosures in voluntary ESG reports.
Finally, we show the economic importance of reducing ESG disagreement. Specifically, our finding that ESG disagreement is associated with uncertainty in the capital market provides new evidence on the long-debated question of whether ESG is value relevant. Combined with our finding that ESG disclosure is negatively associated with ESG disagreement, we also highlight a specific channel for Dhaliwal, Li, Tsang, and Yang (2011)’s evidence of a negative association between ESG disclosures and cost of capital.
This paper is forthcoming in the European Accounting Review – https://doi.org/10.1080/09638180.2022.2088588 .
 Kimbrough, M. D., Wang, X., Wei, S., and Zhang, J. (2022). Does voluntary ESG reporting resolve disagreement among ESG rating agencies?. European Accounting Review, 1-33.
 Ballou B., Casey R. J., Grenier J. H., and Heitger, D. L. (2012). Exploring the strategic integration of sustainability initiatives: opportunities for accounting research. Accounting Horizons, 26(2), 265–288.
 Dyer, T., Lang, M., and Stice-Lawrence, L. (2017). The evolution of 10-K textual disclosure: Evidence from Latent Dirichlet Allocation. Journal of Accounting and Economics, 64(2-3), 221–245.
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