Sustainability and the Insurance Industry
Sustainable business practices have become a focal point surrounding corporate responsibility and global environmental concerns. The world is facing major challenges related to climate change, resource depletion, and social inequality. As a result, the role of businesses in contributing to sustainable development has become significant. Sustainability in its most basic form can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Earth.Org). Corporate sustainability is a commitment to balancing economic, social, and environmental considerations in business operations. It extends beyond focusing on profits and addresses the long-term impacts of business activities on the planet and society. Sustainable business practices aim to create value not only for shareholders but also for all stakeholders such as employees, communities, customers, and the environment. Successful sustainable businesses emphasize:
- Environmental Stewardship: Sustainable businesses prioritize environmental conservation by minimizing their ecological impact. The world is facing unprecedented environmental challenges, including climate change, deforestation, and pollution. Businesses, as significant contributors to these issues, have a responsibility to mitigate their impact and contribute to environmental conservation. This involves adopting eco-friendly production processes, reducing waste generation, and investing in renewable energy sources.
- Social Responsibility: Beyond profits, sustainable businesses acknowledge their social responsibilities by implementing fair hiring and labor practices, prioritizing the well-being of employees, focusing on diversity and inclusion initiatives, and contributing to local and global community development.
- Economic Viability: Sustainable businesses must also focus on long-term economic viability. Sustainable businesses recognize that economic success is dependent upon environmental and social well-being. By adopting sustainable practices, companies can enhance their brand reputation, reduce operational costs, attract highly skilled employees, and appeal to a growing market of environmentally aware consumers.
One of the largest and most critical challenges business face is climate change resulting from increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the globe. The world is facing more frequent extreme storms, droughts, rain and flooding, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and forest fires. In addition to these physical risks, businesses are exposed to transition risks such as policy and legal, technology, market, and reputation risks.
In December 2015, world leaders at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference developed the Paris Agreement to guide efforts to reduce emissions and implement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to protect the environment. Currently, 194 parties have joined the agreement (The Paris Agreement | United Nations) and are working toward net-zero emissions by 2050. Businesses will be greatly impacted by these objectives and will be forced to make changes to meet these aggressive goals. As part of their plan, it is essential that businesses focus on emissions reductions through conservation and use of renewable energy sources, upgrading facilities, and implementation of more efficient practices. Businesses will also need to work with suppliers to ensure that all partners, manufacturers, and distributors are also taking necessary steps to reduce emissions and meet anticipated targets.
The insurance industry has an opportunity to be at the forefront of the push for sustainable business practices. Climate change, for example, has caused a significant increase in extreme weather events and insurance companies are forced to reevaluate their business. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between 2005-2019, $1.16 trillion dollars in damages were attributed to 156 separate weather or climate disasters in the United States (noaa.gov). Insurance companies must adjust with these developments. Sustainability is important to the insurance industry for many reasons including:
- Risk Mitigation: Climate change has been proven to be directly related to an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires. By promoting sustainability and supporting environmentally friendly practices, the insurance industry can mitigate the risks associated with these events and reduce potential financial impacts to insurers.
- Long-Term Viability: Sustainable business practices contribute to the long-term viability of both insurance companies and the communities they serve. Insurers recognize the importance of environmental and social factors in assessing the overall health and resilience of the economy, which directly affects the insurance industry’s stability.
- Regulatory Compliance: Many countries are implementing regulations that require businesses, including insurers, to adopt sustainable practices. Adhering to these regulations not only ensures compliance but also helps insurers avoid legal and reputational risks.
- Consumer Expectations: There is a growing awareness and concern among consumers about environmental issues. Insurers that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability are likely to attract and retain customers who prioritize environmentally responsible businesses. Investors are tending toward companies that implement sustainable practices. Businesses that prioritize sustainability are more likely to attract investment and secure long-term financial support.
- Investment Considerations: Insurers often have significant investment portfolios. Sustainable investments are increasingly viewed as financially prudent, as they are less exposed to certain risks associated with unsustainable practices. GHG emissions reductions provide opportunities for investments and development in green technologies and business, new products, and cost savings through reduced energy consumption. This aligns with the business’s goal of achieving stable and profitable returns on investments.
In 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative (FI) was launched with a framework for the insurance industry to address environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities. The UNEP FI’s vision (unepfi.org) was founded on four (4) key principles:
- Embed in decision-making environmental, social and governance issues relevant to the insurance business.
- Work with clients and business partners to raise awareness, manage risk and develop solutions.
- Work with governments, regulators, and key stakeholders to promote widespread action across environmental, social and governance issues.
- Demonstrate accountability and transparency in disclosing progress in implementing the principles.
Sustainability is crucial for the insurance industry as it helps manage risks, ensures long-term viability, aligns with regulatory requirements, meets consumer expectations, supports responsible investments, and fosters collaboration. Insurers have the ability to influence change through their policies and actions and they must incorporate ESG issues into their decision making. A sustainable approach is crucial and insurers are facing increased scrutiny to demonstrate a focus on sustainability. Sustainable business practices are a necessity for insurance companies to achieve and maintain long term success. In addition to their own operations, businesses, including insurers, are requiring suppliers, contractors, and consultants to report to them on key environmental areas (i.e. GHG emissions and their carbon footprint), setting emissions goals for suppliers, and looking to work with businesses that can develop new and innovative solutions. The benefits of sustainable business for insurers extend beyond financial gains, encompassing risk mitigation, enhanced reputation, and access to new opportunities.