Opinion: How virtual shareholder meetings minimize environmental impact

Mar 04, 2021
VSMs are not just about convenience and cost-savings; they also create opportunity for issuers to reduce their overall carbon footprint, writes Cathy Conlon

In the wake of pandemic disruption, more issuers than ever held virtual shareholder meetings (VSMs) in 2020. Taking advantage of the latest technologies, companies found that VSMs can maximize convenience and create a rewarding shareholder experience. The cost savings were a great perk, too.  

But there’s another side of the story we don’t usually talk about: VSMs generate significantly lower carbon emissions than in-person meetings. This is especially important given that opposition to the VSM format is often grounded in ESG principles – shareholder advocates, however, tend to focus on the governance component of ESG, but don’t typically account for the environmental component.  

We believe environmental concerns should be a key consideration. Our data shows that, compared with in-person events, VSMs can help issuers reduce their AGM-related carbon footprint by 99.9 percent.

The climate impact of in-person events

For the past two decades, academics and climate advocates have criticized carbon emissions associated with large conferences and gatherings. In 2016, for example, a landmark study titled Economic Significance of Meetings to the US Economy found that the average three-day, 1,000-person national conference generates about 584 tons of CO2 emissions. To put that in context, a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon of gas emits approximately one pound of CO2 for every mile driven. So 584 tons is equivalent to a car driving for more than 1.1 mn miles. That’s a lot.

Established frameworks tend to measure conference CO2 emissions across four dimensions:

  • Travel – Obviously, getting to a conference typically requires travel, often air travel.  The same is true for shareholder meetings but, because these meetings convene executives and directors, there’s a much higher likelihood that attendees will travel business class or by private jet. Both obviously contribute more CO2 than main cabin seats. Local attendees can compound climate impact, as employees and shareholders travel by car or train
  • Hospitality – Depending on the location of the event, issuers will likely require hotel rooms for management and employees. Between energy use for heating, cooling and washing linens, carbon emissions can add up. In fact, a 2016 study by Econometrica found the typical hotel stay produces 50 pounds of CO2 emissions per night
  • Event space – The event space itself also carries an environmental burden. There’s significant energy required to heat and cool large venues, but even small ones make carbon impact. Plus, some events cater food, beverages and more
  • Materials – Walk into any conference and you’ll see hundreds of swag bags, programs, brochures, booths, and so on. All of these require enormous energy to produce, print and ship. Anything created for in-person attendees will have a carbon impact. 

How much do VSMs minimize carbon impact?

Broadridge recently created a calculator that estimates and measures the potential carbon impact of shareholder meetings. By subtracting the total carbon emissions associated with a VSM from those associated with an in-person meeting, we can approximate the net-carbon reduction of moving to a VSM.

VSMs are not carbon-neutral. There is still some environmental impact owing to the energy required to operate computer servers and data storage. We estimate VSMs produce around .0055 metric tons of CO2 per event. That translates to 11 pounds of carbon emissions, or the equivalent of an 11-mile car ride. No doubt this represents a tiny fraction of the emissions we might expect with any in-person event, no matter how large or small.  

To illustrate the potential carbon reduction associated with a VSM, here is a real-world comparison using Broadridge’s own 2019 and 2020 annual meeting data. Given Covid-19, this past year we elected to have our board participate in the annual shareholder meeting remotely. Even though the Broadridge shareholder meeting has been virtual for several years, we typically fly the board members to the meeting so they can convene in one room for the event.

By not flying the board this year, we achieved a 99.9 percent reduction in carbon impact compared with the event last year.

2019 2020
4.66 MtCO2e 0.43 MtCO2e

This reduction in carbon is the equivalent of 11,553 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle, or 524 gallons of gasoline consumed.

The climate-friendly choice

VSMs are not just about convenience and cost-savings. More importantly, they create opportunity for issuers to reduce their overall carbon footprint.

Give our carbon calculator a try. We can help estimate the potential carbon savings you could achieve by moving to an all-virtual format. Plus, the calculator provides real line-item numbers you could use to tell your sustainability story.

Although the impact of a single shareholder meeting might be relatively small in the scheme of things, taken in the aggregate, universal VSM adoption could yield meaningful carbon reduction across the industry.

It’s a goal worth pursuing and a story worth telling. 

 

Cathy Conlon is head of issuer product and strategy at Broadridge

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